Stars and Stripes Proud: How to be confidently American without being the obnoxious American

I used to be ashamed to be American. Used to hide my native colo(u)rs like a dirty secret, ape accents around me (a habit I think I still have a tendency to do) in order to blend in. Used to avoid my compatriots like the plague anywhere and everywhere they were to be found. 
When I first emigrated overeas, eleven years ago, then to Dublin, I used to duck and run at the sound of the Southern twang, beat a steady retreat at the waddle of the Bermuda shorts, carefully conceal myself from conspicuous Californians, and make mild noises of disapproval at Midwesterners. 
Sometimes with good reason. 
‘EX SCUSE ME, CAN YOU TELL ME HOW TO GET TO TRIN-IT-TEE COLLEGE?’ I’d often overhear, cringing on the DART line. ‘YOUR LAST NAME IS O’BRIEN? DO YOU KNOW THE O’BRIENS OF CORK?’ As if there’s only one or even as if it could ever matter. ‘WHERE ARE THE THATCHED COTTAGES? THEY MUST BE HERE SOMEWHERE!’ Overheard walking down O’Connell Street, one of the busiest streets in Dublin. 
The best example though of wonderfully embarassingly American behaviour was in the elevator (lift) coming down from the top of The Eiffel Tower. Having just experienced the majesty of the greatest of French cities from the zenith of that monumental edificial tribute to high modernism, I was still lost in the reverential afterglow of the moment when the over-sized t-shirt, aforementioned Bermuda short, baseball cap-clad retiree sharing the elevator with us pontificated to his similarly telltale dressed wife, ‘WELL. BEEN THERE. DONE THAT. GOT THE T-SHIRT.’ Which wasn’t even true. He hadn’t bought the t-shirt yet. Yes, for a nation of mostly passportless citizens, we sure do seem to get around.
However, just as the French Postcolonial Psychiatrist Frantz Fanon writes about the phases of development of the native intellectual, so I have seen my feelings towards my homeland evolve in different ways to reflect a sort of reconciliation. Oddly enough, it took an exchange with a couple of Irish colleagues, one of whom had said to me, ‘Yeah, but there’s no such thing as American culture is there? Just Disney and pop music.’
And just as I was shrugging my shoulders in shame and accepting resignation, it was another Irish colleague who sprang to my defens(c)e. ‘Rubbish! The best novelists and poets are American. Jazz, The Beat Generation, The Hudson River School. Don’t let Irish bedgrudgery cloud your vision of a country rich in culture.’ I started not to after that. We do come from a rich and diverse cultural background that I declined to acknowledge for a large part of my life. Sometimes it just takes an outsider to help you see what has been hidden from you for a very long time. 
I have since tried to correct this remission on my part, with some success. I’ll never go around blindly celebrating the stars and stripes, chanting, ‘U!S!A! U!S!A!’ but my nuanced appreciation of America has helped me to reconcile myself to my national cultural identity. I’ve come around to helping confused Americans now instead of avoiding them and slipping them a few local survival tips while I’m at it (Don’t say ‘freakin’ out loud, Avoid the black pudding if you know what’s good for you, ‘Mind The Gap’ is a safety warning, not a sale announcement, that sort of thing).  
So, to celebrate the fourth this year, here are five things (in reverse order) about/from our nation of which we can all be very proud.
5. We mind our bloody manners. Having taught in English schools now for eight years, I think I have some authority to say that Americans’ politeness, our pleases, our thankyous, our general respect for decorum and for human decency is ingrained in us from the get-go. It may be puritanical and protestant of us, but common decency is important and shouldn’t be underrated by our dismissive cross-Atlantic cousins. When was the last time a Londoner asked you where you were trying to get to and then gave you specific, step-by-step, diagram-aided directions? Yet, if you so much as stop on a street corner in Manhattan, your likely to start a competition between locals and soon have a plethora of directions to choose from guiding you to Starbucks on 103rd and Broad. 
4. Optimism. As Henry Rollins once remarked, you wouldn’t get Morrissey in America. We believe in the fact that things can always get better and that we can change, improve and be anything we want to be (all part of the American dream). It might not be true, but it keeps some people going and gives millions hope. Actually, Russell Kane sums it up pretty well in the latter half of this clip. 
That’s right, it’s the blind confidence that enables us to keep copulating. The rest of the world might think it’s sacchariney, but America is the home of that undying belief in the potential of tomorrow. 
3. Mark Twain — And the never-ending attempt to write the great American novel, or rather top the great American novel, The Adventures of Huck Finn. But let’s face it, from the tall tales of Washington Irving to the intense psychological explorations of Donna Tartt, we are a nation that produces a rich belles lettres and are spoilt for choice when it comes to book club material. Let us continue to bust this myth that just because the English language came from England that English literature is innately superior to American. Some might argue we innovated on and improved it. Come back to Twain for instance. He invented a Mississippian character and took him seriously enough to painstakingly research and give him his own distinct voice and then used him to rewrite Paradise Lost set against the backdrop of the American South and issues of slavery, law and morality. 
2. Woody Allen — And David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, and Jerry Seinfeld and the much derided American sense of humour. It is a great pity that Friends became one of our most successful exports because it brought with it the idea that we are all cosy, coffee-swilling morons who can only do sarcasm through histrionic gestures and tones. Oh, Chandler Bing, what a lot you have to answer for. Go out and look up Bill Hicks or Sarah Silverman or read some Bill Bryson and then tell me we don’t do understatement, self-deprecation, irony or funny with adeptness and ease. 
1. Everyone wants to be us — It’s true! I’ve been teaching in England and Ireland for over a decade and sooner or later someone in every single one of my classes always comes around to the same question, ‘Sir, (yes they say sir) why did you leave a brilliant place like America for a rubbish country like England?’ Problems though I may have with the assumptions in the question, the fact remains that we have a huge influence on the rest of the world. Ordinary Britons and Irish people see Sex and The City, Entourage, 30 Rock and they want that glamour, they want that optimism, the want that American je ne sais quoi. It may be the Chinese and Indian Century, but it’s the American influence that remains over both those countries and the rest of the world. It’s the American sense of optimism that reigns in New China, it’s American simplicity, speed, and power that fuels the drive behind 20/20 Cricket, it is American R & B that makes Leona Lewis‘ sound so popular and so familiar and it is American hip hop that influences so many British acts and unfortunately has provided Tim Westwood with a career. It is the culture of American college radio that enabled bands like Radiohead and Blur to break across the pond and catch on. Love it or loathe it, the influence of our country on the world is ubiquitous. When Europe disparages it, does it reveal more about the disparager than the disparagee? 
I leave you with a poem that emphasises our connections to the Old World and to Britannia, Robert Burns, ‘Ode For General Washingon on the Occasion of his Birthday, 1787’
No Spartan tube, no Attic shell, 

