Is This Country Crazy?

One of the best parts of the Fulbright retreat was being able to shoot the breeze with other American expats (if you are interested in another account, my colleague Lud Baldwin has quite a funny one on his blog). Living in another country will always present a new set of challenges ranging from the mundane to the more complex, and while that is common to expats everywhere, I think that being American presents its own set of challenges. As the token American in most conversations, I am often asked a lot of questions about my home country. In the classroom, I’m asked to go a step further and teach about America. But although Norwegians tend to be too polite to ask me hard hitting questions, it is clear that they are uninterested in the very tired refrain that America is the “home of the free, and the land of the brave.” Not that I would necessarily even provide them with that song and dance.

Since coming to Norway, I have been asked to talk about some of our more controversial topics: immigration, Edward Snowden, the war on drugs, the Vietnam War, our political system. Because most of my conversations about America do take place in the classroom, my role has largely been to try and present America in an unbiased way. To give my students the facts and to clearly articulate the pros and the cons of American thinking and American policy. Yet it is not unusual for my students to be confused. Teaching the facts does not always result in acceptance. I am occasionally left with the impression that they think America has gone crazy.

So this leads me to my title. One of my co-teachers, Maria, who also happens to be an American expat, sent me this article on the Huffington Post. Entitled “Is This Country Crazy?” (yes, I stole her title) the article is written by Ann Jones, a fabulous, if intimidating, former Norwegian Fulbrighter, and it spends some time delving into the American expat experience and the broader perception of Americans abroad. And while Ann does a great job of talking about the ways in which Americans are viewed today, talking to other American expats makes me realize how far back this negative perception of Americans extends. As someone who hasn’t lived in Norway for an extended period of time, it’s been interesting to talk to Americans who have been here since the 1960s. It is from them that I learned that being an American was not something people have advertised in Norway until the election of President Obama. The Vietnam War was highly unpopular in Norway, and if my students are any barometer of popularity, still is. If anything, our reputation only went further south with Bush, although it has recovered somewhat in recent years. And yet…I still wouldn’t necessarily say that we have a great reputation abroad.

Since coming to Norway, a slew of major events have happened back in the United States that I have found difficult to explain:

  • Explaining the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in a country where racism isn’t talked about and crime, much less police brutality, is not a major concern.
  • The midterms elections having the lowest voter turnout in 72 years at 36.3%, while Norway routinely has a voter turnout of over 70%.
  • The Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus.” The article was later questioned for accuracy, but it gives an incredibly damning portrayal of sexual assault on college campuses. And while the reporting was later shown to be inaccurate, that does not diminish the severity of sexual assault in the U.S. People in Norway are rightly horrified when I say that 1 out of 5 U.S. women will be assaulted in their lifetime.
  • The difficulty of implementing Obamacare (it’s on round two in the Supreme Court) and why so many people reject the idea of national healthcare, when Norway has had universal healthcare since 1956.
  • The measles outbreak in the United States and why so many people question vaccines (granted Norway as well as other European countries also have their share of people who don’t believe in vaccination).

These events, and many others, are shocking. But it’s strange to be in the position of an outsider. While I get status updates on these events on my Facebook Newsfeed, that is hardly the same as experiencing them or their reactions myself. I had no civil rights rallies to attend or extensive conversations to engage in over these issues. Reading about these events is not quite the same as living through them. Yet I am the person who is called upon to give a voice to what is going on back home. To explain these events which I cannot quite experience by virtue of being abroad.

This in between, or this sensation, is even well articulated by the very word “expatriate.” “Ex” meaning outside and “patria” meaning country. As expatriates we our outside of our country, yet it is unclear where we are instead. We are stuck. Not quite being a part of our home country and yet not being a full citizen of our host country. And yet we are still largely held accountable for what goes on in our home countries.

I may not have a good answer as to whether or not the U.S. is crazy. Some days it feels as though it is, while on other days it feels quite good to be an American. The only thing I, and the other Fulbrighters, can do is to serve as cultural ambassadors. As representatives of the U.S. government and the State Department, we can only hope that we can explain some of the more “crazy” aspects of American culture and even talk about the aspects that we disagree with. Overall I hope that when I leave Norway I leave people with positive memories of Americans and fewer questions about America.

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