15 October 2010

Navigating unknown waters

I was born and grew up in America.
I am now an American citizen with residence in Europe.
This makes me an American Expat.

When I moved to Europe, the concept of identity was thrust into my face. Moving through stages of my life I had to wrangle with identity, but moving across the ocean as an adult has been a totally different situation. The vibes I pick up and the statements I hear about Americans range from disapproval, to disdain, to disbelief. It makes me look closer at the origin of information that may have shaped their opinion of Americans, and ask, "What is an American and how do Americans behave?"

I am choosing to avoid the easy path of complaints or apologies.  Instead I'd rather reflect on some of the things that have shaped who I am and what has led to my choices of behavior; what makes me American.

This exploration has taken me back to some early teachings; those planned and others unplanned.  Below is a list, not comprehensive, nor representative of what ALL Americans are taught, but a short list of maxims, beliefs and instructions that swirled around me in my developing years.

In America, these were some of the things I was taught:
  • The customary units of measurement will always be:
  1. length= inch, foot, yard, and mile.
  2. weight= ounce, pound, ton.
  3. liquid volume= teaspoon, tablespoon, cup, pint, quart, gallon. 
  4. dry volume= pint, quart, gallon, bushel, barrel.
  5. temperature= degrees fahrenheit. 
  6. currency= penny, nickel, dime, quarter, dollar bills ($1, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100).
  • English is the language that all of the people of the world should be using. Learning another language is not important.
  • Being first is important. Having a competitive nature is respectable. It's best to keep score and be on the offense. Winning is the prize for a healthy competitive nature.
  • Strive for independence and a strong character; be tough.
  • Bacteria is a bad thing; you have to sanitize and purify everything, or get sick and die.
  • See a doctor regularly.  Doctors are experts and know what is good for you.
  • We are all consumers, things exist for our personal convenience and comfort. Comfort and convenience are to be maintained, so use whatever you need for the moment since tomorrow will take care of itself.
  • Live for today.
  • Owning a big house, a new car, and lots of material goods proves you are successful; you are then showing the world that you have arrived; you are living the American Dream.
  • Making lots of money assures continued success.
  • You DO have a choice: plastic or paper.
  • Defend and protect yourself from anything foreign and different.
  • There is a modified Golden Rule: "expect that others will treat you like you want them to treat you", and if this doesn't happen, get a lawyer, and take them to court.
  • There is always someone at fault and someone to blame.
  • If you want to know what is going on in the world, watch the 6:00pm news on the television. Time Magazine and the National Geographic will give you pictures.
  • Dick goes with Jane, and Ken goes with Barbie, and Father Knows Best.
  • Everyone should prepare for an emergency and have provisions stockpiled.
  • When you are a child you use a bicycle to go to your friends house.
  • When you are an adult you need to own a car to get places.  Buses and public transportation exist for the poor and the unfortunate.  Amtrak is the option for those without cars and not enough money to travel the country by airplane. 
  • When people meet you, they will first ask what your employment is.  Your work will define who you are.
  • Buying larger sized items in multi-packs is the most economical. Coupons help save you money.
  • Buy items that are labeled, "sale, reduced price or bargain" but never let anyone know you own and use bargain-priced items.
  • Corporations are interested in saving people money by offering goods and services at reduced prices.
  • Bigger is better.
  • The government and the system of capitalism are entwined and Capitalism is the best system ever.
  • Having debt is necessary to obtaining and maintaining credit in order to have more things and create more debt; this keeps the economy running. Living beyond one's means is common.  Don't worry, we always pull out of a recession.
  • Humans are supreme to animals. Animals exist for human use, domination or consumption.
  • Technology will save us in environmental disasters.
  • There are only two certainties in America- death and taxes.
  • America is the best country in the world.
Yes, these were some of the things that I picked up in my developing years. Trust me, I have not subscribed to many of these teachings, but still, I am an American. And now when I introduce myself as an American, I come face to face with the Europeans' list of what they were taught and what they think I am based on my country of origin.

Maybe for today we can agree there is no monolithic American any more than there is a European, a Canadian, a Mexican, or South African.  Each of us has a choice in adopting and rejecting what we are taught, unless we are pre-adolescent, under duress or held hostage by another human or system of living.  Just for today I am starting with this short list of "teachings" simply to illustrate the ideas that were swirling in the air as I grew up in the late 50's. I decided to do this as ground for the entries in this blog for the days ahead.  It seemed important to name some of the prime teachings.  You may see where I have thrown off the rope from the mooring and broken from the labels associated with what was taught.

I have learned that labels matter in this world. For instance I could be described by a number of labels: woman, born in rural America, daughter, sister, lesbian, wife, friend, volunteer, progressive, academic, professional, Buddhist, writer, photographer, teacher.  I've had to UNLEARN and reject a lot. Some teachings are rooted, and some I cannot avoid. Nevertheless, I am an American. An Expat in South Holland.

So this begins my blog documenting thoughts, searching for meaning, and sharing adventures of my new life in Rotterdam. I traveled across the ocean with my two cats and meager personal possessions to live with my wife. My identity is undergoing a process like a drop of water that has fallen from the sky into the canal.  I co-exist with millions of drops of water which flow together through the waterways of the city.

On this voyage, you can call me Rotterdyke.

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