After some undefined number of months living in another country, the major contrasts between Old Home and New Home fade into the background. I guess I’ve grown accustomed to rhythms of Turkish life. I get a strange sensation of uncertainty sometimes, indecision- firetrucks screeching up the street and missing their turn, playing board games at the office during the second power outage in as many days, men in suits attempting to heave a stranger’s car onto the sidewalk so a bus can maneuver around a tight corner. Would these things happen in the States? I can’t remember.
I used to read a lot of travel forums even before posting on Thorn Tree and BootsnAll became a major aspect of my job (I’m not bragging… or am I? Maybe a little bit). These days, unsurprisingly, I’m clocking up a lot of hours on the expat subdivisions, where I can whine with other Americans and Canadians about how hard it is to open a bank account in another country, muse about how the nosedive of the Western world is looking from these parts, share the articles our friends and family send us about the allegedly direct correlation between beard length and likelihood of concealed weaponry, that sort of thing.
One recurring thread in expat forums is- as you might well suspect- a discussion about the things we miss most from home. Nearly all the Americans who posted their responses included Mexican food. Like, nearing 100%. That strikes me as funny. The thing we miss the most about our home country is another country’s cuisine? I thought we were more patriotic than that! “Cattle rustling” was conspicuously absent from the lists. Nobody put “sitting around with a case of PBR and brainstorming new racial slurs,” or “singing the national anthem,” or hell, even “baseball.” Mexican food.
I came across an article by Charlotte McPherson in which she observed that Westerners “tend to become more patriotic and nationalistic when away from their homeland.” My instinct is to disagree, at least when it comes to us Americans. For every United States citizen singing the praises of our Great Democracy abroad, there are three discreetly sewing Canadian flags to their backpacks. Of course, most people aren’t so easily pigeonholed, and as a whole, an expat’s relationship with their native country is far less likely to revolve solely around boring the locals with endless tales of the superior majesty of the motherland or solely around raging about the worst aspects of home. I miss my family and roadtrips and bluegrass and sledding in Vermont, and I enjoyed a few moments of snobbish delight upon finding out that Americans are apparently viewed as the “coolest” nationality on earth. On the other hand, I also frequently find myself overcome by the impulse to preemptively assure people that I don’t think executing innocent people is a terrific idea and that neither my family nor the family of anybody I know actually owns a Hummer. Living in a different country means that for better or for worse, I’ve come to take both praise and criticism of America much more personally than I used to. I’m quicker to point out the great things about the US and sadder about the hateful, shocking, dysfunctional ones. So maybe I am more patriotic.
With nationalism on my mind, it occurred to me to wonder whether Americans or Turks are prouder of their country. The reputation of the States overseas is as a land of rabid superpatriots- and in fact, a poll by MSNBC found that we’re the world’s most enthusiastic flag-wavers.
But is it so simple? I’ve never seen an American rush to George Washington’s defense with any particular passion (have you?); in Turkey, insulting Atatürk is actually a crime- a law which is rigorously enforced. According to 2011 polls, only 17% of us in the US have a favorable view of our federal agencies, compared with 61% and climbing who support the government over here. The Turkish language has undergone, in the last century, a radical overhaul to purge the common vocabulary of thousands of words with Arabic or Persian roots in favor of Turkic equivalents, many of which had to be made up on the spot- an overhaul which met with resounding success and acceptance. Despite polls and reputations, it seems that Turkey is in many ways more patriotic than America.
(Apparently culture is an aspect of culture, but there are also eleven others! Who knew?)
Some of them aren’t very handy when discussing patriotism. Transportation, for example. Even sitting in the Greyhound terminal in Murderton, Detroit, waiting for my eight-hours-delayed bus and nervously mm-hmming my way through a chat about prison tattoos with a highly pungent and frightening gentleman, it never occurred to me to think, “bad public transport. THAT’S what’s wrong with America.” Similarly, despite the comfortable seats and smiling stewards aboard the trains and planes here, I’ve never seen anybody smugly waving Turkish flags outside Atatürk airport. Their beheading rates are infinity percent below North America’s and even their food is not the nauseating sludge we Americans have come to expect on our travels (“Make sure you don’t miss their hazelnut snack,” Cornell Prodan raves in his review of Turkish Airlines. I’m not sure why I find this so funny).
But I digress.
Some of the others, I think, are better barometers of national pride. Some things we have in common because they’re institutional and/or unavoidable. An American can’t really choose not to have Obama for a president or live in a bad economy or come from the country that gave the world Hollywood. Others are more… um, opt-in, I guess, and more nebulous. Faith. Traditions (which should be on the list but isn’t). Even language, to an extent. It occurs to me that maybe American nationalism is born of our strange contrast. Countries like Turkey are more historically, religiously, ethnically, linguistically homogenous than ours (we’ll leave the Kurds out of this, and I doubt many of them would identify as strongly patriotic anyway), and that’s THEIR source of solidarity. Maybe ours stems from different values entirely- our perception of ourselves as independent, free, self-starters, a bit rebellious in our determination to make it together despite our varied roots and backgrounds. If Turkey is a noble family with centuries of pure blood, we’re a rags-to-riches businessman who bootstrapped his way up from nothing.
What do you think?
Featured image by Scott James Remnant