Humorous, accurate, and not-so-accurate impressions of America from the perspective of outsiders
America is weird. We see this illustrated by numbers and statistics, by watching the nightly news, or even simply by asking people who are not from America, “Hey, how about America?” I prefer the latter method. Here are some of the common themes that have surfaced when discussing our very “special” country with people from elsewhere.
11 — Guns, Guns Everywhere
There is a widespread perception that Americans have a pathological obsession with guns. Many foreigners I encounter are under the impression that all Americans own guns and that we bring them wherever we go. The American concept of “gun rights” strikes many as bewildering and tone-deaf against the backdrop of perennial shootouts and school massacres.
10 — Senseless Violence
“I’d like to visit the U.S., but I’m worried I’d get shot.” This sounded absurd to me the first time I heard it. But then I heard it again. And again. And again. Many foreigners I speak with are surprised to hear I’ve never personally witnessed gun violence. Every day news of mass shootings, police brutality, and violent protests in America flash across TV screens across the globe. Series like CIS and Law & Order also contribute to the perception that America is unsafe. It’s true that Americans are familiar with a level of violence completely alien to most European and Asian countries, but this impression is especially heightened in countries like China and Russia where state-run media have an interest in reporting on the U.S. like it’s Baghdad.
9 — Fake nice
We spam our conversations with “please,” “thank you,” and “sorry.” We greet strangers with the the disingenuous “how are you?” even when we clearly don’t care. We are meant to reply “good” even if when we’re not good. A Kazakh friend of mine once compared Americans to customer service representatives with a tendency for fake warmth and insincere sympathy. I’ve heard others characterize Americans as easily excitable and overly enthusiastic. This confirms my suspicion that New Yorkers are not Americans.
8 — The Savage High School
The bullying, the social hierarchy, the out-of-control parties, the cheerleader-jock-nerd tropes — American movies and television leave foreigners with a vivid impression of the American teenager’s life. “Is it really like that? Do they really drink out of red cups? Is it real that crazy?” I suppose we all had different experiences depending on who we were during our teenage years, but I think it’s safe to say Hollywood takes some liberties in its portrayal.
7 — American Narcissism
As individuals and as a collective, Americans are known for being arrogant, self-centered, and chauvinistic. American exceptionalism — the idea that America is unique and all-important — never quite died out since the Cold War, and the catch-phrase “Greatest Country on Earth” has been echoed ad-nauseum by every president for almost a century. I’ve often heard foreigners use the phrase sarcastically in situations where our country is doing something exceptionally dumb ( i.e.“Americans are trying to strip the poor and sick of healthcare? Greatest country on Earth!”). A British friend once read aloud the corny, self-aggrandizing quotes contained in my American passport: “This is a new nation, based on a mighty continent, of boundless possibilities!” We both laughed. His British passport just had birds on it.
6 — The Healthcare Predicament
Many people in Europe and Asia find it shocking and cruel that the U.S. does not guarantee its people access to healthcare. “What if you lose your job and get cancer? What if you can’t afford your medical bills?” I have been asked similar questions in countries from Portugal to Taiwan. Many foreigners do not understand why this is even a political issue in the US. “Couldn’t Americans just agree on free universal healthcare as a matter of basic human empathy?” Well, no.
5 — Garbage Cuisine
The consensus is that Americans subsist off of hotdogs, hamburgers, pizza, and soft pretzels. When making dinner plans abroad, friends frequently propose eating at KFC or Burger King because apparently that’s what I’m supposed to like. In Europe, “American food” is synonymous with oily, fatty fried food. In some less-developed regions, however, American fast food establishments do not have the same negative, self-indulgent associations that are attached to them in America. In the Caucus, for example, McDonald’s is trendy by virtue of it being American. Likewise, the Chinese incarnation of Pizza Hut is a posh sit-down restaurant where one slice of pizza will set you back seven bucks.
4 – Materialism & the American dream
Middle-class Americans live in oversized suburban homes, drive gas-guzzling SUVs, and splurge on the latest iPhone model. Billions of people around the world are enchanted by this image of the good life and strive toward the kind of lifestyle that most Americans are born into. Recognizing the appeal of American-style consumerism, the Chinese Bureau of Propaganda even peddles a spin-off concept, the so-called “Chinese Dream.” In regions where anti-American sentiment runs high, however, American materialism carries a darker undertone, and our society is portrayed as a corrupt, spiritually bankrupt place where money is made and damn all.
3 — Military Zeal
In America, patriotism and militarism are often intertwined. We are known to venerate our military for “defending our freedom” even while it invades foreign countries and violates international law. To the international community’s exasperation, the U.S. has never quite relinquished its moral imperative to transform the world into a place where freedom and democracy reign. Our misadventures in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere have cast the U.S. as a war-mongering overlord with a pattern of destabilizing weaker countries and then retreating into selfish isolationism. Many of my most negative experiences abroad involve locals lashing out at me over our military’s misdeeds.
2 — Dumb America
We elected George W. Bush twice. Need I say more? I stole this line from my Dutch friend, but just in case anyone was still in doubt of our national IQ, we’ve managed to one-up ourselves with our new commander-in-chief. Indeed, Americans are infamous for being unabashedly unaware of and incurious about the world beyond our borders. Valley girl and bro-dude archetypes have become classic American stock characters, and the behavior of American tourists abroad does little to improve the way foreigners perceive us.
1 — Donald J. Trump
We elected our worst stereotype: loud, arrogant, selfish, ignorant, and fake. Our highest leader is an American caricature. For overseas Americans, our 45th president is an inescapable topic. Foreigners ask my opinion on Trump more often than they ask how I am doing. Locals from Macedonia to Myanmar who know no other word in English engage me by shouting “Trump!” as soon as they learn my nationality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people across the globe feel uncomfortable and confused that we empowered someone so criminally incompetent to fill the highest office on earth. As he pillages our moral capital and soils our reputation abroad, President Trump has become emblematic of a volatile, schizophrenic America that most Americans are now reluctant to identify with.