Archive for July, 2010
“The problem with welfare in America is that they spend 90% of their money on alcohol! There’s no incentive for those kind of people to get off welfare and back to work!”
Remember The American I talked about last week? He’s in my bar tonight, and I’ve been listening to him spout off his opinions to two Dutch guys for about 20 minutes now. My patience is wearing thin. The bar is nearly empty, and with only a half dozen people in the room, the volume of his voice draws the attention of everyone else in the bar. The two curious Dutch guys ask him about immigration in America.
“There’s a fucking war on our border and nobody wants to pay attention! Obama’s not doing anything about it. Seven thousand troops on the border and we all act like Afghanistan is our only war!”
My blood is boiling. Not because I disagree with this guy (which I do), but because he’s being a terrible ambassador. I’m the only other American in a bar full of people from all over the world. Everyone is listening to his vehement arguments. Still, I have a strict rule for myself: Don’t discuss religion or politics in bar. So I stand there, slowly wiping down the bar as he rags on our country.
“If a company truly treats its workers poorly, they’ll quit. A company can’t survive treating its workers poorly. That’s how capitalism works. But with all the Mexicans working these jobs for dirt cheap, they screw up the system.”
I step aside and vent to my coworkers. They egg me on and tell me to tell him off. I tell them that nothing productive will come from that conversation.
Still, I want to take the guy aside and tell him that he needs to learn to be a better ambassador. “You might be the only American these guys meet on their trip,” I want to tell him. “You’re their impression of America. Go ahead and have a political conversation, but do it with a softer edge. You’re representing us right now.” That’s all I want to say to him. I never get to. What he says next short circuits my brain and suddenly I find myself in the midst of a political argument.
“In America, it doesn’t matter what color you are. If you’re qualified for a job, you’ll get it,” he says.
“Right,” I say under my breath. They look at me. I speak up with a healty dose of snark, “Racism in America: Eradicated. Right?”
Taken aback but rising to the occasion, The American responds. “Well, there may be racist people in America, but we are not a racist society.”
“Then why are the majority of incarcerated males in America black?” I shoot back. “Is that not proof of a racist society?”
“That’s because they’ve committed crimes. You can’t tell me the justice department is racist,” he says.
“Yet here we are with so many black men in jail. Why is that? Is it because you think black people are more likely to commit crimes?”
I don’t care about telling him to be an ambassador anymore. I just want to prove him wrong, to humiliate him. But I’m bad at these sorts of conversations. My hands start to shake, my heart starts to race and I feel the eyes of everyone in the room on me. Before I know it, he has me debating the recent immigration bill in Arizona (“Have you read the bill? Have you actually read it?” he challenges me. “Then how can you argue against it?”)
I see that the discussion is a lost cause and back away slowly. I started out wanting to tell him to be conscious of the fact that he is the embodiment of America for the Dutch guys. I ended up doing the exact thing I wanted to reprimand him for: bashing on America.
This is why I don’t discuss politics in a bar.
It was much easier as a kid. I’d get along with someone in school, tell my mom about them, and she’d call their parents and schedule a “play-date.” No one tells you how hard it will be to move to a new city where you know no one. It’s a problem I struggled with in Galway, but luckily I had some friendly flatmates who introduced me to their friends. Now that I live alone, my main friends in Cardiff are my co-workers. I meet some great guests at the hostel but, in what must be a plight of many hospitality workers, they all in the city for only a few days.
That’s why I’ve set out on a personal mission to make new friends. First I checked the local council’s website for community ed programs. There are some neat courses I could take, but none of them start until September and they cost a fair amount (£60 or more). I could go to a bar to try and meet people, but working at a bar sours me on going to another one for social interaction. What’s left for a guy like me?
Enter City Socializing. It’s a website that could best be described as dating for friends. Instead of emphasizing individual profiles like a dating site would, they highlight local group meet-ups. They range from trips to the theater to biking excursions to pub nights. It’s a subscription-based site, although they let you go to one event without paying. I attended my one free event last night and had a nice time meeting a huge variety of folks from their twenties, thirties and forties at a local bar. People’s backgrounds were different, but they all seemed to be in the same boat: Sociable people who needed a few more like-minded individuals to hang out with. When I returned, I signed up for one month with the site.
It may be a millennial solution to a much older problem, but if that’s what it takes to meet a few more people, I’m all in.
Besides, I’m not sure play-dates are socially acceptable for a 24-year-old guy.
What strategies have you used to meet people when you’re in a new city? I’d love to hear some suggestions or anecdotes in the comments section below.
I’ve been working for over a week now on finding the right adjectives to describe the British and Irish perception of The American. Not Americans, mind you, just “The American.” Like “That Guy” at the bar, everyone knows who “The American” is. The cargo pants and sneaker-wearing, opinionating, jumping picture taking American has become a universally understood stereotype in tourist cities like Galway or Cardiff.
The American is the one who bursts into the pub with friends and drowns out every other conversation with the volume of his voice.
