AKA “Why patriotism perplexes me”
Years ago I met an elderly man, extraordinarily proud of being American, and eager to announce it. Pride of nationality often makes me curious, so I asked why. His answer astounded me.
“There’s something very special about being an American.”
Again I asked why, to which he answered “we have created a system in which a person can go from the very bottom to the very top.” When I asked him if he was aware this is true of Canada as well, he responded by saying he didn’t know, and was unfit to comment.
My silence was my only response for a moment, perplexed as I was at the inherent hypocrisy of his simultaneous declaration of knowledge and ignorance. “How can you say we have greater social mobility if you don’t know what it’s like in other countries?”
He couldn’t respond.
So are morals drawn by lines in the sand?
To my unapologetically rational point of view, the United States is much like any other country on Earth, an arbitrary border finalized by historical accident, whose citizens have no claim to superiority due to coincidental birth locale. Our rights do not make us better, nor do the actions of tyrants make mistreated citizens inferior. Ever hear anyone claim America is the greatest country in the world? I doubt they can even pronounce the competition.
Nor has our country ever been the only frontier worth discovering, as many Americans seem to believe. “But there’s so much to see here!” is a common refrain.
The United States has no shortage of intrigue, of course. But to say this is a reason not to explore further is short-sighted and unfortunate. It’s the ones who go abroad who experience first-hand the difference between the United States and other countries, the ones who return either with an appreciation for what we have, or an understanding of what we don’t. Would we suggest to a Belgian he only explore his Belgian homeland? Or to Swede that there’s no purpose in seeing anything more? Is there any reason Americans should be limited to our four walls?
But don’t we all love cubicles?
It makes me sad that only 10% of Americans have passports, and even fewer use them. Among hostels all over the world we are outnumbered by citizens of smaller countries. Those who stay at home watch American movies and television, speak English to their American friends, and listen to the politicians talk about how great we are. They spend their lives smitten with their situation, blissfully ignorant of how wonderful the outside world has always been. Those who express their desire to go abroad are often discouraged, asked when they will get on with “real” life, settle down, get a job, and deny themselves the opportunity to do something they’ve always wanted.
Are Americans so dispassionate that we don’t yearn to ride a boat down the Amazon, climb the Eiffel Tower, hike up to Machu Picchu, visit the Pyramids, or walk along the Great Wall? Would we rather look back on our lives, fondly recalling our favorite blue-grey cubic habitat, our extra Saturday hours and deadline-fueled overtime? I certainly don’t. I’ve lived that life, and I can’t imagine wanting to go back.
Our world offers far more than anyone can fully appreciate, and it is often the most well-traveled veterans of the backpacking circuit who deny having seen enough. There are too many awe-inspiring ancient and modern monuments, natural wonders and tranquil villages to bore even the most jaded traveler, and human experience has been infinite since it first began. The backpackers are the ones who play cards and trade magic tricks in a Chinese night market, get invited to be the photographer at a Kazakh wedding festival, get put up in a Belarussian home having met the family the day before, get invited to a private graduation party in Estonia, or paddle a Kayak down an Ecuadorian jungle river for a week. If you don’t call that “real” life, you don’t know what living is. You owe it to yourself to find out.
It’s not a vacation
It’s more than just fun. As ingrained as these memories will always be, what really stays with me is the invaluable understanding that comes with experiencing other cultures. It’s the backpackers who learn that people are people, all over the world. The more we see cultures
entirely unlike our own, the more we understand what makes us similar, and it turns out to be what’s most important to most people. They want to love their loved ones, raise their children, laugh with them, and look back upon a rich and satisfying life. Nice doesn’t know borders, and there’s no better way to know this than to live it. And couldn’t the world use a little more understanding?
I’ve known for a long time what kind of life I’ve wanted, and it’s the one with snowball fights in Istanbul, jaguar tracking in the Amazon, desert oases in the Sahara, and lasting friendships all over the world. I’d never take it back, and neither would anyone else who’s done it. I just want to bring all the cubicle drones along for the ride.
It’s a beautiful world we live in. Hope to see you out there.