Finding My Inner Patriot

We had an interesting conversation last night with a fun young British couple who are on their own 12-month round the world quest. We started sharing stories of China, where we’ve both been, and I drilled them with questions about India and Africa, where we have yet to go. We discussed our motives for leaving it all behind and our loved ones’ responses to our mania. 10 years younger than we are (as most of our fellow RTW’ers seem to be), Jon and Lisa sold their house and left jobs and befuddled friends behind. I must admit there are still days when my competitive, type-A side sweats the financial and career sacrifices we are making in order to do this, but Jon summed up the justification for our adventure succinctly: “Unlike many of the people here (in Vietnam), anything I had before, I can have again.” It might take a while and his new home might be smaller than his last, but he feels the experience he’s gaining now is more valuable than an extra bedroom or a year of career advancement.

Since Jon and Lisa have been on the road for four months (check them out at their website), they’ve met a lot of other travelers along the way. I asked if they’d encountered many Americans and to my surprise they said they had. To my even bigger surprise, however, they said more than a few had denied their nationality in the beginning. It seems there are some Americans who masquerade as Canadians, even going so far as to sew Canadian flag patches on their backpacks to avoid criticism and unwanted attention. I was floored. Tom joked about doing this from a safety perspective before we left, but we never imagined people would actually do it. Our nation’s foreign policy may have been highly unpopular over the past 6 years and we may not always agree with our elected officials, but we would never in a million years imagine denying our citizenship. We live in arguably the greatest nation on the planet, certainly one that affords its citizens the greatest freedoms and opportunities; and a big part of why we are exploring the world is to gain a greater appreciation for the United States rather than to escape it. I felt like I had just discovered Benedict Arnold in my midst; cowards skulking around the world pretending to be from Toronto because doing so avoids difficult questions and disapproving looks. I could understand if Americans were being targeted by assassins at the border and concealing your identity allowed you to live another day (remember the Israelis still stamp a piece of paper, not your passport, so you won’t get harassed in Middle Eastern countries) but these are people who don’t want to defend themselves against European travelers. For shame.

I’ll admit it. Like our grumpy New Zealand driver pointed out, Americans are not a traveling people. Well, at least not an internationally traveling people. Though he claimed 90% don’t hold passports, the real number stands somewhere between 75-85%. At first I thought this was an embarrassment to our nation, but in our three months on the road, I’ve come to see things a little differently. While in New Zealand, I realized that though the country is lovely, it affords it citizens limited opportunities for education and employment. To hop the ocean to Australia or Europe or anywhere else, Kiwis need a passport. Same goes for Aussies, who for the most part are enthusiastic about everything and wouldn’t turn down a passport if it meant they had to miss out on doing something fun somewhere else. For Europeans, passports are a basic necessity. Brits have to leave the country just to get to their favorite beach and those on the continent can’t go more than a few hours in a car or on a train without crossing a border. In the US, we have seemingly limitless educational and professional opportunities within our own borders. We can drive from one ocean to another without leaving the country and have thousands of miles of spectacular and varied terrain to explore in between. Until January 23 of next year, we could even travel to the Caribbean, Canada, and Mexico without a passport. With an entire continent at our disposal, why would we spend $95 and a day in line at the post office to get one unless we really needed it?

While I would love for each and every American to be filled with a spirit of discovery and get a chance to explore the world, I know many are content to stay at home and enjoy what they have…and that’s ok. Most of us have everything we’ll ever need to be happy and find meaning in our lives. I should qualify this, however, by saying that those who stay stateside have a duty to seek to understand the world beyond US borders, even from the relative comforts of home. We would be foolish to think that our future is not inextricably linked with the countries that provide our fuel, manufacture our electronics, and finance much of our debt. What’s clear from being out here is that our position on the world stage is tenuous and our power waning. Where we go from here may largely depend on the American public more than its leaders. So for now, I’m going to do my part by proudly proclaiming myself an American wherever I go. I don’t think I’ll get shot, I might end up paying a little more, but at least in the lingo of my boys I’ll “represent.” Hopefully I won’t prove too much of an embarrassment.

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7 thoughts on “Finding My Inner Patriot

  1. Hey Anne!

    I read your blog and feel a little guilty. I got your website from a friend who was jumping off the boats with you guys in Vietnam.

    I travel a lot–both personally and professionally. I’ve always felt patriotic…I’m currently serving as an officer in our nation’s air force and I am a combat veteran.

    However, you went straight to the heart with your entry. I was in Amsterdam no less than two years ago with my sister and we told folks–when asked–that we were from Canada. We were seriously tired of having to answer the mail on why we elected Bush and how could we be sooo stupid, etc., etc.

    I had the Canadian flag on my jacket even… I was “that guy” if you will.

