Does American culture have an elevator speech?

Mr. Lincoln, we have a new President...(courtesy Tony the Misfit at Flickr CC)What is a one- or two-sentence description of “an American?” or “American culture?”

When we lived in the Netherlands a few years ago, my daughter’s International School planned a Culture Day to be held in the school gym. When the call for parent volunteers went out, I had fits of guilt that I wasn’t doing enough Mom stuff for my kid, so I showed up at the first planning meeting.

The school primarily served the children of people working at the NATO headquarters in town, so there was a great mix of parent nationalities at the meeting. For some reason, though, I happened to be the only US parent, so I ended up as “The US Booth Planning Committee of One.”

That meant that I had to figure out how to encapsulate my nation in a 6-foot-long folding table in a gym….talk about something that forces you to figure out your national identity!

For the first time in my life (even though this was my 3rd go-round living overseas as a US expat) I had to ask myself, “What does it mean to be an American?”

I spent time at college websites looking through their American Studies courses (here’s the University of North Carolina’s American Studies classes and the Crossroads project at Georgetown University) reading foundational documents like John Winthrop’s 1630 “City Upon on a Hill,” reading up on the pioneers and American explorers,  investigating the beginnings of the Internet and web culture in Silicon Valley and ordering posters – Martin Luther King, cowboys, space and other Americana – from (such things were hard to find on the Dutch economy, as you might imagine.)

After a lot of poking about and also asking a variety of Dutch, German, Czech, Norwegian, British, Canadian, Polish and Belgian colleagues to describe my country in only a few words and phrases, here is how I grouped my posters and table memorabilia:

**  The cowboy influence.  As foreign as the American West may seem to someone in the modern Bronx or Birmingham, it is absolutely central to our culture because it represents wide open spaces, exploration, freedom and self-reliance.  They are the underpinning to what makes us tick.

**  We don’t care about your ancestors. Several people told me how much they admired and yes, envied, how relatively free Americans are from expectations based on “what Daddy did.”  No one really cares about where you’re from or the importance of your aristocratic family; we’re all about what you’ve done.  Many in other countries still find their dreams and ambitions quite hamstrung by their family origins.

**  The automobile. Thanks in part to Henry Ford, we have a machine that encompasses everything we like:  individuality, freedom (road trip!) the clarion call of huge but drivable distances,  acceptance of picking up and moving, all matched up with a national restlessness.

**  The freedom to fail. It had never occurred to me, but many outside the US admire the fact that we allow people to really blow it, but we encourage and in fact expect that they will try again.   This ethos persists in today’s Internet culture, where you’re often seen as a failure if you haven’t failed (you must not be trying hard enough, right?)

Why doesn’t Europe build a Google?  Chirdeep Singh Chhabra says that Europeans need to learn to fail, and TechCrunch journalist Mike Butcher weighs in on pointless criticism of others’ efforts instead of how Silicon Valley tries to learn from failure.

**  Music. It’s rather extraordinary, the impact that my country has had and continues to have on music.

Jazz. Blues. Rock. Hip-Hop.  Unique niche music like Cajun, ragtime and tejano.  The breadth and depth is unmatched.

**  Exploration and new frontiers. We never stop. From Lewis and Clark to the Wright Brothers flying at Kitty Hawk to outer space, we are always looking over the mountain and wondering what’s on the other side.

The most important lesson I learned from preparing for Culture Day was how many clichés still ring true in my country:  “The chance to be whatever you want to be.”  “Saying what you think.”  Everyone is from somewhere else.  Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The United States has its problems, there is no doubt about that, yet so many still try to move here. Why?  A recent article in The Economist, Going to America (subtitled “the greatest strength of America is that people want to live there”) addresses issues of immigration and why people still line up to come here and start a new life. Regarding a study of desirability factors:

“It is also a mistake to rate Americans as less tolerant because they are nationalistic. Americans may have an annoyingly high opinion of their country, but theirs is an inclusive nationalism. Most believe that anyone can become American. Almost nobody in Japan thinks that anyone can become Japanese, yet Japan is rated more “tolerant” than America. This is absurd.”

Like many Americans, I spend a lot of time fussing over what’s going wrong with my country and how it doesn’t live up to its ideals. The cure for that, ironically, is to leave it for extended periods of time as an expat or for lengthy travel. Depending upon where I go, I’m always grateful upon return that I can twist the knobs on any faucet in my country, and drinkable water magically flows.  I’m also grateful that I can pretty much do what I want and be who I am.

How’d the Culture Day event go?  Well, I think people thought my table was a little “heavy” for middle-schoolers (and one American teacher asked me why there was no Harley-Davidson display. Sigh.)

For me personally, it was a smashing success.

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