By Charlene C. Duline
What is an American? Americans cannot be categorized. Each one is vastly different, and yet each is the same. It’s the quirky, crazy things that make Americans what they are proudest of being: American. They are brave, creative, compassionate, and silly. Sometimes they are all of those things at the same time. Americans are a melange of colors, cultures, and creeds, but all believe in the law of the land that defines America: liberty and justice for all.
Americans want to be loved and admired. They are arguably among the most envied, the most imitated, and the most hated people in the world. They are distinctive in their dress or undress, their often-strident voices, their love for the underdog, their idiosyncrasies, and their fierce independence. They believe that with the honor and privilege of being part of a great democracy comes an obligation to fight for the same rights for everyone else on planet earth. They willingly send their first-born or only-born to distant lands to defend and help those less fortunate. Americans treasure their traditional values of freedom of the press, of speech, of religion, and of individual rights. They believe that to disagree with their leaders is as natural as taking the next breath. Americans believe in the dignity of hard work and they know with an inborn certainty that with hard work anything can be achieved. Americans worship, or not, as their spirit dictates, but they demand the freedom to do either, and they defend everybody else’s right to do the same.
Slavery and segregation are an ugly part of American history, but the nation rose from the horrors of that shameful past and through laws and the goodwill of most Americans, established the goal of liberty and justice for every American, no matter the color or creed.
Americans are people of great humanity with a unique sense of justice and fair play. They are patriotic to a fault, and are at their best in times of adversity. An outrage committed against one American in a foreign country is one committed against all Americans, and the country bonds in solidarity. In times of great tragedy they come together in anger and grief to demonstrate their support for the fallen, and to make a potent statement of their pride in being Americans.
Americans are an extremely generous and giving people. They reach out to the world through government agencies, UN agencies, and private exchange groups, and are among the first to assist in relief efforts in any part of the world. They are the people some love to hate; however, on a one-on-one basis, most nationalities love Americans. The success of the Peace Corps demonstrates that. Young and old Americans take their expertise abroad, and spend two years living in rustic conditions, endeavoring to uplift the lives of the poor by demonstrating what can be accomplished with meager resources. In return, the volunteers learn about other cultures, are sensitized to the poor, and they discover that feet were indeed made for walking.
Americans want to live well, and obsess over how to live extremely well. Americans are contradictory. Families love to eat out, yet they search for restaurants that feature “home cooking,” and, as at home, they want “all you can eat.” Americans have a love affair with their cars and enjoy hitting the open road. There is a strange reluctance to get out of their cars until they get back home. For that reason there are drive-up banks, drive-up restaurants, drive-up telephones, drive-up dry cleaners, and someone is working on a gadget to enable Americans to pump gas without getting out of the car.
The bywords of the younger generations are “wash and wear,” “carry out,” and the all-time favorite, “buy now-pay later.” Instant gratification is the order of the day. Americans no longer carry money, but prefer plastic credit cards that they use to pay for groceries, movies, fast foods, clothing, the mortgage, in short, everything.
Americans visiting other countries are sometimes gregarious, loud, and obnoxious. This usually comes from feelings of inadequacy in not knowing the local language. English is not the official language of the United States; however, this news does not decrease Americans’ insistence that everyone coming to their shores, or even in their own countries, should speak English.
Perhaps the French invented perfume, but Americans have the market on deodorants. While some cultures might prefer natural body odors to the use of deodorants, Americans have an anathema to body odors – their own and anybody else’s. They are personally offended if they get a whiff of anything from anybody that doesn’t have soap, spices or flowers in its name. That might help to explain the other oddity to foreigners. Americans do not want people to stand too close to them; they value their space. When an American talks to a foreign visitor, they stand several feet from the visitor. This causes the visitor to get closer. The American inches backward, and this weird dance continues until a wall is reached. At that point the American makes a hasty exit.
When Americans say, “Time is money,” they mean it. They want to meet, greet, and get on with the business at hand. They do not mean to be rude; they just don’t want to waste time. In some cultures it is customary to meet, sip tea, inquire about the person’s nephew’s cousin’s step-uncle, and current events on Mars. By the time the foreign person asks about the American’s fifth cousin’s niece, his eyes have glazed over.
Such are the ways of Americans, a people courageous, gentle, noble, warm, funny, generous, and above all, quirky – the ultimate word that can be used to adequately describe those who proudly call themselves Americans.