What I like about being an American and living in America

personal, society

I’ve recently written some things a bit critical about America and American culture (particularly pop culture), and—seeing as how it’s nearing our Independence Day—I figure I ought to share a more positive vibe.  Therefore, I’m offering a few things below (in no particular order) that make me happy to be an American and living in America :-D.  I know that not all of these things are unique to my country or nationality, but I think—in combination—they highlight a positive uniqueness.

  1. The freedom to fail and make a comeback (or comebacks!)
    I know of no other countries where folks can fail—go bankrupt, make their companies go bankrupt, do something really stupid or dastardly in public—and still have such high chances of redeeming themselves with later, more favorable actions.  Sure, there’s still often some stigma to failing, but it’s not fatal or absolute.
  2. The encouragement to be creative and innovative
    I’ve lived in Europe, I’ve traveled to at least two dozen countries around the world, and I’ve never seen a culture with such an openness to wacky, outlandish, and yes, impossible dreams.  This, among admittedly many other factors, is why America has been and remains the center of dot.com bold insanity and brilliance.


  3. The opportunity to get world-class and well-rounded university educations
    Yes, I think many other countries offer better and more comprehensive primary education systems.  And yes, I also know (and envy) that colleges in many other countries charge students $200 USD or less per year! 😮 But with that said—from personal experience and the experiences of my international friends—I truly believe that our universities offer exceptionally top notch educations in both practical and unpractical fields.

  4. The freedom to speak our minds
    In print, on the street corner, and on the Internet.  Within some limits, we can hold up signs depicting our public officials in Nazi regalia, call major CEOs imbeciles and tyrants, and even (confirmed recently) burn our country’s flag.  Though bearing a female nipple is (usually) out, we have a freedom of speech and assembly that billions of others around the world can only dream about.

  5. The environment which straddles superficiality with friendliness, often with charming results
    I’ve cynically derided the American tradition of “How are you?” as a symbol of superficiality.  But when it comes down to it (and again, this is confirmed by many of my international friends), it’s easier to start a friendly random conversation with folks in America than in a great many other countries.  Whereas a former non-American colleague of mine looked baffled and a bit uncomfortable in an elevator when a fellow rider struck up a conversation with him, such goofy friendliness—even if initially superficial—is something that’s often much appreciated and yet also taken for granted.

*  *  *

I know this just scratches the surface.

What things about being American and/or living in America make you happy?

14 comments… add one
  • Adam Jul 4, 2006

    Hi Mladen, I didn’t take your comment negatively at all; I’m really happy to get the feedback!  I’m especially pleased that you are reading my blog even though I’m not giving out search-related tidbits 😀

    One reason why you and I might have very different experiences and opinions is that most of my international friends and I have NOT studied CS.  I’ve sat in on business classes in Germany, and my friends have attended business, law, or liberal arts classes in England, Germany, Sweden, Singapore, the Netherlands and Canada.  Most of these friends have also studied in the U.S.

    The feedback I’ve gotten from them is that American universities tend to more frequently hire professors that actually LOVE to teach (more than just research) and have a very strong and typically friendly rapport with their students.  In other countries—again, from their experience—professors are more standoffish, less apt to offer significant help one-on-one in office hours, and so on.

    But the key here is that I haven’t heard from friends how professors in the computer and life sciences and engineering are in other countries, so it’s quite possible (as you suggest) that such disciplines outside the States are quite stellar indeed.  So I admittedly have limited data points here 😉

  • Adam Jul 4, 2006

    Oh, and one more comment:  Google is fabulously international, and this makes me VERY happy.  At a recent Google dinner, we had seven countries represented at my table (Germany, Greece, Turkey, Australia, India, China, and the U.S.).  Some folks have joked that it’s like a mini-United Nations at Google, and I found this also to be true when I visited our European headquarters in Dublin, Ireland.

    Okay, I lied… make that TWO more comments :-P.  Cultural diversity has long been very important to me, and I’d hate to have my blog entry viewed as jingoistic or obnoxiously ameri-centric.  During graduate school, I lived in an international dorm for four years and largely from that got the travel bug:  I’ve probably visited more than twenty countries around the world. 🙂

    Anyway, Mladen, thanks again for the comments!

    P.S.—I’ve not yet been to Serbia, though.

  • Matt Hendrickson Jul 10, 2006

    I whole-heartedly agree with your points on what makes the United States so special, ESPECIALLY the part where you can fall flat on your face and bounce back. It is truly proof that you don’t need a “name” or a “status” to make it. Just some good old-fashioned pluck.

    As for Noam Chomsky and the Communist Party, I’ve yet to hear anything abou them being “banned” in recent history. Granted, the “Red Scare” and the Joseph McCarthy era of the 1950s was a HUGE violation of civil rights, but now, there is no “Ban” on their veiws. They have their rights to express their opinions, just as it is other’s right to ignore them. That’s what makes America great!

