Before my first trip overseas, my mom urged me not to be "the ugly American." I brushed up on the French I had learned that year in 8th grade, and I pulled any items with USA emblazoned on them out of closet. When we arrived in Paris during the summer of 1998, the French people we met were generally pretty kind to us. Maybe there was a wee jab here and there about cowboys and what not, but there were no outright discussions of politics or the wrongs America had committed recently. It might've been because I was so young (I turned 14 in Paris that year), but people seemed to respect America.
Seven years later, I embarked on a study abroad trip to Paris. This time, even I didn't like my country very much. We'd elected someone who was literally the embodiment of everything that is the "ugly American," not once, but twice. And when I went, it was just months after Bush's re-election. My, what a difference a President makes. I lived in an international house, and anytime I opened my mouth, I was sure to hear about my country's failing foreign policies, how our culture was taking over everything, how much people resented America. People were comparing us to the Roman Empire and seemed to be rather gleeful as the glow of America's formerly shining beacon of hope, change and prosperity seemed to be dimming. I enjoyed my time in Paris more than words can express, but the political discussions I had left me truly ashamed of what my country had become.
Yet, even as I lived there and listened to people complain about what my country had become, I knew that my story was one that could never happen in any other place but America. I am a black woman from a middle to upper middle class background. Both my parents attended college and have good jobs, I attended college, travelled abroad and had access to amazing opportunities and experiences. Two generations ago, my family members were sharecroppers in the deep South. And through the hardwork and perserverance that personifies the American experience, we achieved what our ancestors had hoped for us. But when I looked around me in France, I didn't see my experience replicated. There were NO people of color at the university I attended, and the only people of color I saw on television were athletes and singers.
So even though the American star had fallen considerably, it could be argued that there was something still there that made us completely capable of turning things around and regaining our former glory.
Two successive extended trips to Europe showed me that people seemed more disappointed than anything else. America has long been the "land of opportunity," yet for the past 8 years, we've been nothing more than a charicature of our worst selves. Warmongering, ignorant and discounting the voice of the world around us. The rest of the world isn't really so different than we are, we all want to believe that America can be better, that we are better than our current situation and that we have been. That for all our boisterous talking, our little bit of arrogance, we are a hopeful bunch who deep down really want to do what's best. Consumption of American pop culture abroad led me to believe that though our star had fallen, many people still wanted to believe or be exposed to the American dream.
And I think that Tuesday night, we became what we were before. There was a reason people were dancing in the streets, wrapped in American flags and singing our anthem. And not just in America, but overseas as well. Because deep down, we all wanted to believe that America is better than what we've been. That we've been down for a long time, but surely, the America that existed before hadn't died completely. People were ready for change.
For the first time in 8 years, I'll go abroad with my head held high, unashamed of my American accent and demeanor, proud that we're living up to our potential and that we collectively are ready to change the direction of the American journey.