That American Girl
The best way to learn about your country is to get outside it. The best way to learn about your world is to get in it.
This article is a part of a new column exploring the intersections of travel, wellness and culture through a female lens.
Where are all the American girls in far corners of the world, sitting at bar tops and cafe corners having conversations? This is the question I asked myself that afternoon, as sweat beads bubbled on the beer glass in the Far North Queensland afternoon heat.
I had just moved to the small town of Palm Cove. I was what the locals called, “The lovely new American girl.” I don’t know if I was more confused or flattered by being called lovely—but I did know I was learning new things about what it means to be an American. Especially an American girl.
It was late afternoon, the time of day when the sun grows heavy and people emerge at the bar from the different corners of their day. “There’s not much else to do in this kind of heat,” Johnny G. would say. I had just gotten off work and was perched on the barstool, sipping a beer—enjoying it’s light, crispness—different than the heavy, hoppy, Northwest IPA’s I was used to. This beer was easy to drink, pairing well with the heat.
Dylan had just sat down to my right. We hadn’t met yet, but in Australia sitting at the same bar as someone is the equivalent of being their old friend. Meaning, anything goes.
Australia is the land of cordial hellos and stopping for a chat on the street. They take genuine interest in their neighbors, and conversations focus more on the internal, “how ya’ goin?” than the external, “what do you do?”
There is no saving face or political correctness. People are honest and brash, speaking with refreshing candor and a disregard for small talk.
This goes for anything—especially on the topic of America.
As I introduced myself, I watched Dylan’s brown eyes grow big and bright when I said where I’m from. This wasn’t the first time I got a response like this. In the six months I had lived there, I could count the number of Americans I’de met on less than five fingers. People would flood me with questions at the first mention of America. Beyond the anti-Americanism and classic stereotypes, it didn’t take long to realize people are curious about us, more than anything.
In Melbourne I watched the pleasure my boss got in saying, “Back in your country . . .” followed by the day’s question about my thoughts on gun control, the drinking age, school shootings, or other issues too taboo to talk about back home. “Kind of funny a kid can go to war and drive a car but can’t drink a beer,” he’d say with an amused smile. He was the Australian equivalent of an apple-pie American, yet we talked about more American issues than I ever had in my 22 years at home.
Beyond the anti-Americanism and classic stereotypes, it didn’t take long to realize people are curious about us, more than anything.
Back in Palm Cove, the saltwater at my back diffused into the humid air. Dylan’s eyes had borderline possessed excitement. I couldn’t tell if it was because of where I was from, or because I was in a prime location to answer his burning questions.
Dylan is the kind of guy who follows the news with rigor, believes in conspiracy theories, and knew far more about American politics than I did. But knowing the news of America is different than knowing the real America.
I knew he automatically thought I was a gun-loving conservative who grew up rich and religious. But I let him ask the three questions I was always asked (in this order) anyways.
The media tells one part of the American story, showing the one percent 99 percent of the time.
“Ahh, America, hey,” he said.
“So, do you own a gun?
Are you religious?
. . . Did you grow up in Texas?”
I laughed, turning over my shoulder to the news playing behind me.
“No, to all of the above,” I said.
“But I don’t blame you for thinking this.”
The media does a really good job at showing one percent of America, 99 percent of the time. This shows one side of the American story, amplifying the negative while silencing our diverse depths.
The Global Conversation
But as Americans, we aren’t participating in a global conversation. We’re not putting ourselves in the places to have these discussions and share this side of ourselves. The media is the only story the world gets. No wonder people are curious.
Instead of learning about each other over coffee or drink, we’re letting the media fill the gap, which is no substitute for human connection.
Last year in America, there were 658 million unused vacation days — 222 million of which cannot be rolled over or exchanged for money. A recent NPR poll showed of those who do take vacation, “30 percent said they do a significant amount of work on vacation.” In America, we have this thing about not not working.
A recent NPR poll showed of those who do take a trip, “30 percent said they do a significant amount of work on vacation.” In America, we have this thing about not not working.
On a global level, this means we’re showing up at work, but not on the world stage. We’re not answering tough questions and having conversations that move our world forward. Hiding under the veil of political correctness doesn’t help us inside America, but neither does staying here.
Hiding under the veil of political correctness doesn’t help us inside America, but neither does staying here
These conversations live beyond our borders. They require getting out of our comfort zone, staying awhile, and looking up to say hello.
When we dare to be the underdog and see how the other side lives, while putting bias aside and listening to how they think, we realize we’re more similar than we ever imagined. It all starts with a conversation.
In Australia, there is an unspoken duty to say hello to your fellow citizen. In America, there should be an unspoken duty to show up in the world.
If more American girls (and guys) were sitting up at bars and cafes in foreign countries, this small, ever connected world would understand more about each other. We would realize everything changes when we form relationships with each other, rather than letting the media form judgement.
In America, there should be an unspoken duty to show up in the world.
Gain the World
We gain the world when we’re curious enough to question what exists beyond our borders. Maybe there aren’t enough people telling us the best way to learn about your country is to get outside it, and the best way to learn about your world is to get in it. There’s so much out there. Pull up a chair, have a chat.