The American is the woman who approached my former flatmate at a crowded bus stop and interrupted their silence by asking when the next bus arrived, then turned around and told everyone else at the stop about what she’d done that day despite the fact that no one was listening.
The American is the one who marches into a quiet café on a rainy day and demands to have a spot next to the fireplace to dry off, ignoring the others who are currently enjoying the warmth of the fire.
Is this what we’re really like? Hell no! But “The American” isn’t a real person, it’s a perception we have to live down. Of being the oafish, nitwit American, I’m guilty until proven innocent. I can’t tell you how many variations of “I usually don’t like Americans but you’re alright!” I’ve heard since moving abroad.
So as of today, I’m on a personal mission to make “The American” as antiquated as smoking indoors.
I’m an American, and proud of it. I’m from the land of prom queens, pep rallies, and The Pledge of Allegiance every Monday over the PA in high school.
The land where regardless of race or background, if you’re born in the country you’re one of us.
The land of interstate highways where an eight-hour drive from Minneapolis to Chicago isn’t just within reach, it’s considered a weekend getaway.
There is so much we can be proud of in our country, yet we’re afraid to talk about it because of The American. Politics aside, we’ve got some neat things to offer. We should be as proud of what we have as the English are of their tea, the Japanese are of their cell phones and Brazilians are of their superior hair-removal techniques.
Quieter people who are “alright despite being American” need to take exception with that comment. I’m just as American as those irritating Americans. Can’t I be the basis of your stereotype?
So Americans who are abroad, help me to disseminate this message. Stop telling people you’re Canadian. Avoid politics and start talking about what really makes you an American.
Kill “The American.”
Hi. It’s good to see you again. I’m glad I could make it back home for your birthday this year. I had forgotten how crazy we all go for that Independence Day of yours. It’s quite the celebration – fireworks galore, small-town festivals, cotton candy and obnoxious t-shirts that say things like “America: Love it or leave it” or “These colors don’t bleed.”
I’ve really been surprised to find how endeared I am by your wear-it-on-your-sleeve patriotism, even when it gets a little overt. It’s so quaint to see the handmade patriotic signs hanging in the windows of Main Street, so nice to see everyone reflexively stand in unison as the singer at the Forth of July celebration sings the national anthem.
That’s not to say that you’ve got the market cornered on patriotic citizens. Hell, I just came from Europe in the midst of the World Cup, where the
soccer football fans are as loud and annoying as they purport us to be when we travel through their countries. I even went to St. George’s Day celebrations in London, which is the national patriotic day for England. But I’ve got to be honest with you: nobody does patriotism like ‘merica. They don’t even have the day off of work for St. George’s Day! No barbeque, no trips to the lake, no loud, tinny music from old stereos while we throw the Frisbee around.
But do you know what I’ve really missed about you, America? You’re so darned efficient. It’s really one of your best traits, although not many people appreciate it. When I tell people in Wales about how handy our drive-through bank windows are, they scoff. “You mean people are too lazy to get out of their cars?” People just don’t realize how much we value order. From the drive through banks/restaurants/pharmacies to the dual-conveyer belts behind the grocery store checkouts, you’re built for with me in mind. “How can I make that easier for you, John?” you seem to say.
There are a few beefs I have with you though. Top among them is portion sizes. America, I lost twenty pounds after I left you — without even trying! Sure, you’ve got some great food, but why when I order one scoop at the ice cream shop in Nisswa do they give me two heaping scoops? Why does a burrito from Chipotle weigh the same as a small dog? I used to love it – hell, I still love it, I’ve probably put on more weight in the last week and a half than any human has a right to. I tell ya, if you just knock down the portion sizes (and prices) by 30%, you’ll have cured the obesity problem in America.
I’ll give you this: you know how to do things supersized. I come from a relatively small town of 50,000, but even there you have more big-box retailers than you know what to do with. My parents just finished remodeling their living room, so one of the first things I did when I got home was go to one of your national chain hardware stores to pick up some quarter-round, a long, narrow strip of wood that visually joins the floor with the baseboard. It’s a pretty specific item, but I’ll be darned if you didn’t have it somewhere in your hundreds of rows of hardware. Not only did you have it, you have two full rows of varieties to choose from. By contrast, all the shops in the UK and Ireland are tiny. A humongous grocery store to them would be but a size normal sized convenience stores to you. You do big, and you do it well.
I’ve loved visiting you, but you know what? I think I’m gonna stay away for a bit longer. I learn so much about you by being away. I become a fierce defender of you, flaws and all, particularly to those of us with American citizenship who jokingly say “I’m Canadian.” (But more on later in my next blog entry.) I’ll return back to you eventually, but for now I’m going to stay abroad finding out what makes you, you. In the meantime, thanks in advance for letting me pull a Prodigal Son on you.
John F. O’Sullivan
As is to be expected, I’ve been keeping mighty busy during my trip back home. It has been quite eventful time so far. I can’t muster a full blog entry yet, but in the meantime, here’s a bit of what’s been keeping me busy.