Notes from the Road 1

I have landed in a beautiful European metropolis, which is not in my country of birth. I have about 30 min before I have to rush to some talks.

After getting a cab at the airport, the cabby and I first spoke in German, then in English; eventually he asked where in the US I was from, to which I responded, but he didn’t have the slightest idea where that was, so I told him where I was originally from, and — lo and behold — we are from the same country.

We switched to our native tongue, at which point the cabby proceeded to teach me how Americans really are, because obviously I have no idea, having lived in the US for 15+ years. Of course, he does, because he drives Americans to and from the airport all the time (his words). *eyeroll*

I heard how he could never live in the US, because Americans are stupid and uneducated and gullible (they are likely exceedingly polite listening to him ramble during the ride). But then he also had some choice words for the natives of the country I’m currently in — cold, distant, and apparently “too gay” (?!) — so he seems to be a broad-spectrum basher.

There is a bit of a sport in Europe and elsewhere, and I am ashamed to admit I used to engage in that sport once upon a time, which is “Let’s all talk about how  stupid Americans are.” There is a variant reserved for meeting an American in person, which goes like “Let me tell you how your people are stupid, uneducated, how your history is only a few centuries long; how your educational system produces only idiots.” I have seen many of my American friends endure this self-righteous badgering with surprisingly good humor.

I don’t play that game any more and I feel quite offended when people try to engage me. First of all, the US is my country now; my kids are Americans, they don’t have any other identity. Second, Americans are far from stupid and they work insanely hard. They are at a disadvantage because of poor funding for education and the rampant unregulated capitalism that makes everyone constantly $hit their pants with anxiety over where the next paycheck is coming from.

But this little incident also reminded me of one of my least favorite traits of my people: a tiny country of no consequence but with an outsize national ego, with every citizen thinking they are an intellectual giant and a god’s gift to mankind, not realizing that people view them as ridiculous petulant children.

I tipped the cabby well nonetheless. ‘Cause that’s what we stupid Americans do.


  1. After many years reading this blog and its antecessor, I’d love to finally know which country the author is from!!!

  2. Speaking of the perils of rampant capitalism, I particularly like when the local conservatives bash socialist-style safety nets like Medicaid and food stamps… unless they happen to need them, in which case they’re down at the WIC office before you can blink.

    I too have received all manner of American bashing abroad. It always seemed to me that those who knew the least about the US were the most, ah, vehement. People who had lived here at least had a more nuanced view on how a country 3000 miles across -farther than Dublin to Istanbul!- might have some variation.(And I have seen some pretty lame Americans including a lady at the Louvre exclaiming “Harold, I can’t read this menu! It’s in French!” “Je suis canadienne,” I muttered, though I’m not.)

    Happy conference-going!

  3. I’ve listened to a lot of America-bashing over the years, and mostly I’m just used to it by now. There is no point trying to speak up and defend my country (in the case that I disagree with the person bashing it), and agreeing or trying to explain why XYZ is the way it is just prolongs the bashing… so really, the best thing to do is smile politely and wait for the person to finish.

    I do still laugh a bit at the European postdocs who would come through the place where I did my PhD, which is in southern California. They would all go to Las Vegas, and come back and tell me how tacky it was and how it showed how shallow Americans are. At the time, I’d never been to Vegas, so I’d shrug and suggest other nearby, less tacky places to go on their next weekend getaway. But I’d say that 80% of the time, they went back to Vegas, and then came back and told me again how tacky it was. That was when I started to understand that the bashing was not worth countering.

  4. I’m an American, born and raised, and I agree with many of the criticisms often heard of America. Indeed, I’m probably louder than most in criticizing this place, mostly because I’m a die-hard true believer in America and I’ll be damned if I’m just gonna sit still and accept when things go wrong.

    I still think we’re the greatest, most amazing culture on earth. We gave the world rock and roll. The Brits did a lot of great things for rock, but we invented it. And you can go around the world and people might talk about US cultural imperialism, but they still love that old kind of rock and roll. We have done a lot of dumb things with our wealth, but we’re still pretty damn innovative and prolific in science.

    And we’re a high-trust society. Colleagues from some countries see me leave my poster tube by the poster at a conference and say “In [their country] that would be gone in ten minutes.” I come back and it’s still there hours later. We tip, not because we have to but because we would be embarrassed to violate that social norm. Our rates of petty theft put a lot of Europe to shame. We have other issues with crime and violence, but in daily interactions, we generally work with a remarkable degree of trust. And we have a long way to go on racial equality, but we have done better with immigration than most of Europe.

    And before anyone accuses me of overlooking our flaws, I don’t. I’m merciless in criticizing our flaws. But only because I think we’re so damn awesome that we have no excuse for letting flaws persist.


  5. Americans aren’t stupid, but a lot of us are spectacularly ignorant, not just about world events but about important decisions being made by/in our own country, so it’s easy to see how we might give that impression. I just wish that people would realize that we’re not all the same, and that, in fact, the Americans traveling or even living abroad just might be a little less provincial than the ones who have never left their home state. And that almost half of us would agree with a withering assessment of our political leaders. (On the other hand, recently overheard outside of the Prado: “El Greco was Greek?”)

  6. “After many years reading this blog and its antecessor, I’d love to finally know which country the author is from!!!”

    I enjoy guessing. My current guess is Estonia. For a while it was Slovenia. I never have a logical reason; I just like thinking of the variety of European nations.

  7. “I enjoy guessing. My current guess is Estonia. For a while it was Slovenia. ”

    I also enjoy guessing, but my current bet is Czech Republic / Prague or else Hungary / Budapest. I think Estonia and Slovenia don’t have such large metropolises as the next post describes (and that place sounds very much like Vienna).

    I wonder if any of this is right, but I guess I won’t know, as xykademiqz prefers to keeps us in suspense.

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