Musings on Deconstructing American Exceptionalism

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The view from Victoria Peak after a steep hike

In the Jefferson Society, we trolled unsuspecting applicants for sport.  The interview process entailed listing your interests on card stock, and defending them against a panel of four experienced debaters, who likely chose your case because they disagreed vehemently with whatever you wrote down or had a nuanced academic background in it.  (I wrote down “evolutionary biology,” “journalism,” and “Harry Potter” when I interviewed.  I guess some things never change.  It was also during those 45 minutes that I accused James Joyce of practicing “literary self-fellatio,” which I still think is one of the best metaphors I’ve ever concocted.)

The more worldly of the prospects wrote down “traveling,” to which they received one leading question: “Given that America is the greatest country in the world, why would you ever need to go anywhere else?”

This question was usually greeted with incredulous laughter, sputtering, and grunts of “‘Murca!” from the other members of the panel.  It was a good day if a First Year cried.  In retrospect, we were probably less clever than we thought.

I remember one debate contested by two of my friends, in which the resolution went as follows: “Patriotism is bad for America.”  The guy arguing the affirmative won, though I can’t recall the specifics of his constructive, as the only record from that portion of the meeting from the secretary describes his victory, followed by the supposition that “somewhere in the Midwest, an American flag burst into flames.”

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I am a master debater.  And yes, that is a tiara.  Incidentally, I forgot to pack it before moving to Hong Kong, so please send more, lest anyone question my status of Supreme Princess of the World

If I were to reenact the debate today, I could construct several superficial arguments in favor of the resolution: patriotism breeds xenophobia; it discourages exposure to other worldviews; there’s no urgency for it because we are not a fledgling country in wartime.  I think that the more interesting route to take, for the sake of debate, however, is one of questioning the rationale behind patriotism.  Is it logical?  Is there a benefit to identifying with the land on which you were accidentally born, and, if so, do these benefits outweigh the costs?  Is the sentiment of American supremacy actually founded, and if it is, is this superiority worth touting?

The longer I live abroad, the less certain I am that the answer to any of those questions is positive.

They say that the experience of expatriation makes you both more critical and more appreciative of your homeland.  Here is, I believe, a depiction of a quintessential American summer night that I long for when I’m anywhere else:

It is the August of 2011.  I ended my internship in D.C., and have just begun my part-time job at the Pasta Shop, from which many leftovers will be later consumed by hordes of my friends flailing their limbs in a drunken approximation of dancing at 3 AM, winded from sprinting naked across a World Heritage site after the Virginian turned on its lights and threw us out.  But at the time, I am new, picking up a coworker in my beat-up Ford Taurus, navigating traffic circles of the Charlottesville suburbs with the windows down, and I turn down the volume of the radio so that I can read directions.  She emerges from her house looking painfully hip—like it actually hurts to see her cut-off shorts and crop top and flowery head scarf—and we are on our way, rolling over miles of asphalt that cut into the mountains toward our boss’s farm, where he raises the animals that, with their lives, supply meat for the shop.

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Country roads, take me home

We arrive at his house just in time to see the sheep before the sun sets over the Blue Ridge hills.  Pheasants roam around, occasionally sprinting away on their straw legs from the five Border Collies patrolling the property.  The dogs gather around the patio, though, when the store owner and his son begin to grill lamb skewers.  We eat under christmas lights strewn over an awning and tied to lampposts, to the sounds of crickets chirping and young guys strumming on the guitar.  An artist in the local hip hop scene starts to rap, and the meat keeps coming.  The girl I drove with me is dancing with another guest at the party.  On my way to use the restroom, a 60-year-old woman lights up a bong, and I pass by a bathtub filled with little chicks, all chirping and climbing over one another.  They look like little yellow cotton balls.

“You can pick one up,” my boss urges, but I don’t like the idea of little reptile feet on my hands with all their diseases.  Only when my coworker scoops one into her cupped palms and coos do I follow suit.

The stars unveil themselves against a pitch-black sky.  I mean, we are in the middle of nowhere.  I imagine some celestial force unfolding the night and shaking out starlight like sand from a beach blanket.  My coworker has her shoulder nestled into her new friend’s chest, her head resting on his shoulder.  I talk pseudo-philosophy with the pizza guy before stepping away to phone my sometimes-boyfriend.  Before the connection cuts out, I tell him how he would love it here, how I feel such a connection to the land, how this is America with a capital ‘A.’

And that’s what I think about when I think about American exceptionalism, because reality is eroding my confidence that it exists in any meaningful way in any realm other than the land.  And, as it turns out, a lot of other places have pretty swaths of land, too, and wide open spaces.  And other places also have sensible education systems and access to medical care and nations of people who are less creepily obsessed with a weird set of dogmas that instruct hatred.

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Another pretty swath of land that is NOT America, from the best beach day ever

Which isn’t to say that I don’t get extremely defensive at the slightest criticism of the American political infrastructure, because you don’t know what it’s like to contend with such a diverse population with such nuanced concerns while maintaining the highest standard of liberty possible.  It’s not that simple.

But when I lived in the States, in my home—even when I lived in different parts of America—I couldn’t conceive of how small my world truly was.  I woke up, I exercised, I went to work, I drove home, I ate dinner.  Maybe I watched a film.  Maybe I got drinks with a friend.  On the weekends I hiked or kayaked or listened to music or went to the park with my dog.  I was cultured, though, because I listened to NPR, so I knew about all the stuff going on in the Middle East and Russia and North Korea and South America.

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I don’t want to characterize the above-mentioned routine in a negative light.  I was happy.  And although my weekend activities tend to err on the exotic or extravagant in Hong Kong, and although I am a glutton for adventure, I don’t feel it is these experiences that have broadened my worldview.  Instead, I will propose this: that traveling is necessary for my development not because of the things I do or the places I go, but because of the people I meet and the perspectives that they convey to me that challenge my status quo.

These perspectives come from people I meet in bar bathrooms, or on the waterfront, watching the ferries come in.  They’re people I get stuck with in elevators in closed food markets.  People who have been to more continents than I.  People I train with in the mornings, who encourage me to push the boundaries of what I thought my body was capable of.  And I absorb our differences with a kind of child-like wonderment, clumsily cataloguing accents and heritage stories and hobbies and customs, underneath which lies the commonality of the human experience.

Imagine that everybody told a story about a quintessential summer night in their homeland.  I’ve heard a claim that the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is the most beautiful landscape in the world, and I’ve heard the same about the Scottish countryside.  If you sought out the good story-tellers, you could enjoy that visceral experience of human connectedness a thousand times over.  It’s that which abrades delusions of exceptionalism, but it’s also that which makes me cognizant of a world so much bigger and more vibrant and bizarre and spectacular than I ever could have imagined, and compels me to try to see it all.

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