13 September 2006

being American

This morning I went for an early swim, and as I turned my face to the sub-arctic early-morning sun on alternating breaths, I thought about yesterday and all the international press about September 11th. I'm still an American, although having been away for more than a year, it's become both a more abstract identity but at the same time all the more clear that it is definitely who I am.

I followed the stripe along the bottom of the pool and thought about my weekend, and several discussions I had about nationalities. For example, I had lunch with a Norwegian friend on Saturday, who said that she'd felt my American-ness from when we first met a year ago. I'd invited her and a few others (also Norwegian) to a party at my house, and while they accepted gladly, they were also bemused by this quick invitation. Apparently this kind of timeline is unheard-of where she is from. We also talked about what you do when sitting next to someone on a plane. Unless they are a frighteningly large Polish guy that has no sense of personal space and speaks no English (this is not a fabricated seatmate, unfortunately) I will usually make an attempt at conversation. Makes the flight go by quicker and does sometimes result in a new friend (I met my friend H that way a few months ago). Apparently this is Not Done in Norway unless under very unusual circumstances. This opinion was corroborated by an Icelander as well. Am I really that American and open or is something else at work here?

I do attribute my outgoing attitude somewhat to being in a new place and having to build a new community from the ground up. You gotta get outside yourself in general in order to make headway, especially here in the north. It's funny though, since I am the only American many people here know personally, I also find myself explaining the regional differences in the definition of barbecue, the virtues of salty movie popcorn, and the linguistic brilliance of "all y'all". I'm so accustomed to the Icelandic accent in English that whenever an Icelander does their best impression of my accent, it's kind of shocking to hear the fat-sounding a's, the prickly t's that I realize I myself say.

So by now I have concluded I am undeniably American and probably always will be, and it's likely to not matter how long I live away or how many other languages I acquire. When I started travelling abroad in college, I did my best to conceal it, secretly gleeful when someone mistook me for Dutch or German. It's obviously easier when not speaking English, but now I relish the reveal moment when someone who thought all Americans were monolingual redneck Bush lovers has to reconsider. Perhaps I have just been fortunate to have not experienced any blatant anti-American sentiment, and my optimism can be preserved.

I am planning a trip back in October and I am very curious to see how my acceptance of being American changes when I am faced with the gritty reality of the massive country and its less-than-welcoming passport control agents in Boston. I suspect that American-ness is best experienced from a slight distance.

Ship sighting: A full harbor this evening, with many of the ships I have seen in dry dock over the past few months in the quiet harbor. The whaling ship is tied up again with its brother ships (I imagine these boats to be male, not female somehow) and Eldborg and Atlas, and an unfamiliar dredger at a side dock.


dtw said...

I for one can relate to the Norwegians. It's the Northern way.

Not sure if it's the same thing with Swedes too though, but I guess by any other standards besides Finnish I'd be a rather closed person.

We don't really have a culture of firing up conversations with foreigners. People are rather reluctant to sit next to a stranger in a bus, and they certainly don't speak with them. I have no idea why it is so, but I represent my people pretty well there. One of the best quotes I know is "There are no strangers, just people we haven't met yet" and still I'm not very capable of getting in touch with people in random situations. It sucks.

I got a very good example of this when I did my Northern American tour last year. I visited friend V in Illinois, and one thing we did was visit the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The ticket queue was insanely long. She offered some mints from a little metal box to a family behind us. They politely refused and I found myself spontaneusly thinking that if she did that in Finland, the mom would've probably thought that she offered them some drugs or that V was a little too interested in their kids.

Maybe we've had too much personal space for a bit too many millennias.

Professor Batty said...

...being married to a third generation Norwegian I would have to agree with those observations. Oddly enough I had my best-ever accidental flight compainions on my last return trip from Iceland, but they were open minded (and young) Americans...I wonder what my next flights (Oct 17 and 25) on Icelandair will hold...

sb said...

To professor batty: I'm an Icelander here in the us, and I've been here for numerous years now. I see third generation Norwegians acutally being too American to ever be considered Norwegian. That is just my personal observation.
There are so many immigrants in America, but it seems after 2nd generation so much of the qualities of their parents are gone.
I'd say to E, that after more years you would find yourself probably relate more on an international level.
It took me a few years, but now when I go 'home' I feel like a foreigner, here in the US I still feel like a foreigner, falling between the cracks because I'm not like the hispanic culture that sticks together, nor do I fit into the American culture.

Culture and nations are a fascinating idea.

How long will you be in US, will you be in Beantown at all. If there is a chance I'd love to see you if only for a minute, for a quick hug :D

ECS said...

DTW- I think part of it might be to do with the space, and part of it here seems to be that so many Icelanders have scads of family and friends they've known since grade school, so there is less of a need to step beyond that circle. I don't think people are unfriendly- it's just a different approach to the world.

Professor- I've met a few really interesting people on transportation, in particular on the train from Boston-NYC. I wish you another successful pairing on this next flight, and a good stay in This Fair Land.

Sirrý- There is usually a sort of cultural overcompensation with the second generation and subsequent, then it sometimes seems as if it swings the other way as people try to reclaim their ancestral identity.

As for my country of citizenship vs my adopted homeland, I'm sure it will be weird when I once again set foot on American soil, and I'll probably feel much less a US citizen when I'm actually there. Like I said, I think it's probably best experienced from afar :-)

As for the trip, it's all a bit nebulous right now, but I'm thinking early October and probably at least one night in Boston. There are so many friends and family to visit and they are in such far-flung places that I think I will be moving around quite a lot.

becca said...

Hi. I'm an American living in Scotland..who just got back from a holiday in Iceland. Can I just say lucky you for living in such a clean and beautiful country. We didn't have a chance to really socialise while there, but had a great experience in a CD shop in Reykjavik where we chatted with the shop guys for ages about music and everything. The only other person we talked to was a shop girl who was from Dublin.
Scotland is a bit chattier..Glasgow is anyway and you learn when to insert a snappy retort or the correct scottish phrase..other than that its pretty quiet. I've been here in Glasgow for going on four years now and I think your identity changes. I've adopted Glasgow as my home now and I've been told that I now have a dodgy Glasgow/Texas accent. Now when I go home, I feel like a visitor, so for sure there is a familiarity with the whole US/EU inbetweenness.
BTW I really fell in love with Reykjavik ..I've sniffed it out of the jumpers that we purchased there. We will go back as soon as possible.
If you don't mind me asking, what kind of work are you doing there?

ECS said...

greetings Becca! Glad you liked it here, and thanks for the reminder. I get kind of frustrated by some of the bizarre architecture here sometimes, at least out where I work! Your music store experience must have been at 12 Tónar, right? It's kind of a signature experience there.

I bought my ticket to the US last night so I will be able to experience this weirdness first hand, and I think I might even have a stint in Texas. Should be interesting. As for the what-am-i-doing question, I avoid talking about work in the blog, so if you are still burning with curiosity and want to take this discussion of expatriotism, you're welcome to email me through my blogger profile. At any rate, if you come back soon, drop me a line and we can have coffee or somesuch.