Warning: This one gets about as heavy as one of Nonna’s cream-based sauces.
Last night as I was reading A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving I came across an interesting passage. To be honest, I’m having a difficult time finding enthusiasm for this book. A Prayer is interesting and has an inspiring plot-line (the movie “Simon Burch” is based on it), but it just doesn’t excite me. Therefore, I feel like I’m muscling through it and not enjoying it as much as I’d like. But, I really don’t like to leave a book unfinished, so I must persevere.
Back to the passage. The narrator, John, moved to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War, became a citizen, and has yet to return to America. His ardent interest in American politics has never wavered, however, and he finds himself constantly engaging others in a one-sided debate on the state of our country. In the midst of a tirade about breaking the arms agreement with the Soviet Union John remarks,
“Every American should be forced to live outside the United States for a year or two. Americans should be forced to see how ridiculous they appear to the rest of the world! They should listen to someone else’s version of themselves– to anyone else’s version! Every country knows more about America than Americans know about themselves! And Americans know absolutely nothing about any other country!”
This thought-provoking passage, while a little extreme, has some truth in it. I believe Americans tend to lean toward the naive or ignorant. We often have an opinion about everything and facts about little. We believe it is our duty to go into other places and “fix things” as we see fit. Were we invited? Were our duties requested? It rarely matters. Yet, we perceive ourselves as the Greatest Nation on Earth. Our understandings of others are vague and limited. Living abroad I have gained some sense of how Americans are viewed and it’s not always rainbows and butterflies. My own host Dad says that whenever he thinks of America he pictures cowboys and the West. Slightly outdated perhaps…
Living overseas has opened my eyes and exposed me to new cultures. While Switzerland may not be the most diverse country (understatement of the year), being an expat has thrown me into a minority position I have rarely experienced. It has helped me appreciate the things I have and opportunities afforded to me. This experience has reminded me how big our world is, and that my home is such a small part of it. I do think it’s important for people to spend time outside of their comfort zone, outside of their residence, purely for the maturation process. I’m not renouncing my citizenship or even criticizing America. I love where I grew up and I’m proud of my country. But I think a little perspective has greatly enhanced my appreciation for my upbringing, as well as realize there are countless other amazing places to live, experience, and learn from.