• What IS an American?

    • Posted on Jul 10, 1994


    Hardly a day passes that I don't think back to last year; I was living and teaching as an American in southern Germany.

    Early last July, for example, I found myself in a Bavarian Beer Garden with a couple of other Americans, hoisting steins. "Happy Birthday, America!" we toasted, raising them high.

    Since Germans don't celebrate the 4th, we gathered as a group of outsiders sharing our missing culture.

    And missing our shared culture. We were all feeling very American. That's what I learned from living a year in Germany: I was an American. Truly, deeply, American.

    Living so long apart from most Americans, I came to see just what Americans are, and how easily we're recognized outside our border:

    --We know only one language, and it's not "true" English. The Germans know very well that we don't speak real English, meaning, of course, the King's English.

    English is what the British and most educated bilingual Germans speak. Americans, however, speak American English, which baffles Germans when they're not snickering about it. We speak of hoods rather than bonnets, elevators rather than lifts, and freeways rather than motorways.

    We don't talk or write like Brits, and we pay relatively little attention to grammatical perfection. The British lecturers on the staff at the University of Regensburg thought the Americans used English a bit too loosely, though they seldom corrected us within earshot.

    However, Brits still love American literature, music, even theater. And they admire American films, though they wince at American rock 'n roll. These arts spread American English far and wide, and that's why so few Americans learn a second language. We don't really need it. (Unless we want to seem less like Americans.)

    --We remain world-class optimists. We think most everything can be fixed, and we don't wallow in despair all that often. Citizens of other cultures have always despaired. The Germans, for example, regularly see the world only through the darkest lenses.

    Where Americans think that even the meanest jerk can become kindly and helpful with a little work, Germans believe that a jerk never changes. If he does, he's probably a fraudulent jerk.  Anyone who believes differently must be naive or an American, which amounts to the same thing.                         

    Incidentally, I thought I was more or less a cynic and pessimist until I found myself arguing with a group of Germans about the state of the world. To me, the world had improved markedly in the past few years. The fall of the wall, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the spread of democracies--all seemed like good news.

    They hooted me down. "Now we have only nationalists killing each other," they said. "And all the former East Germans want good highways and streets, which we can't afford to build."  I left the conversation under a pall of un-American gloom.

    --We indulge in serious interests outside our work.  When I went to Germany, I took my guitar, sketching materials, and my writing to work on. Weekends would find me out sketching, or writing, or picking guitar on my apartment balcony.

    Few Germans would behave this way, nor would the French, unless they had been to America, or admired Americans. By and large, the idea of "hobbies"--meaning developing a skill or learning something just for the fun of it--seems odd to Europeans. (Brits excepted, however; they love hobbies.)

    --We don't take authority all that seriously. Whenever a group of pedestrians came to a red light with no traffic coming or going, one or two would usually walk across, paying no attention to the light. Americans all.

    Germans find this scofflawing quite shocking, since as a rule they seek authority, they want authority, they love authority. Professors in Germany insist that students and colleagues call them "Herr Doctor Professor. . ."  Americans addressed them as "Hans" or "Dieter."  We don't bother with titles if we can help it.

    --We believe in doing rather than pondering, jumping into puddles before measuring depth.  We shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. Subtleties and nuances we leave to philosophers, usually from France or Germany. Americans contributed pragmatism to philosophy, meaning--just do it.          

    --We feel extra-nervous about smoking. Never have I seen so many smokers as in Germany. Thick gray-blue air hangs everywhere in German restaurants, all winter. When I read in USA TODAY that our American health community had classified second-hand tobacco smoke as a "Class C Carcinogen"--the same as airborne asbestos--I mentioned to several Germans that they might consider establishing no-smoking sections in restaurants.

    They thought I was nuts. A typical American. Smoke away, say Europeans. It's fun, it's sophisticated, it's what we all do, and to hell with all that health stuff.  

    --We're a jolly lot. We laugh and joke far more than many Europeans. An illustration: last August a large herd of Americans was waiting to enter one of King Ludwig's castles in southern Bavaria. We waited maybe an hour as the guides took one group after another around us, our line hardly moving.

    Finally, they motioned to us to begin our slow crunch to the castle's massive oak and steel door. From out of our very American crowd came the most realistic MOOOOOOOO I had ever heard. We howled therapeutically together.  How American, the German guides must have thought. 

    So if you LOOK like an American and TALK like an American, non-Americans everywhere will take you for a guffawing, anti-authoritarian, monolingual, non-smoking optimist who leaps first and looks later.

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