The ‘American’ Overseas

A few days ago, from my vantage point at the University of Luxembourg, during a week of visiting a research group on Individual and Collective Reasoning, I posted the following status update on Facebook:

As an American in Europe, I am getting shit for (on this trip): Budweiser (as always), the lack of a really good football/soccer team (as usual) Lance Armstrong (a new one), and the fact that fifty million Americans think universal healthcare is a bad idea and worth repealing.

This sort of meta-lament–to borrow from my friend John Sutton, who described my status update as a ‘Budweiser-lament lament’–is exceedingly common. In putting up that status, I was doing no more than indulging in some rather clichéd commentary, in an all-too familiar trope: the hapless American overseas, made the subject of a barrage of questions by Europeans–or residents of other parts of the world–bewildered by aspects of the American life that seem mysterious to many Americans too. (I should hasten to add, despite my facetious language above, that my interlocutors were unfailingly polite and curious, even while being skeptical at times. I was, after all, among friendly and like-minded folks that included former and future academic collaborators.)

So there, in that Heavily Taxed Land Across The Pond, the American finds the usual lenses reversed, becomes the subject of curious investigation, and finds himself caught trying to make sense of the inexplicable. I have had it happen to me before; the conversations follow and reveal familiar patterns and contours. There is, for instance, the insistence that American beer is bad, a judgment that doesn’t seem fair in light of the many brilliant brewers that dot the American landscape and that year after year, turn in one virtuoso performance after another. More seriously, the queries about national healthcare, too, are familiar and have not lost any of their pungency over the years.  (I do not mind the judgments about the US soccer team, which despite much improvement over the years, still has much work to do to be truly excellent, and neither did I mind throwing my tuppence into the Lance Armstrong-deflation bowl.)

In these conversations my status as American immigrant rather than ‘native’ does not matter, of course.  What is instead more pressing is the question of being visibly immersed in a particular way of life, of being, for the moment, its most immediate representative, one available as translator and communicator alike.  I occupy a vantage point from which to report on American life and I am queried accordingly. Indeed, I suspect I would have featured in such conversations even if my ‘nationality’ were not as formalized as it is today with a passport; what would have mattered would have been my residence, my lived experiences, and my ability to fulfill the role of reporter. The academic world being what it is, the migrant and the expat are exceedingly common figures and are expected to do, as they always do elsewhere, double duties of all kinds. In these encounters, as in many others, the migrant is reminded yet again, of his forced ability to inhabit and move between several worlds.

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