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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

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I am not a stupid American

The refreshing feeling of belonging

On the bleak train ride from Stockholm to Oslo, I eavesdrop in on the two men sitting catty-corner to me. One is dressed like a bank teller, the other like the type of guy that would lecture me about cryptocurrency. Bank teller dude has a thick accent I later place as Polish, but Crypto-man’s accent is a little more, well, cryptic. 

“Americans will never know the beauty of sitting on a train and riding it from one country to the next,” bank teller dude said. “Their train system is garbage.”

Crypto-man agrees. “I spent a month in America. I had to drive everywhere. Traffic was terrible and the emissions were horrific.”

I nearly insert myself in their conversation right then and there. I want to argue that America is so much bigger than they can comprehend. I want to admit that we don’t think the Amtrak system is perfect, but that Europe isn’t perfectly faultless either. But most of all, I want to stare them dead in the eye and whisper, “You’re obsessed with us.”

Three days into my spring break trip across Scandinavia, and I’ve drained 85% of my data. So now, I must entertain myself by being nosy rather than scrolling through TikTok. While nibbling on a cardamom bun in a bakery in Copenhagen, I overhear the couple to my left complaining about the upcoming US election. “Trump or Biden again,” says the woman. “It’s almost embarrassing.”

“It is embarrassing,” her partner decides. 

In the lobby of our cozy hostel in the heart of Stockholm, my friends and I listen in on the debate two randos next to us are having about American schooling systems. While we play Rummy 500, the travelers hate on America’s lack of language diversity and the rigidity of their college engineering programs. “In America, everyone wants you to speak English,” says American hater, number one-million. “Most of them won’t learn another. I’m from the Czech Republic, and I learned German for college and French for after.”

“It’s just sad,” says her friend, American hater number one-million-and-one. “And then they come here, and they expect us to speak English to them.”

I want to snort at the irony. The two American haters are, in fact, having this conversation to each other in English. I want to sniff at them and say, “The reason that you’re able to have this conversation right now is because of English. It’s the common language. In America, we have diversity, so we speak English too as a neutral way of communicating.”

The European mind cannot comprehend America’s depth, America’s multiplicity. Since arriving in Stockholm, not one day has gone by where I don’t feel my Asian-ness. Not a second has passed where I don’t wonder, “What do they think of me?” I am keenly aware that I do not belong.

“It’s not that I believe America is perfect,” I explain to our pub-leader as my friends and I walk the streets of Copenhagen, our boots skidding across the cobblestone, our plastic cups full of whiskey and gin. “But I also think Europe’s no utopia either.”

“Of course not,” the pub-leader agrees. He’s loud and drunk and messy, and has had a LOT of opinions about us Americans. He calls us “woo-American-girls,” because the seven of us like to put up our arms and shout “WOO!” while dancing around.  

“What’s wrong with your country is that you are built upon an outdated Constitution,” the pub-leader continues as we wind our way through an alley speckled with pubs and shops. “You love your Constitution. You can’t let it go.”

It’s hard to argue with that. It’s hard for me not to sit there and bash on America with him. But I feel my skin prickle. For as much as I acknowledge America’s faults, for as often as I’ve come across racism and bigotry and xenophobia in the States, I also cannot accept these blanketed statements about the country I’ve been blessed to live in my entire life. 

A woman in Oslo assures me that any of the homeless women I come across aren’t actually Norwegian. “They’re brought over here from Romania,” she promises me. “Norway takes care of its people, and we trust our government. There is no super rich and no super poor.”

She means it as a way of reassuring me. But what I hear instead is that Norway takes care of its people, and no one else. Any struggling migrant from a neighboring country will be politely escorted out. They will not be offered a place to stay. 

Perhaps I should have inserted myself. Maybe I might’ve disputed and spat and bared my teeth. But I cannot change their minds about America any more than they can change my mind about Europe. At the end of the day, I recognize America’s faults, but I also see its distinct beauty.

We are flawed because we are a country built on the intermixing of multiple races, religions and cultures. Bank teller dude and Crypto-man are right — we do need to improve our train system. The pub-leader is correct that we need to change our ideology towards the Constitution. There are so many areas we need to improve upon, so many ways in which we can grow to be even more inclusive, accessible and just. 

When our plane touches back down in O'Hare, I take a glance around at the fellow Midwesterners gathering their bags. I note the different shades of their skin, the patterns of their clothes and the food they snack on. I drag my bag past a food hall with Qdoba and Panda Express and McDonalds. I marvel at the bustle of the taxi-ride pickup area. And I think while staring out the window of our Uber that I belong. 

Gracie Eppler is a junior business analytics and English major from St. Louis, MO. Her three top three things ever to exist are '70’s music, Nutella and Smith Studio 3, where she can be found dancing. You can reach her at geppler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.