We Americans like to think we’re special. We throw around epithets like “the land of opportunity” and “melting pot” all the time, but it’s hard to appreciate these terms when the “American Dream” is all we’ve known. To truly appreciate what your country offers, you have to leave it. Outside its borders you can meet fellow citizens from all walks of life far more easily, and are exposed to countless foreign examples of what your country is not. For me, going abroad taught me just how true those pithy clichés are, and the unique position the US occupies in the world.
It did this by introducing me to countless fellow compatriots I never would have met otherwise. Expats invariably find themselves meeting countrymen in hostels, bars, buses — no matter how hard they try to ‘immerse.’ Their shared otherness makes it easier to stay within their culture than interface with another. It’s an obstacle for travelers trying to find the true ‘local experience,’ but it also lets you readily connect with fellow wanderers. I met many, many Americans during my time abroad whom I would never have crossed paths with otherwise.
I met exciting people from Kansas (not an oxymoron!), Italian Americans who could have been straight off the set of Jersey Shore, freckled Irish Bostonians, blonde and tanned Florida girls, NYC born n’ raised socialites, LA hood rats, WASPy East Coast preppies, and everything in between. Sure, there are plenty of such people in their respective cities, but it’s much harder to establish a connection with strangers at home. In America, being American isn’t a conversation starter — elsewhere, it may be all you need to become best friends.
Which is interesting, because that shared national heritage isn’t as strong here as it is on the Continent. A Dutchman can meet a Dutchman anywhere and commiserate over their poor weather, Bosnians can talk about mountains and know which specific peak they’re referring to, and Icelanders can almost be assured they share a mutual friend with any fellow citizen met on the road.
Meanwhile, I have very little in common with Americans from the East Coast. They complain about freezing weather while I whine about a single day of rain; they profess their undying love for schawarma while I do the same for burritos. We may find common ground through politics, movies, or sports, but as compatriots we share little more than a passport. The South is not New England, is not the Midwest, is not the Rockies, is not the Pacific Northwest, is not the Southwest. Each of these regions has its own geography, preferred pastimes, local sayings — its own culture. Apple pies and burgers alone don’t tie us together.
All these disparate Americans juxtaposed next to the largely homogeneous populations of Europe really drove in the singularity of the “Land of Opportunity” for me. For example, I take for granted the fact that I interact with people from vastly different ethnic backgrounds at home. It would be a non-issue for me to go out to dinner with an Asian-American friend, be seated by an African-American hostess, served by an Indian-American waiter, and eat food cooked by a Mexican-American chef. Yes, such a restaurant staff might be a bit of a stretch, but it’s not totally unrealistic.
In contrast, most of the European states I traveled through seemed to have only one main immigrant population that worked all the entry-level jobs (Pakistanis in Spain, Turks in Germany, Algerians in Paris). Any hungry traveler in Europe knows they’re probably going to exchange currency with a ‘foreign’-looking person at the late-night doner kebab stand, rather than someone with the same skin color as the local politicians.
It’s not just me who noticed this. My Andalusian friend confided a similar sentiment when I visited him at his home in Granada after his year abroad in the US. He told me he was impressed with how well integrated immigrants are in the States, and confessed that he never interacts with ‘brown’ people at home other than from the opposite side of a counter. But he made friends with all kinds of skin colors while studying Stateside — it simply wasn’t as big of a deal.
His comment struck me as a telling example of how far the US has come. Our race relations are nowhere near perfect — a point driven home many times this year. And to be fair, I’ve never made an effort to talk with the Asian kids speaking their own languages at the Korean bbq restaurant on my college campus. But if we ran into each other during class or an extracurricular, I wouldn’t think twice about striking up friendly conversation. A fact which, when juxtaposed against the racial dynamics I’ve observed on my travels, is testament to something special.
The “melting pot” of America is a real feat, yet it only becomes impressive when viewed from afar. For me, my time on the road marked the first time I considered that phrase seriously, and had something to compare our race relations with (or even use the term “race relations” outside of school). And it brought me dozens of new friends scattered across my continent, which is perhaps an even happier circumstance than my new friends from other continents, because I can visit them far more easily.