Once the international students that I tutor are satisfied that they understand why Americans eat so much meat (because we can!), they start asking me harder questions. And by harder, I mean things that are even trickier to answer than whether the entire English language contains even one verb that isn’t, in some way, irregular (answer: “ah—define irregular”). These are bright, educated, and very thoughtful young people, and their questions are deeply reasoned, and felt. They’re also quite varied (only the one about meat is of near-universal interest), but there are two others besides the one about meat that come up repeatedly.
One is why Americans are so enthusiastically, openly, obviously, and even (let’s face it) sometimes almost comically patriotic (“U-S-A! U-S-A!”), and at the same time, so hypercritical of their country?
The first fifty times I was asked this, I really had no answer to give. I wasn’t even willing to concede that the inferences of the question were true. World-wide, I’d usually counter, most people love their native land. They love it the same way they love their mother; which is to say, a lot, and despite all her faults and failings, to which they are not blind. It’s just natural. Americans aren’t unique in this regard.
But I travel quite a bit (mostly in Europe), and I’ve even lived abroad; and after a while I came to the conclusion that the students had a point. (This is why I love it when the students ask me questions. I learn so much that way!) Go to a window in almost any European country and look out, and count the national flags that you see. Unless your room overlooks a souvenir shop, or it happens to be a national holiday, you won’t see many. But in the US, nearly every public building and many private homes fly the American flag every day. Cars sport window-flags, and patriotic bumper-stickers; houses are furnished with star-spangled throw-pillows and the birds in the garden are offered wooden replicas of the Statue of Liberty to nest in (I desperately want one of those; either that, or an Uncle Sam whirligig). I lived for years in a city where the local symphony orchestra—no matter what else was on the program—began every performance with a rendition of the national anthem.
It’s not that I haven’t seen comparable patriotic displays in other countries. I have. But not so many.
The conclusion that I’ve come to about all this is very much like the one I arrived at regarding the American passion for Meat. Our patriotism isn’t genetic, exactly. But it has been passed down through the generations.
The international students who are amazed by our flag-worship are the offspring of generations of people who, overall, had pretty good lives in their native countries. People who have it good someplace stay there. Nobody forsakes everything and goes off to live in a foreign country to do menial work and struggle with the irregular verbs of a new language on a whim.
Americans are the children of people who didn’t have it so good in the Old Country. People for whom America represented a chance—possibly the only chance—for a significant improvement in their quality of life. Consequently they were predisposed to like America before they had even arrived; and if they did prosper, and stayed and raised families here (thirty to fifty percent—depending on which source you read—of those who arrived on the immigrant ships went back home again), they taught their children that America was a great place, entirely worthy of incessant flag-waving, laudatory speeches and “Proud to Be an American” bumper-stickers which, unless you’re a naturalized citizen, make no sense whatever. (Your parents may be proud of their foresight in choosing to give birth to you in American; but, as a fetus, you yourself had little or no say in the decision.)
I don’t need to say any more than this to them before the international students tell me they suddenly understand why Americans are both hyper-patriotic and yet also very critical of their country. No country, they speculate, could possibly continue for subsequent generations to live up to the rosy picture of it painted for them by their parents and grandparents, who had exchanged a bleak existence for one full of promise.
Either that, or it’s something in American water. I lived abroad for two years. I loved every moment of it, and my existence throughout was anything but bleak. Yet I couldn’t wait to get back, fly the flag, eat a hot dog, and I always get a lump in my throat when a band plays the national anthem.