What It Means to be An American

photo for america

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Vermario

“Vy ne pohozhi.”

“You don’t look like it.” I get this a lot, when I tell someone I’m American.  Even the butcher, upon hearing my accent and enquiring about my nationality, felt inclined to aware me of this fact. No, I don’t have blonde highlights, a Longchamp bag, and a Smartphone, if that’s what you mean.

It’s gotten me to think about the question I often want to counter with: so what does an American look like?

I’m not going to compare my year in St. Petersburg to living in some remote village in Mali serving out a 4-year Peace Corps sentence, reading Robinson Crusoe in my malaria-ridden cabin and pining for Wi-Fi when I’m not building a school from my bare hands or vaccinating malnourished babies. No. I am living in a modern, westernized city (whatever that even means), working a comparatively easy job.

But living in Russia is not easy by cushy American standards. Getting anywhere is more laborious and time-consuming than in most places in the U.S. People (at least in public) generally exhibit an attitude of impatience bordering of wariness, a slight edge of, I better get my way before you put me out by getting yours. (Yesterday on my way to the metro one of the thousands of identical stout middle-aged women with fake fur coats and hats literally pushed me when I was “in her way”—meaning that I was walking in the opposite direction, outside, in open space.) The quality of food is lower. Buy five tomatoes, and it’s a guarantee that one of them will be moldy. It’s nearly impossible to find high-quality meat or dairy products—with the exception of that blessed Scandinavian yogurt—since the “natural” thing is only slowly catching on here.

And yes, it’s cold. Sunlight—actually light in general—is something of a novelty, even as we ease away from the shortest day of the year.

It’s not worth trying to surmise the reason for these things, because that would rely on a whole lot of cultural and historical knowledge than my cursory understanding could allow—like comparing an expert in the field to a Wikipedia article, the kind with the little broom icon on top— but the basic difference is obvious. Russia’s history, as well as its geographical factors, haven’t exactly paved the way for sustainable farming and leisurely walks to the metro.

While I’m usually first at the podium for the What’s Wrong With America lecture, with a ready list of gripes about Americans slovenly dressing habits, cultural intolerance, and love of artificial cheese, the fact is that when you leave America you realize that to the eyes of a lot of the world, calling that country your homeland is an immeasurable privilege.

After asserting that I appear more Italian/Spanish/French/Israeli/Brazilian/Indian (??), the next comment I usually get from new acquaintances is, “Why are you here?” People are puzzled by my choice to come spend a year here, and always genuinely interested in hearing my reasons for it—while when we meet foreigners in America, it would generally never cross our minds to ask them why they came.

Despite my halting Russian, I found myself in one of these “why are you here” conversations with the Uzbek cab driver who was taking me across town when I moved apartments in November.  Over Flo Rida playing on the radio, he told me that he had left Uzbekistan, where the average monthly salary is $500, to come to St. Petersburg and make a better life. Like so many immigrants in America, he sends money back to his family every month—though I doubt he could be making too much more than them. He said he liked St. Petersburg—the people, the culture—but to him, America was “number one.” He had friends in New York City, he told me. I asked him what they did. He said they worked as cab drivers and in restaurants.

Working in a restaurant in New York City was, to him, a dream come true. I suppose, something like I had imagined being a teacher in St. Petersburg. Neither of us, of course, has the dream of working some job. It’s the idea of being in a certain place that embodies something that we are without. To him, America meant opportunity, plenty, and the better things in the world. Despite our problems, if native English fluency and American citizenship could be sold, they would fetch an enormous price on the black market.

The whole world seems to be steadily acquiring the gloss of America. The first Starbucks just opened in St. Pete, and hip, health-centric restaurants like the one I recently reviewed have only been showing up in the past few years. As one of my Russian friends here said, anything that is currently trending—or recently accepted into the zeitgeist— in America will be here in five years. Nitrate-free cold cuts? Five years. Anthropologie? Five years.  Environmental consciousness? Microbreweries? Kale? Cherez piyat.

Of course, this is only one side of things. There exists a wide anti-Western movement in Russia—and none of it is unfounded. Russians are proud of their culture and upset by the unflattering stereotypes that precede them, and generally not rushing to abandon their patria. And let’s face it—when people tell me I don’t look like an American, this is meant to be taken more as compliment than insult.

But to be perfectly honest, while I could do without the blonde streaks and the Longchamp, I would really like a Smartphone. I haven’t once felt as home here as I do when I walk into a Whole Foods. I miss kale. More than that, though, this extended stay in a new culture and language is making me realize how much I’ve been formed by my own, how inherent those basic understandings are to the way I express myself and see the world. Whether it’s enviable or not, I am an American—even if I don’t look like one.


4 thoughts on “What It Means to be An American

  1. Great post!
    I, as well, used to be full of ‘America needs to change in this way’ sort of comments, but traveling has made me see that although there are plenty of things that the US could do better, we also get a lot of things right, especially in comparison to some of the places I’ve been.
    And, as your post reminds us, it is important that we grasp that growing up in any strong cultural environment, such as in America or Russia, will undoubtedly impact what you define as right, or normal, and this can be both a bad and good thing.

    Stay warm you pretty enigma you!

    • I’ve been realizing that especially forcefully in terms of language… even if you manage to speak another language fluently, there is so much that remains a mystery when you hear native speakers. We have been so formed by our cultural environments in ways we aren’t even aware of. Even writing in English for an international audience at the SPT I often have a weird moment when I realize that I can’t make certain references, because those are fully drawn from the overculture of upper middle class America. That’s when I realize how limited my world view actually is!

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