Turn us into a victim.
Ho boy, you’ve gone and done it now. You didn’t pay me back when you said you would. You took my dog! You dented my car! You left the lid off my to-go coffee cup! You sewed up my fake boobs wrong! You didn’t tell me that the moving sidewalk ends and now I stubbed my toe! It might be broken. I HAVE BEEN VICTIMIZED! I AM VERY UPSET AND I DEMAND AN APOLOGY! Cash or check will be fine.
Question: How can you tell an American is mad at you?
Answer: He calls his lawyer.
We are a sensitive people. We are also quite shrewd, having learned that if we make a big enough fuss, someone might pay us for our pain. Before I moved to Japan, I had failed to realize just how prevalent suing is in American culture. While in Japan, when a student of mine told me about a fatal accident at his steel factory, my immediate thought was: “lawsuit.” Then the student told me that the parents of the deceased worker had thanked him for handling the death elegantly.
“No lawsuit?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “Why would there be? It was an accident.” I’m still a bit shocked. I mean, didn’t those poor parents realize that millions of yen would make the untimely death right? Someone should tell them. Maybe I will.
Take away our food options.
One of the most beautiful things about capitalist American culture is plentitude and the prevalence of choice. Even in the midst of a bleak economic depression we still have more food than we know what to do with. We have so much goddamn food here, you really can have it “Your Way, Right Away!”
Want romaine lettuce instead of spinach? Gluten-dairy-peanut-animal-free dressing on the side? Five pieces of bread on your sandwich instead of two? Whole grain spaghetti instead of good-tasting spaghetti? Well, you have come to the right country, my friend! Our restaurants are well-trained to counsel you through whatever eating anxieties you may have, whip up an appropriate dish to your exact specifications, and then serve it to you in a trough.
For an American, the trouble starts when you remove those choices. Maybe the restaurant is out of non-milk milk and grass. Maybe you’re in a foreign country where a “vegetarian” plate means chicken salad and every menu item is not endlessly customizable. But I have a water allergy. I don’t like blue-colored foods. What do you mean they don’t have Super Size? What the hell am I supposed to do now?!
Use racial epithets.
Oh, don’t get us wrong, we Americans can be just as racist as the next culture…we just hide it a lot better. Political Correctness — the late-20th-century backlash to old-school racism and bigotry — has pervaded our collective consciousness to the point where, in many cases, our gentlest euphemisms for race, medical conditions, and religion have become insults (except when it comes to making fun of whitey; you can do that all you want and it’s totally cool).
Even when we’re “chill” enough to be able to poke fun at the charming differences between the members of our multicultural group of friends, one of the quickest ways to make us squirm is to drop an outdated cultural epithet and mean it. My brother is dating an oriental girl. Is there a bathroom for cripples here? Hey, sweetheart, mind being a good little girl and passing me the stapler, if it’s not too heavy for you? Wouldn’t want you to ruin your manicure. NOT cool, buddy. Not cool. The day my Irish ex-boyfriend recited the traditional version of eenie meenie miney moe1 in front of me and another American, we almost shit our pants.
1“Tiger” is replaced with a word that rhymes better with the Pooh character Tigger’s name. And oh, it begins with an n.
Tell us we can’t have something.
There’s an insidious problem sweeping the current generation: entitlement. Today’s American children are being taught that there are no winners or losers in life, that they are inherently wonderful because they were born that way, and that each of us merits the very best.
These are, individually, lovely sentiments, but if applied carelessly, what do they get you? A generation of people who don’t understand what it is to work for what they want. People who always want special treatment. People who will go into debt for a plasma screen TV because, well, don’t they deserve HD? Tell an American they didn’t get the job, that there are no holiday bonuses this year, that they can’t get the iPad 3 before Easter, and you’re risking a tantrum. High-class problems, folks. High-class problems.
Oh man, we hate this. Even if we logically understand that a tip is something a serviceperson earns for a job well done, we can’t let go of the fact that slumlord employers around America pay their employees in dirt. It’s up to us to help them, you guys. Most of us were waitresses or busboys in school, and we remember all too well how hard it is to deliver service with a smile for $2/hour. We are compassionate, we are well-trained. We want to respect people who are trying to get ahead.
American tipping culture is appalling to many other people in the world. You just tip them no matter what, even if they were rude? 25%? That’s madness. Taxi drivers? Bartenders? Why do you have to tip the hairdresser? They already make a wage. The system totally gets abused. Think of those cheeky Starbucks employees who put a tin can out for tips. Why, because they opened the register properly? How dare you! Our job is hard! Show me a job that isn’t. Maybe I’d like a tip for using nice-looking font, with an additional dollar for each joke I make. But I digress.
