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What does it mean to be an American abroad?

When Obama became President I thought oh good, the world will like us again, but I wasn’t completely right.  Since I’ve been in New Zealand, I ‘ve had several reactions to the phrase “I’m from the States,” one of them being “Oh, I’m sorry!”

When I first arrived I was quick to concede to America’s failures and faults.  I found myself describing Vermont’s location by its proximity to Canada and joking (sort of) about the desires of some Vermonters to secede and become a part of Canada.  It was difficult for me to defend a country that re-elected Bush; a country with politicians that ignore separation of church and state and spend more energy trying to make abortion illegal than they do making sure schools have enough funding for an arts department, let alone a sex ed. program; a country that consumes, wastes and pollutes at a fantastic rate.  While looking at the US from afar has allowed me to understand the tremendous impact the country has on the rest of the world, the longer I am here the slower I am to concede to the negativities without balancing the score between good and evil.  As Erin points out, there are 300 million of us, and just as not all Kiwis are friendly and environmentally conscious, not all Americans are money-driven, corrupt media-drones.

The first day Erin and I worked with Gary, our WWOOF host, we were in the middle of a conversation about agriculture, the States, and environmental problems when he said to us, “some people say the world would be better off if we just killed all [Americans],” and if the US disappeared.  Hitler thought the same thing about the Jews.  How can more violence make anything better, though?  If the United States were to disappear what would happen to the countries receiving aid, or who have trade agreements with us, or who depend on Peace Corps volunteers?

Since this conversation we have had many more about Americans and our problems, and Gary does admit that he’s met some great Americans (Erin and I included).  How many “good” citizens does it take to outshine the “bad” ones, though?

When we were in Wellington, we met a Canadian girl named Caroline who said to me, “When I look at you I see a kind, loving, informed person–not a typical American.”  What is a “typical” American?  When I look at my community I see passionate, motivated, caring, intelligent people.  Yes I grew up blessed with a supportive family, with parents who could afford to send my brother and me to private universities and still put organic food on the table, but I do not take for granted the comforts and advantages I enjoy.  I want Caroline, and all the people I meet, to look at me and not see and ugly red-white-and-blue stain on my shirt, but to recognise that I am who I am in large part because of where I grew up.

I will not defend big business, environmental ruin, or war tactics, but I will point out grassroots movements, sustainable initiatives, peace-workers and vast tracts of wilderness.  This trip has opened up a way for me to look at the US with pride again, and looking home I see the countless American communities of people who live with respect, care and love.  For the first time in my life, I say this without flinching or feeling cheesy: I am proud to be an American.