  • RC Jul 10, 2006

    Dear Adam,

    Americans are indeed very friendly and polite.

    I have visited Ann Arbor on a holiday and it is a wonderful place. 2 of my friends study and teach at the University of Michigan, they like it very much. The students are just trying harder and study more passionate. Maybe one of the reasons for this passion is the amount of money American students have to pay to study!!

    Cherish your freedom of speech because you can loose it very fast (like we did). Watch out for people who are only demanding respect from others and never give respect to others.

    RC, Leiden, The Netherlands

  • Matt Hendrickson Jul 11, 2006

    RC, I know that many Europeans see us as the “Ugly Americans,” but I’m glad to see your experience was a positive one.

    So many times we get judged by second-hand innuendo and, of course, what’s on TV. Fortunately, most are nothing like what you see in sitcoms and dramas.

    No offense to my pals on the East and West coasts, but I’ve always been a big believer in the Midwest as truly being the “soul” of American. And I’m probably being Midwest-centric (Adam, is this even a term?), but I truly believe that if you visit states like Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa, Illionis, or even my home state of South Dakota, you’ll get a first-hand experince of the best our country can offer… Polite, decent, hard-working, respectful people.

    Granted we’re not all perfect, we have our flaws, but we don’t have a lot of pretense and we’re pretty nice folk… unless it’s American Football season!! LOL

    Did I mention our self-depreciating sense of humor? 😛

  • RC Jul 11, 2006

    Dear Matt Hendrickson,

    I have seen Ann Arbor, Chicago and Detroit and I have visited Toronto (Canada) and the Niagara falls. I believe that in every country or almost every country the people in the big cities are less polite than the people in the rural areas or the small cities.

    I believe there are 3 ways to be a tourist.

    1. Spend your time on a sunny beach or in a pub drinking beer without trying to understand the country you are in.
    2. Visit the famous highlights in a country. In your country: Manhattan, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Death Valley, Monument Valley, Hollywood, the Disney parks, Chicago. Maybe Washington DC, Miami and Boston.
    3. To try to get to know the ‘common’ people (who are never really common, often quite special) and to understand the ‘common’ culture. Maybe South Dakota is the place to be for option number 3.

    I usually do option 2 with a little bit of option 3. I don’t think that it is realistic hope that many people will visit Kansas and Minnesota etcetera.

    But don’t worry about it to much. I liked America more after visiting the country and I understand also Americans movies and politics a lot better. Reading Democracy in America from Alexis de Toqueville does also help.

    Remember that most tourists in my country only visit Amsterdam. I live in Leiden (Leyden), a small (110.000 people)-city 30 miles from Amsterdam. A lot of Dutch people believe it is nicer than Amsterdam but the tourists don’t come. Some Americans do come because of the connection between Leiden and the Pilgrim Fathers, but not many come. Both Amsterdam and Leiden are full of history.   

    I also want to say that I like the American squirrels very much. There are not many squirrels in the Netherlands and they are very afraid of people.

    RC

  • Adam Jul 11, 2006

    RC.

    I’ve actually been to not only Amsterdam, but also Rotterdam, Haarlem, and Venray in your fine country.  Next time, I will see what I can do about bringing American squirrels.  We have PLENTY extras!

  • RC Jul 11, 2006

    No, no, keep your squirrels, they are nice but the import of American squirrels in the UK has become a little environmental disaster. Just like the import of rabbits in Australia.

    Read this excerpt from wikipedia:

    The Red Squirrel populations in Britain, Ireland, and, more recently, northern Italy, have declined and become regionally extinct in recent decades, primarily because of competition from Gray Squirrels (introduced from North America), but also habitat loss. Conservation efforts include preserving and planting the conifer forests that Red Squirrels prefer. The recent colonisation of mainland Europe from Italy by Gray Squirrels is expected to result ultimately in the extinction of the Red Squirrel over most of Europe.

    Your squirrels are just like the Grand Canyon, if someone has to see it, he has to go to America.

  • RC Jul 11, 2006

    correction

    If someone has to see it -> If someone wants to see it

  • Matt Hendrickson Jul 11, 2006

    Speaking of monuments RC, don’t forget Mount Rushmore in western South Dakota! Contrary to what some celebrities might believe, it is NOT a natural formation! LOL

  • Bj?rn Jul 15, 2006

    Hi, I got here via Digg -> Marketing Pilgrim 🙂

    Indeed, the US does have some of the finest universities in the world, at least according to a study I read in The Economist some months ago.

    They have however been critized for having B?rresenteachers that are more busy doing research, being cited in publications and writing books – than teaching. In addition to beeing expensive and ‘elitist’.