To the American, a bad tipper is an asshole. On the terrible occasions where we don’t have enough cash to leave a good tip, we feel like pond scum. When I invited my Irish then-boyfriend to visit me in New York, he was furious at the idea of having to give extra money “for nothing.” How about I just give her two dollars in nickels? What? It’s the same, isn’t it? That should have been a red flag for me right there.
Require us to speak any language other than English.
These damn immigrants — they come to our country, take our jobs, and invade our culture. What is this “Press 1 for English and 2 for Spanish” bullshit? You’re in America, dammit. Speak English!
Never mind that as soon as most Americans set foot out of the country, they expect everyone else to speak their language back to them. What’s the point of learning other languages? Everyone speaks English. While the vast majority of world citizens do learn English in school and a good number of people in the tourist industry will have a grasp of business English, the assumption that “everyone” in the world speaks English is patently false (let’s leave Northern Europe out of this; they’re linguistic genius freaks).
Visit any other country and step out of the urban centers to see just how many people really speak English well. Think back to your own schooling — you were made to learn French but as soon as you left school, how much did you retain? You’re familiar with the concept of “use it or lose it.” It’s the same for everyone else. In the small Italian town where I live, very few people speak English. In my mother’s family, no one speaks English. On my father’s side of the family, only my cousins do. When I lived in Osaka, it was extremely rare to find a serviceperson who spoke English beyond “Herro” and “What you want?”
Americans don’t want to believe this. Hollywood films have taught them that foreign countries are like Epcot — full of costumed individuals who speak charmingly accented but perfect English. Honey, why is he talking at me in French? I don’t speak French. Why doesn’t he speak English? Everyone is supposed to speak English! French people are so rude! Polly-voo? Goddammit, I hate this place.
And then you get the Americans who expatriate and refuse to learn the language of their new country. It’s too hard. They can’t expect me to learn a whole new language. Why aren’t there more signs in English? There should be more signs in English. Exactly.
Tell us nothing America does is any good.
Hey, I get it — our government has done some shady-ass things and our people can be really loud and obnoxious. We don’t have thousand-year-old buildings. We don’t have a secret language that no one but us knows how to speak. Our chocolate tastes like rubber, even born-and-bred Americans are confused about what exactly constitutes our cuisine, and “traditional craftsmanship” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think of American exports.
One of the things that most irritates other cultures about us is that we tend to have a narrow grasp of world events. It’s not an entirely unfair stereotype: many of us are quite bewildered to learn that, outside of our borders, we are not exactly the world’s favorite party guest. What do you mean they don’t like us? I don’t understand. But we’re nice. We gave the world Nike, Hollywood, Elvis, Michael Jackson, and the iPad. People love our shit, but they don’t like us? Well, fuck them! Americans have feelings, too, y’all.
Tell us we’re “just” American.
For centuries, immigrants who came to America felt the pressure to assimilate, to erase their roots. Names were changed, children were not taught their parents’ languages, and traditional recipes were bastardized to suit American tastes and make use of local ingredients. But in the past couple of generations, it’s become acceptable, even desirable, to have ties to other cultures — better still if you’re an “exotic” mix (I’ve heard friends glumly admit, “I’m just white”).
In our melting-pot nation, a popular question is, “What are you?” The question is meant to discover a person’s ethnic origins, but in recent generations Americans tend to equate ethnicity with culture. Americans like to hark back, identifying directly with distant ancestors they’ve probably never met. The fact that where you’re born and where you grow up — not your DNA — most directly defines your culture escapes them. Even the most die-hard “Real American” will probably tell you, “I’m British/Irish on my mother’s side and Dutch on my father’s.”
What’s so terrifying about keeping it real and calling yourself an American, anyway? The Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders don’t seem to have this problem. There’s a widespread feeling throughout the country that we don’t have a unified culture, that we only steal from our ancestors. If this is so, then why are we some of the most instantly recognizable people on the planet?
While most of our inhabitants have ethnic roots in other continents, one thing is for sure — born and bred Americans share a unique language and accent, belief in the power of the individual, fear of serial killers and germs, firm adherence to measuring things in Fahrenheit, inches, and pounds, a love of convenience, and the unshakable knowledge that anyone can do anything they set their mind to. Yet, this is what usually happens when you tell a born-and-bred American that, culturally, they are just American:
“What are you?”
“I’m Irish and proud!”
“What? No you’re not. You’re American.”
“You were born and raised in America, you’ve never been to Ireland, and you have an American accent.”
‘How dare you! I’m Irish on both sides. That makes me 100% pure Irish! So what if I’ve never been there? It’s in my blood. I have red hair! I feel Irish! Who are you to tell me I’m not?”
Tread very lightly with this one. You could make a little “Polish” girl cry.
This post was originally published on February 6, 2012.