For the last five and a half years I’ve been calling different parts of Asia home, the majority of my time has been spent in Korea, teaching English to amazing kids, while for the rest I play nomad, jumping from one country to another. Inevitably when traveling you’ll often be asked the question, “Where are you from?” This question has become the ‘What’s up?’ of the international world and is often used as a type of icebreaker, a simple way to get to know others in your hostel, at your dinner table, or on a bus. It’s such a simple question but depending who it’s directed at or the lips it came from, can lead to so many different conversations.
What’s more interesting than the question though, is the interactions that take place afterwards. You can tell a few different things about the way people answer this question, first off, how long they’ve been on the road. If they roll their eyes or sigh with their answer it’s a sure sign they’ve been playing this game a while, expect a scripted answer. Meanwhile, those that answer with enthusiasm and excitement, well this is probably their first trip out, either that or they’ve had a lot of coffee.
The second thing you notice is the level of pride a person has for their country, how strongly they associate with the place they came from or how much they want to distance themselves from it. It’s easy to make stereotypes and generalizations, but living on the road for a few years will teach you that most of these have grounds upon which they are based.
Living in Korea I quickly observed it to be a country with great national pride, Korean people, for the most part, are proud of who they are and where they came from. Of course there are exceptions, black sheep in the herd, but as a homogeneous country, valuing pure blood and collectivism I always got the feeling of “us”. It’s funny, even after two years living there I started to adapt this feeling, a few times in the classroom I used the word “our” even though I’m quite obviously, not Korea.
Over the years I’ve also acquired a few great friends from South Africa and quickly noticed how they too form a bond. My friends, upon meeting others from their country, strike easily into conversation, bonding over sports teams, hometowns, or foods. I’ve even had friends overhear the South African accent in a bar and have the desire to go introduce themselves, just because.
This type of behavior is similar with my friends from other countries, Canadians are always happy to meet another Canuk, or maybe they’re just glad not to be confused as American. Europeans too are for the most part proud of their home and easily bond with others from there. The Australians are just so chill you never know quite what they’re thinking and Kiwi’s, I think, bond over not being Aussie.
Then there are the Americans, the complex Yankees. Stereo typically we’re proud, loud and aggressive, watch any mid-rate comedy movie and you’ll likely hear the “America!” but on the road the story is quite different. My first two years in Korea I began to think I was the weird one, Korean friends and students would ask me, “Aren’t you proud to be American” which I could only answer with a shoulder shrug. Sure, I was grateful to have been born there as it afforded me with great opportunities, but past that my feelings were obsolete. Once on the road I realized I wasn't’ the only one, others thought as I did, America is okay, but there’s so much more in the world to see! Also, unlike my South African and Korean friends, American’s often hide when they hear their English in a bar, we’d stay at home if we wanted to be friends with those people.
What’s the deal, why aren’t Americans (especially those that travel) fulfilling the flag wearing, gun toting, “America, fuck yeah!” image you see in the media. It took me years, but I’ve finally figured it out, thanks in part to a new Korean friend. Last week, I got to telling him about Wisconsin, the place I was born and raised. After a few anecdotes and stories he asked me, “Do you have Wisconsin pride?” to which I answered “yes” without hesitation, and this is when the light bulb went off. The problem with America is that it’s just too damn big and the divisions between states are too great.
Unlike many other parts of the world our rivalries (sports, food, schools and even language) are at the state level. Only recently has interest in soccer (futbol) grown in the USA, before that it was American football and American baseball that took center stage. It’s true that Americans have pride for their country, but most of them have never left the country so have had little time to identify with it. Instead, they spend their lives competing at the state-level, so that is where their true identity and allegiance falls.
For those of you that travel, I encourage you to ask the next American you meet what State they're from. I know you may know nothing about it or even be able to locate it on a map, but I assure you they’ll share. Because while I’m not a flag-wearing, gun enthusiast I will tell you that Wisconsin makes the best beer, we drive much better than anyone from Illinois, have the best football fans and summers in Milwaukee are best enjoyed by the lake or tailgating at a Brewers game.
**Also, this is all regardless of the current situation and feelings regarding our president because that...well that’s a whole different ball game**
Emptying my Head
I'm an overthinker, my brain is always on overdrive. Sometimes the thoughts are pertinant to life, and other times they're just a trove of wonder. They're usually about, related to or in memory of travel. When they're good I like to share.