“Yeah, that American exceptionalism is disappearing, we can’t help noticing,” said my Canadian coworker..
I was certainly not offended, but I was taken aback. I had read more or less that exact same sentence in a dozen op eds and thinkpieces, I had myself spewed as much in fits of rage to my friends. But I hadn’t been expecting that sentiment from a non American.
I have only the fuzziest knowledge of any political system outside the US. I vaguely know of prime ministers and lords, but I have realized that my knowledge of the world outside of my home country is embarrassingly limited. I didn’t even know the full name of the Chinese president off the top of my head before moving here. Now I visit more global publications like BBC regularly and I read everything I can on China and Hong Kong.
I had developed the mentality that we Americans aren’t nearly as important as we think we are, and to a certain extent, that’s true. But it surprises me more and more how pervasive American culture is. My British friends know all the words to Kendrick Lamar songs, my Chinese friends like to blast Justin Bieber, the kids at school love Michael Jackson. I hadn’t known that the concept of “American exceptionalism” which we have so proudly bestowed upon ourselves, had bled into any global consciousness. It may not be looked upon favorably by everyone, but I suppose it is known.
I have a quiet fear that I will fly home to America and find that my country has disappeared. The land will still be there, the Statue of Liberty will still stand, but the ideals that I had naively assumed were purely American will be gone. Somewhere between my elementary school education -where I rapturously learned about Ellis Island and July 4th, 1776- and my high school US history class -where I learned more about Native Americans, Japanese internment, uh, Sally Hemmings- I lost the unwavering conviction that ‘merica was the good guy, the superhero. But I had still believed that despite a speckled past and present, we were moving forward, that we were built by generations of immigrants who believed they could do a little bit better than before. All that crumbled in my face on November 9, 2016.
On my first (Chinese) St. Patricks Day, a few European expat friends put on a beautiful, gentle song. It sounded similar to the Irish songs they had been playing earlier, but the voice was familiar and the words were about places like Michigan.
“You don’t know this? This is “America’, by Simon & Garfunkel.”
Another adds, “This was one of Bernie Sanders’ campaign songs.’
Okay, so I was born in America and you have never been and you know more than me about one of my presidential candidates’ campaign.
Someone played the campaign video. Those videos don’t work on me, I know they’re designed to exploit my emotions. But this one was 60 seconds of different people from different walks of life, 60 seconds of the America I had lost.
“They’ve all come to look for America”
I was overwhelmed. That America doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Maybe it never did. Maybe the world isn’t getting uglier, but it was always ugly and I was too young and dumb to see. But I’m not disheartened anymore. People are still good, and so what if I’m on the wrong side of the ocean, and so what if that America isn’t real, we’ll make it real.
I just wish I wasn’t so embarrassed by my country every time I read the news.