    When I go visit my friend in SE Asia in a week or so, I will have to think twice before pulling a Benedict Arnold–as you say. The comparison was a mighty sting and you make a compelling argument. Thanks and keep up the good posts!

  2. Thought-provoking post.

    I did my own multi-year RTW trip in my twenties (I’m 37 now), and found plenty of anti-American attitude along the way.

    But that usually meant good-natured ribbing from the Brits and Aussies (which I gave back), or the occasional misconception that I was able to help rectify (my students in Korea were amazed that I was polite to elders).

    I really loved being the guy who showed that Americans can have a sense of irony, can be generous without being gullible, and can visit a new place without saying that it’s not as good as home. Travelers should be showing others how cool the Yanks are, once you get to know them. Otherwise, they’ll only see the loud and obnoxious ones and think that’s representative of us all.

    Anyway, if it’s true that much of the world is against “America,” it’s also true that much of the world is happy to meet Americans. Haven’t you found that as well?

    The other interesting point you make is about passports, and you’re right. I feel a similar way about languages. Americans aren’t usually multi-lingual, and I take some heat for that with my European friends. But then, I live thousands of miles from another nation. And now there’s the Internet, which (right or wrong) is dominated by English. Where’s my motivation to learn French, and once I’m motivated, where’s my practice?

    Longest comment ever, probably, and I haven’t even agreed yet on the money you lose. I still don’t have the house and cars that my friends who stayed home have…. Anyway, great site, and I look forward to following you along your trip.

  3. Luke and Rob,

    So good to hear from you both. This post represented a watershed for me since I have always been one to rue the isolationism and complacency of my countrymen. Not that I endorse these qualities, I just have a different take on their origins now. We’ve traveled extensively prior to this trip and have usually been warmly received by everybody…except perhaps the French! We love the Aussies and Brits, and as you mention, Luke, they always seem prepared to take as much ribbing as they dish out.

    There has definitely been a palpable change out here in the past few weeks since the election. I don’t know why people anywhere equate individual citizens with their country’s foreign policy, but they undoubtedly do. Because Americans of both parties sent a resounding message to the President (who looked dashing in traditional Vietnamese dress last week), the world seems to think we’re no longer intent on flexing our aggressor muscles and is sending a lot more love our way.

    As for language, I wish I could learn them all. I take great pride in my newly acquired, severely limited Mandarin abilities and adding these to my repertoire of Russian and German makes quite the bizarre combination. Pimsleur Spanish is next on the docket as we gear up for South and Central America next summer. As with my about face on travel, I now feel proud that English is the universal language. I think that while we should all learn multiple languages to facilitate global understanding, it’s important to preserve English’s preeminence. I want my kids to be polyglots, but at the same time I don’t want them to have to learn Mandarin to get a good job! Please keep the comments coming.

  4. I’ll forgive you that you confused Luke and me (see Brits and Aussies). :-)

    In the “which superpower would you have” game, I usually choose the ability to speak all languages. I’m not bad at picking up enough to get by, but being able to order at a restaurant is a far cry from really communicating. So I’m with you there!

    Interesting that you’ve noticed a difference since the elections. I wouldn’t have predicted such a change in dealing with average Americans on the road. [Incidentally, I wonder if people give you guys a break because the kids are along, as well.]

  5. Seems like Luke discovered his inner Benedict Arnold, and was honest enough to admit it a least. The thought of not being proud to be an American makes me squirm.

    Stumbling on this blog, Bernaisesource was the original portal I believe, is a sheer delight! As a blogging soccer mom confined to the wilds of urban Atlanta, for the time being, so much of my fantasy life revolves around world travel. And while I’ve traveled the U.S. extensively, mostly for business, I’m not yet the global traveller I imagine myself becoming. But I intend to be one day! When my ship comes in. And my daughter’s coming along for the ride too.

    In the meantime, I am delighted to have a chance to tag along on your family’s adventure. What a wonderful site/family, and I can’t wait to blog about it/you.

    Cheers from a Yank soccer-mom in the ATL.

  6. Pingback: Travel Vietnam - » Finding My Inner Patriot

  7. hello all,

    this post said so many things to me!!! In am an Indian by birth and having spent 17 years in good old us of a, I have an american passport and consider myself fortunate enough to call two places home. I am Indian and American in a mix which is at times both wonderful and awkward and “gets me in sticky situations”.

    It would be very easy for me to deny my American passport (one look at me and “Indian” will flash before your eyes!!) but I cannot do that – my conscience will not allow it. this is country that has taught me to be a wife, a mother, a working woman (at that) and back in my first country, i have had to unlearn many of these – but given a chance I proudly wear the US of A label on my sleev/jacket/tshirt!!!

    reading up on all your archives!!!

    a

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