    I think it displays differences in our culture. Here (Norway) there is a wide opinion that the university should be for everyone – not just the rich, the better off; everyone should have an equal opportunity to get an eductation. Yes, I do know that the american dream is all about equal opportunities – but it still my impression (may be wrong, of course) that the ‘best’ universities in the US, like Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, M.I.T. etc. are elitist.

    Of course, if you run elitist universities, they will be amongst the best – they will have more money, a crowd that is probably more happy to be there, and *want* to be there (they’re not just there because they haven’t got anything better to do)—better salaries and teachers, etc.

    As for the rest of your list, I do agree with no. 2 and no 5. People are generally nicer, but also generally more rude (especially in the large cities). I’ve never been called a ‘f*** m****’ from a passing car, except from in LA. I loved SF though, maybe because the city seems so .. hmm, European? 😉

    I think you guys are right about finding the ‘real americans’ outside the big cities, and I regret that the only things I visited when I was over there were the big cities on the west/east-coast.

    I used to live in Australia, which I have heard is very similar to the US with regards to no.5, and I remember the first time a stranger, another man even, waiting in line at Target told me he liked my pants and asked where I’d bought them. I thought he must be gay or a whack-job or even both, so I just answered I’d bought it back home, in Norway. hehe 🙂

    As for freedom of speech, I can only say what my impression is ‘from the outside’ .. To me the US seems kind of stifled in this area. I just watched some TV program about teachers not being allowed to mention the existence of birth control in school sex education (in Texas). That just sounds .. hmm, weird, over here 🙂 .. Or stories about reporters being fired for saying something negative about large advertisers … of course, that’s not government law, but anyway. Also when it comes to tech stuff, not being allowed to reverse engineer (DMCA) etc.etc. it just seems like you guys are passing one law after another to restrict freedom of the little man.

    Anyhow, not my business, since I don’t live there, and I don’t usually reverse engineer stuff or tell kids about prevention when on vacation 😉

    Best regards,
    Bj?rn

  • Marlena May 20, 2007

    I have not attended university anywhere but the US; however, I have worked and lived in a few countries.  I would strongly second the general idea that because the US does not have overt class hierarchy, it makes the social mixing quite a different story.  When I lived in Edinburgh and worked at a law firm, for example, I was not to speak directly to the top manager.  My many suggestions for process improvement were not welcome, much less followed.  Although it certainly has a negative side, this would never happen in the US—we are so enamored with making business better, we listen to everyone and make no assumptions about the level of competence or education a person has due to their position.

    In France, it was the same.  Were you were in the social strata really determined how people reacted to you.  Because we have so much flexibility in the US, a garbage man may have a degree; a manager may have a degree, but still be a complete tool.  Therefore, respect tends to be more merit based.  This is a generalization—there are counter-examples, as well as a down side.  But, I was really struck by the differences and the many ways, both clear and subtle, that this embedded hierarchy affected all my relationships.

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  • Sarah Sep 4, 2008

    Hi Adam,

    I was looking for ex-pat groups in Mannheim, Germany and came across your blog. I just moved back to Mannheim with my husband who teaches at the University (he is German). The points you made above do seem to ring true also in my experience:

    1) My husband attended the university in Germany for his “undergrad” and was an average student. Professors were not approachable, nor did they see the role as mentor as important (in his opinion). It was not until he attended the university in the U.S. (as an exchange student) that he found his passion for school and realized he could obtain a PhD (and a wife)- he was not confident in his academic skills until he came to the U.S. He hopes to bring the teaching style from the U.S. to his students in Germany. This also may be the “old-school” style with newer professors being more open.

    My husband and I also agree that graduate programs in the U.S. are far superior to those in other parts of the world. I do not have a graduate degree, so I can only base my opinion off of my husband’s experience. He did visit graduate institutions in both Germany and Italy for a semester each and found that the curriculum was broader and more in-depth than those provided in Europe. We can only speak for those three countries. Further, the University of Mannheim is creating a PhD program to mirror that of the U.S. and has even changed the timing and length of its semesters to do so.

    2) I am troubled by the hierarchy system built into the German language. It is difficult for me as an American who could directly address the CEO of the very large hospital I worked for in the U.S. to have to call my landlord Herr Mann (not his real name). It also makes me feel uncomfortable when others call me Frau Sarah – I am not my mother. This is clearly a cultural difference and neither is right or wrong, but it is difficult to switch from the flexible system to the strict system. Also, this particular situation can be somewhat isolating because as a foreigner, I am never sure who I can or cannot speak to, and/or how to speak to them – there are just too many opportunities to offend someone.

    I do have to state that I am 50/50 about liking the U.S. There are equal parts that I like and dislike. For the time being, I prefer to live abroad, but item #2 does make me miss home.

    AND… I grew up in Kansas 😀
    Every place has its jewel, places with no monuments will offer people to warm your heart.

    I enjoyed reading your comments. Sorry my post is so long!

    Thank you.

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