I travel as much as I can. Growing up, the vicissitudes of my father’s form of employment meant that we were moving from city to city every few years, and so I never formed that attachment to place that some people do. The roots, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t take in the nutrients, it simply means that I do so without a taproot. My personal sense of geography is more akin to tumbling Tilandsia, using what root structure I have only as physical anchor.
If there was a goal of all this travel, it could be justified as a sort of a personal ethnographic project. The cultural relativism that one obtains by traveling abroad while young is invaluable. You come to see every custom, every societal pattern as both suspect and fascinating. There is no television program that can simply fade into the background, no restaurant genre that can be considered “normal”. Every cultural element is an elaborate ritual, signifying something deep and unspoken about the people who take part in it–from the way that they curse, to the design of their crosswalks.
Also in being a nominal United States resident by citizenship, one gets an interesting cross-sectional view of international politics that (unfortunately) cannot be mandatory for everyone who calls themselves “American”. Back in the early 90s when I moved to Europe as a kid, the United States was a Levis exporting nation. American culture, for better and for worse, was a certain envy of a large part of the world. New York City was no more the largest city in the world than it is now, and yet, all my foreign friends assumed that I was from there with a certain sense of awe (explaining what “Connecticut” was required a number of diagrams). Even today, traveling to China, to Mexico, to Central America, and to many other places I have not been, the legacy of American cultural export is obvious. There are the twists and idiosyncrasies of course–the constant popularity of Guns and Roses for example, and the odd things that other countries do with pizza–but “leader of the free world” still has a certain resonance, whether one is referring to the American president, or Madonna.
Or so it seemed, until I went to Scandinavia.
There is McDonalds in Sweden, 7-Eleven, and KFC. Bob Dylan plays on the radio, and Facebook is on the computer screen. The cultural influence is not mitigated here exactly–or it might be more so in a country like China, Japan, or South Korea, where the language barrier and a strong cultural production economy are pushing back against the tide of pop flowing from North America. But there is a difference. It isn’t in the items of culture, the marker points of market commodities and whether they are visible in the Nordic countries or not. What makes American culture seem obsolete here is something more systemic, more built-in to the means of consumption rather than the distribution.
It could be in the amazingly functional subways. Maybe it is the incredibly speedy internet connections. Perhaps it is aesthetic of design elements visible in the continuity of small lamps and sensible furnishings, or the architectural look of efficient, European flats. It could be the currency–the dollar doesn’t buy as much as it used to in Europe. But this extra cost seems worth it, for what is received in return. Cell phones charge quicker on 220 volts than they do on 110. There is that ever-present sense of a safety net in the air, that we call “universal health care”. Crime is low, and even graffiti looks neater and better planned. This alternate world that I experience in Scandinavia feels somehow better functioning, of a higher order, and possibly ranked superior… and then it dawns on me. This, unlike America, is the first world.
Despite my lack of roots, I have an affinity for the North American continent that I will never drop. The cataclysmic problems of the American colonialist project are my problems, and they have been since my ancestors fled here from Europe some hundred years ago, and since I was born kicking and screaming into the nation’s failed health-care system.
But I can’t help feeling that we have turned a corner. Since the end of the cold war, the United States has begun a process of mothballing its leadership status, like so many ICBMs. Whatever race it was that we finished “first” in, to deserve that hemispheric distinction as head of the globe, was over long ago. We might still have the biggest economy, but it is an economy that isn’t necessarily continuing to “develop” in the Global North sense of the word–rather, metastasizing, feeling a bit more malignant every day. If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, it is an exceptionalism of ambiguous euphemism–we are the “exceptional” child in the classroom that needs significant extra attention from the teacher in order to succeed, but this teacher has forty other students and was just denied a cost of living raise.
This is no doubt obvious to many people who are not from the United States, and read about our daily tragedies and travails in the news, like a Shakespearean fourth act that just won’t move on to the fifth. So excuse us if we have a hard time coming to terms with this. When you live in the suburbs, you still think you live in the city. Psy, Major League Soccer, and Ikea aside, we just don’t import enough foreign culture to make it obvious who is leading whom. And we have a brilliant tradition in jingoist nation-state egotism that is as American as corn syrup and the Second Amendment, which, diabetes coma or not, won’t be easily pried from our cold, dead lips.
What might help, would be a determination for labeling this no-longer-first-world status. We need to know what to call the United States, to make it clear that we are closer in some ways to the foreignness of Mexico than the foreignness of Western Europe. Perhaps 1% of our population deserves the country-club distinction of “Global North”, but the rest of us are stuck outside, servicing the air conditioning that allows the disavowal of global climate change to continue.
The “Global Suburbs” might be a better moniker for the United States’ cultural standing–constantly commuting towards the dream of success, but stuck in an SUV in traffic, experiencing culture only through another conveniently located instance of strip mall franchise. I was thinking about the “Three-Fifths World”, which is a charming reference to our own embarrassing history, as well as our current state of less-than. A “nation-state on the autism spectrum” might be metaphorically correct, but this is insulting to people born with this condition, rather than those who choose it en masse as a cultural politics. Perhaps calling us a “Hostel Nation” would denote the budget-rate practices our cultural standing has descended towards, adopting the European backpacker as emblem of our economy. We may not be able to see Europe on five dollars a day, but maybe we can at least share the showers of our more socialized treaty partners.
We need a new set of vocabulary words to describe our contemporary condition. I know there is a word for this, I just can’t quite grasp what it is. Does anyone here speak English, so they could translate this for me? My first language is, embarrassingly, my only language. And that perhaps, is the real problem. Americans are largely only fluent in being themselves.