One of the reasons my wife and I have always wanted to live and work overseas is to broaden our worldview. We have only been living in the UK for approximately half a year, but our understanding of America’s unique place in the world has already changed considerably. Ironically, I think considerable insight into America’s place in the world is difficult to obtain by being born, raised and living in America.
First, I have to start out by saying that as a kid, growing up, I had an overall negative view of the US despite being born and raised there and having essentially no connection to where my family originated. I’m not sure where this sentiment came from (maybe I can blame the media…), but it was clearly there for quite awhile. As I got older my stance softened and until quite recently I was essentially neutral with respect to whether I thought the US was a power for good or evil. As I have became more politically aware in the last several years I’ve started to move towards seeing the US as a positive influence in the world and in the past six months I’ve never felt or believed this more.
I think what has pushed me in the direction of being much more proud of my homeland than I ever was previously has been exposure to the history of Britain and Europe. I was never much for history in high school and always found it boring and pedantic. I always thought of history as memorizing dates, names and places. However, now that I have been exposed to not only the wonderfully and insanely complex history of Britain through my travels about the country, but to the British themselves, do I see that history has never died but that it acts to intimately define our self-identity.
The history of Britain (comprising Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England) is ridiculously complex. There are wars and battles. Subterfuge and intrigue. Kings and Queens. Incest, torture and injustice. It absolutely boggles my American mind, in which we are taught that nothing really important happened until around the 18th century (or at least that’s what I remember).
What amazes me is that Britain’s long history still has a considerable impact on the British self-image. The idea of the British Empire is not entirely gone and on more than one occasion I have heard the US and Canada being referred to as “one of the colonies” in a sort of paternal way. By and large, I think the British feel a very strong kinship with the US and the other colonies than I would have ever anticipated (or even thought of!). I find this quite fascinating because, frankly (and somewhat sadly), the feeling is not mutual. The idea of the UK as kin is quite foreign to me, and I think a lot of Americans. It is as foreign and abstract to me as the fact that the British were our oppressors back in the 18th century. And I think there is a very good reason for this: it is because America is a nation of immigrants and thus, has a very short collective memory. Our family histories are lucky to go back more than three generations, and our collective history is inevitably much shorter. We tend to carry much less historical baggage with us, and this is why I’m amazed at how a long and storied history can shape individual and collective identities as it so clearly does here in the UK.
I think the fact that America is a country of immigrants is immensely powerful. I also think that this unique composition of the US has led to what is arguably the most benign superpower in the history of the world. This is not to say the US is perfect by any means (if the idea of “perfect” can even be defined), but as world powers go, it could be a LOT worse (see Rome, Britain and Germany).
And thus, living overseas has given me much more respect for history, collective identities and the British. I have also never felt more proud to be an American.