Something strange happens when you travel. The plane touches down, or the border crossing fades into the distance, and you realize you’re calibrated to the wrong set of regulations. You’re lined up for a train, say, and when the doors open a bunch of people push you out of the way. Or maybe an old man yells at you for crossing an empty street when the crosswalk-light is red. You probably have your own story of a time when you were abroad and you did something normal, only to suddenly realize it was anything but. Maybe it scared you or maybe it was fun or both. But I know it got you thinking, comparing America to Elsewhere.
When you stay wherever you wind up for long enough—longer than the tourist visa allows—this comparison-making doesn’t stop. If anything, it gets deeper, more intimate. I’ve been in Germany nearly two years now, and in many ways I feel like my American-ness is still running on 2012 software, while the rest has been updated with some kind of alternative code. The way I’ve come to perceive my own country has shifted in ways I never expected.
I often talk about this transnational shift with my expat friends, and I reached out to several of them, in Germany and elsewhere, to gauge their own shifting perceptions of America. The group was pretty politically diverse, as were our reasons for living abroad. What surprised me was just how eager everyone was to talk.
"I used to think that the U.S. was always either the best or worst at everything. It was like American exceptionalism taken to the extreme. No one could possibly have a crazier government than ours."
By far the issue that came up the most—besides bemoaning the U.S.’s general lack of public transportation—had to do with guns. In short, many people I spoke with, whether on the political right or left, have come to see America’s love affair with guns as insane, pure and simple.
“I grew up and lived in certain places where having a gun was pretty much a ... necessity,” says Brandon Murry, a military brat who lived in Washington, D.C., for many years before taking a job at a military base in Germany. “I had many friends murdered [and] having my Kimber 1911 made me feel safer when I lived in the U.S. However, since I stored it in my parents’ attic before moving here to Germany, I can without a doubt now say that I feel safer and more comfortable in a country that simply has tighter gun control laws instead of forcing me to carry.”
I’ve never owned a gun, but I can tell you that the first time a European friend told me he would not visit the United States because he thought it was “too dangerous,” I was dumbfounded. But several others have made similar comments since then. And in fairness, when compared to Germany, the rate of gun violence in the United States is ... well, it’s not really comparable. According to the German weekly Die Zeit, there were a total of just 54 firearm deaths in Germany in 2013. In the U.S., a country just four times the size of Germany, there were as many as 11,419, although we don’t really know for sure.
Of course, that doesn’t mean tourists in the U.S. are likely to get killed. The problem, as I see it, is that the only news coming from the U.S. is bad news. This is especially true when it comes to television. And when Europeans aren’t seeing the U.S. media peddling fear, they’re seeing it revel in the absurdity of one of our leading exports: reality TV.
Which brings me to the second through line in my informal survey of expatriates: we spend a lot more time than we ever imagined defending the United States. There are a lot of people out there who think they know America based on, I don’t know, a week-long trip to Miami and a few episodes of Honey Boo Boo. Really, we’re not as bad as we make ourselves out to be. (No offense, Miami.)
“I used to think that the U.S. was always either the best or worst at everything,” Clarissa Howe, a student in Paris who lived in Germany for many years, told me by email. “It was like American exceptionalism taken to the extreme. No one could possibly have a crazier government than ours. Or worse schools. Or be as backwards on women's rights.”
“Then I moved to Germany,” Howe says, “where I found that sexual harassment gets taken even less seriously than it does in the U.S., [and] where I was told that I was being overly sensitive because I'm American. (And a woman. And probably hormonal or something.) I also learned that Americans don't have the market cornered on stupid. Like the time I had to listen a German woman insist that the Pentagon had 8 sides.”
It’s pretty common to go abroad with utopian goggles on, to be excited about the big adventure and to read things like the Zeit article referenced above, the thesis of which is that the 54 gun deaths out of 81.8 million are way too many, and then extrapolate and conclude that America does everything wrong. Or, conversely, to come over here with the mindset that Europe sucks, only to conclude, as my friend Jon Gamaro did, that “Europe overall just seems to have its shit together.”
Obviously, neither narrative is quite that simple—something that most of us realize over time. Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned since moving abroad is that we stereotype ourselves just as often as we’re stereotyped by others. And American news and reality TV reinforce these stereotypes every day. As expats, we struggle against that.
It takes time to start to understand a place, though, and I’m not convinced you can ever really know one, especially places as big and diverse as the U.S. and Europe. So rest easy, dear reader. And remember, you might not know America, but neither does anybody else.