Pride and Privilege

Here’s a conversation I experience at least twice a day: “What country, madam? Oh, you’re American! Very nice country.” “Um, thanks.” I always feel strange when I’m complimented on my country, especially when the person I’m talking to has no connection with it. It’s not something I chose, like a shirt, or something I have created, like a drawing. It’s something I was born with. To complicate matters more, I often feel that revealing my American identity while living abroad is far more complex than just naming my country of birth. It seems to come with a role I have to play. I’m an American. Therefore, I feel the asker is waiting to judge whether I am a) a Cool American (just like our movies, music and pop culture) or b) an Ugly American (arrogant, wasteful, demanding, and at least partially responsible for any problems their country happens to be experiencing). Let’s not forget that since I’m female, if the asker is male, there is a good chance they think I’m at least moderately slutty, so the minute I admit I’m American, I start to feel slightly uneasy.

I suppose all nationalities come with a certain amount of baggage. Every country’s name brings certain images to mind, and these images vary from person to person. When my inquisitive taxi driver is Egyptian, I think of pyramids, the Nile, and Tahrir Square. What are his images of America? Jobs? Friendly people? Hollywood? Bombs? Intrusive foreign policy? Support for corrupt and dangerous regimes to support our own interests? My sense of unease increases.

The worst is when asker then shows shame for their own country. “Oh, madam, America is very nice. My country __________ (insert developing country here) is ___________ (insert some criticism that makes me want to crawl under the seat in front of me). On the flip side, so many Americans, particularly a certain type of Americans, are always talking about how proud they are to be American. I love my country, but I find this particular sentence difficult to relate to. What does it mean to be “proud” to be an American? What does it mean to be proud of any nationality? To me, pride is reserved for achievements. I am proud of my MA that I worked hard very hard for. I’m proud when I see my students learning something I have taught them. All countries offer beauty, culture and insights to the rest of the world, and everyone should have love for their country of birth. It’s the word pride that troubles me. How can I be proud of something I have no control over? In a sketch about Americans who are particularly hostile to immigrants and other nationalities, Chris Rock pointed out, “all you did was come out of your mother’s p**** on American soil. That’s it. That’s it!” Vulgar, yes, but most definitely true! Congratulations to the 300,000,000 of us for being delivered within a certain geographical region. Luck of the draw, baby!

Compliments on my country obviously come from people who are not American, and often come from people from countries with far less available resources and opportunities. I say “available” because so many of these countries contain vast wealth held hostage by a greedy and powerful ruling elite. Back to Chris Rock, “What, you think you’re better than somebody from France ’cause you came out of a p**** in Detroit?” I sure don’t think I’m better, but many times I wonder why me? Why was I born in a country where we buy bottled water to suit taste preferences, but someone else was born in a place where they will die before the age of five because their water comes from a sewage ditch. Is there a obligation that comes with my “lucky” birth? If so, what on Earth is it?

I was blessed to be born in a country where, God willing, I will never starve. I’m not hustling folks to buy necklaces so I can feed my babies. No one is going to come and drag me from my home into a jail because I blogged something negative about my government or signed a petition. It goes beyond that. I can lose everything, but I will never truly be in danger of living on the streets, because my social safety net involves parents happy to welcome me back to their large home. Yes, we have plenty of ghettos and bad neighborhoods, but at home I’ll never drive past acres of homes made from corrugated steel and tarps. In the current state of the world economy this could change, but probably not in my lifetime. Why me, and what do I do with this?

As a woman especially, all I have to do is turn on the television or log onto the internet to see examples of lives I escaped only due to chance. I was born in a country where I was entitled to choices. I was not married off at 13 to a 35 year old man. No one mutilated my genitals at 9 to destroy my sexuality and make me worthy of a future husband. No one expected me to stop my schooling and cast away my talents and interests because it was time for me to be a good wife and stay under the watchful eyes of others. Why me, and what do I do with this?

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel to many countries that do not share the same protections and privileges I have in my country of birth. I’ve seen the slums, I’ve been asked for money by dirty children and mothers holding empty bottles. I’ve turned my head and refused in order to protect myself. Protect myself from what? More begging? Losing money I want to spend on souvenirs? Or to protect myself from a unique phenomenon I think of as Privileged Guilt.

As a budget traveler, I can easily “slum it” in cheap dive hotels, use candles during 12-18 hour power cuts, sleep on railway station floors between connections, and spend days fearful of being less than 30 seconds away from the nearest toilet knowing the pesky traveler’s curse could strike at any time. However, my privileged Western behind will never truly know what it is like to live like this. This will never be my reality, and I thank the Creator for that. Because I have been blessed with an easier life, some part of me wonders whether this obliges me to somehow do something to better the situation of those who have it much harder. Is this a valid way to feel, or is it the just another expression of condescension from a relatively wealthy member of the developed world? Am I just another douchebaguette-bleeding-heart-wanna-be sitting in an exotic destination writing about poverty? Who knows….

Do we ever transform Privileged Guilt into something productive? Usually we return from our journeys or documentary viewing to gather with friends and discuss it over coffee. These sessions include lots of head-shaking, sighs, and “we shoulds.” Living in an insanely wealthy country like I do, we like to point the finger at those with more wealth and talk about the changes They should make and the wrongs that They perpetuate. This provides an excellent distraction from our own potential, and leads to far less uncomfortable conversations, like the wrongs of governments that, as expats, we have no control over. I often wonder if I am a poster-child of fruitless Privileged Guilt. I pursued not one, but two degrees in the hopes of aiding the fight against global wrongs and inequality, but found the whole thing to disturbing for ongoing work on the subject. Additionally, I never did marry the Che Guevara-in-the-making I dreamed of at university, and I thank the Creator for that as much as I do my privileged birth! I sure wasn’t cut out for that sort of life, although perhaps his revolutionary activities could have lessened some of my feelings of obligation to those less fortunate.

So back to the original question: What is pride in one’s country? Where does Privileged Guilt come from, and is it valid or uber-patronizing? Do you feel it? Do you do anything about it? Give this expat some answers before my next trip. Or, I guess I could always just visit a wealthier country.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Meez Leez
    Apr 06, 2012 @ 09:43:07

    Having returned from Cambodia just last night, and travelled with you to India, I can totally identify with everything you have said here. And you have seen for yourself the instant *snap* increase in respect and courtesy when people here figure out I am not a Philipina but a Japanese-Canadian. What a world we live in. But we will continue to soldier on….xo

    Reply

  2. The Overthinking Expat
    Apr 15, 2012 @ 12:33:35

    So true, Meez Leez. Yes, how many times have we been disturbed by preferential treatment given to people based on nationality alone? What’s even more sad are the times when we’ve seen people treat others of their own nationality as less than others. Brings to mind the racial profiling issues we are facing back home. What a world we live in, indeed! I hope that observation and awareness is at least a start towards making a difference. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Reply

  3. trash dumpster
    Feb 15, 2013 @ 05:41:11

    I’m more than happy to uncover this site. I wanted to thank you for your time for this particularly wonderful read!! I definitely loved every part of it and i also have you bookmarked to check out new information on your website.

    Reply

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