- I’m an American who’s lived in different European countries for the past 10 years.
- When I think about what I miss about living in the US, believe it or not, all my answers have something to do with politics.
- Despite the many problems in US society, there are still things Americans should be grateful for.
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As an American expat who has been bouncing around Europe since 2008, I often get asked what I miss about America.
There are lots of easy answers I could give that reflect my own personal experience and quirks: Fig Newtons, summer temperatures below 100 degrees, conversing with checkout clerks without thinking about how to conjugate a verb, and full-length shower curtains (what’s up with the useless half-length glass dividers, Europe?).
But when I reflected on what I miss about America on a deeper level, the answer I came up with surprised me.
Everywhere you look these days, people are complaining about the state of politics in America, the divisiveness, the nastiness, and the lies. Three minutes in the depth of what passes for political conversation on YouTube or Twitter shows that the critics have a point.
But nonetheless, when I think about what I really miss about American culture, all my answers have something to do with our politics.
These are the three things I miss the most about US culture.
Participating in politics
Participating in politics feels like a nightmare obligation to a lot of people right now. It feels like that to me sometimes. No matter which side of the political divide you are on, the screaming, gridlock, and disagreement over basic facts is exhausting and dispiriting. I understand the impulse to just shut off the news and tune it out.
But take it from an expat: As hard as it is to believe, you’d miss politics if it were gone.
I’ve lived in Cyprus for seven years now. I speak the language passably and know the basics of how the system works, but I am not a citizen. I can’t vote. I can’t call my representative. I don’t even really have standing to join in on many local political conversations – foreigners are as reluctant to hear about what’s wrong with their country from Americans as Americans are reluctant to take criticism from foreigners.
Yet decisions from garbage collection procedures to environmental regulations affect my life here every day. It may be hard to remember in the middle of America’s current political meltdown, but the right to participate in your political system, no matter how dysfunctional, is a gift and a privilege. Not having that capacity is frustrating rather than liberating.
Maybe that will cheer you up next time you’re screaming at cable news.
Americans, as we’re told over and over again, are living in ideological bubbles. They view each other as a fundamentally different species. We can’t even get along at Thanksgiving.
I believe the experts that this is true compared to past standards for the States, but as an expat, let me assure you it could be a whole lot worse.
Cyprus has a long, complicated, and dreary history involving lots of invasions and internal divisions. I won’t bore you with it, but one bottom-line result of the weight of that history is that people really don’t trust each other here in a way that’s fundamentally weird to Americans.
Sometimes it’s just annoying. When my husband and I were trying to buy an apartment, owners would suspiciously follow us around every viewing. What they were watching for I couldn’t tell you. Locking doors is a national obsession. But the real issue is deeper. If you think everyone is skimming and cheating and breaking the rules, then you are a chump if you don’t follow suit. Why pay your taxes if no one else is? Why walk to the garbage can if you’re standing next to a mountain of litter? Why not take a little kickback if the guy above you is taking a lot?
There’s a lot of research on the perils of low-trust societies.Cyprus isn’t the worst on this front, but it’s bad enough for an American here to notice that the US is way better by comparison. In the States we might think the other side is a bunch of ignorant jerks, but most of us, at least, see ourselves as rescuing a functional system on life support. It could be worse. There could be no belief that the system is functional at all.
I lived in London for more than four years. It’s as diverse a city as anywhere in the world, so I’m definitely not saying there aren’t pockets of Europe that are incredibly cosmopolitan. There are. Lots of Europeans love and appreciate difference. But the value of diversity is generally a newer idea here.
Not that long ago, you were Swedish or French or Greek because your parents were. It was about blood and culture and religion.
That’s changing. The idea that you can come from Africa or Asia and become German or Italian is the stated policy of all liberal, Western democracies. But on the ground in a lot of places, accepting that mentality is still a work in progress.
The US has had, throughout its history and up to today, dreadful problems with inclusion and discrimination too. But at least the idea that a person from anywhere can be American, that citizenship is a matter of choice and attitude, that our different origins are our strength, is old and fundamental. It’s our founding myth.
I know we haven’t lived up to that myth and that it has been weaponised to cover up horrible things, but it still gets me emotionally. Which is corny (and will probably get me yelled out by some of my progressive friends), but it’s true. Being abroad has highlighted how much I value the idea, if not how it has always played out in practice.
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