No lyre Aeolian I awake; 
‘Tis liberty’s bold note I swell, 
Thy harp, Columbia, let me take! 
See gathering thousands, while I sing, 
A broken chain exulting bring, 
And dash it in a tyrant’s face, 
And dare him to his very beard, 
And tell him he no more is feared- 
No more the despot of Columbia’s race! 
A tyrant’s proudest insults brav’d, 
They shout-a People freed! They hail an Empire saved. 
Where is man’s god-like form? 
Where is that brow erect and bold- 
That eye that can unmov’d behold 
The wildest rage, the loudest storm 
That e’er created fury dared to raise? 
Avaunt! thou caitiff, servile, base, 
That tremblest at a despot’s nod, 
Yet, crouching under the iron rod, 
Canst laud the hand that struck th’ insulting blow! 
Art thou of man’s Imperial line? 
Dost boast that countenance divine? 
Each skulking feature answers, No! 
But come, ye sons of Liberty, 
Columbia’s offspring, brave as free, 
In danger’s hour still flaming in the van, 
Ye know, and dare maintain, the Royalty of Man! 

Alfred! on thy starry throne, 
Surrounded by the tuneful choir, 
The bards that erst have struck the patriot lyre, 
And rous’d the freeborn Briton’s soul of fire, 
No more thy England own! 
Dare injured nations form the great design, 
To make detested tyrants bleed? 
Thy England execrates the glorious deed! 
Beneath her hostile banners waving, 
Every pang of honour braving, 
England in thunder calls, “The tyrant’s cause is mine!” 
That hour accurst how did the fiends rejoice 
And hell, thro’ all her confines, raise the exulting voice, 
That hour which saw the generous English name 
Linkt with such damned deeds of everlasting shame! 

Thee, Caledonia! thy wild heaths among, 
Fam’d for the martial deed, the heaven-taught song, 
To thee I turn with swimming eyes; 
Where is that soul of Freedom fled? 
Immingled with the mighty dead, 
Beneath that hallow’d turf where Wallace lies 
Hear it not, Wallace! in thy bed of death. 
Ye babbling winds! in silence sweep, 
Disturb not ye the hero’s sleep, 
Nor give the coward secret breath! 
Is this the ancient Caledonian form, 
Firm as the rock, resistless as the storm? 
Show me that eye which shot immortal hate, 
Blasting the despot’s proudest bearing; 
Show me that arm which, nerv’d with thundering fate, 
Crush’d Usurpation’s boldest daring!- 
Dark-quench’d as yonder sinking star, 
No more that glance lightens afar; 
That palsied arm no more whirls on the waste of war.

And a recipe for this festive dish.

And some advice on some cool stuff going on to celebrate Independence Day here in London. 
The Ben Franklin House are having a fourth of July party. Were I not working during the day, I’d definitely check it out. Worth checking out this building dedicated to the most inventive of Americans anyway. 

And in the evening, The Old Red Cow, which I have blogged about before, is celebrating with a host of American handcrafted beers. For more check out the Red Cow’s website. 
Happy Independence Day!

4 responses

  1. You beat me to it! I came home from a trip to the US with a list of things that make me proud to be American, all ready for a post, and then I see this! Though mine are all different, so I think I'll do it anyway 😉 I agree on all points, by the way.

  2. Great article Peter. Love your reading of Huck Finn. I'm no blind lover of any nation or culture – including my own Irish culture. But I've always found so much in America to be grateful for. The Dead (Grateful) the Blues, John Coltrane, Jimi, Woody, Bellow, Roth, the Marx Brothers, Lou Reed …. Endless. Will keep an eye out for your future blogs. You post on Facebook when you've a new one up?Happy July 4. Seamus Gallagher.

  3. PSI've created a blog as lemon mindfinger, but I haven't really got it going yet. Think I will now. Again, well done.

  4. Marina, I can't wait to read yours. Seamus, great to hear from you and will definitely check out Lemon Mindfinger once you get it going. I wonder if you can guess the identity of the Irish colleagues.

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