What the Fourth of July Means to Me, the Expat and Traveler

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Happy Fourth of July everyone! I am writing this from Mexico City, which most definitely does not celebrate the USA’s independence from Great Britain. Even if it did, it is pouring miserably at the moment. When it rains like this in Mexico City it just gets cold, and the damp chill might deter me from heading to the nearest bar serving red, white, and blue-dyed cerveza.

I am seldom shy when it comes to stating my belief that the U.S. is not the greatest country on earth, and hasn’t been for a long time. We have become slaves to big oil, the NRA, and Wall Street banks. Our rank in various “quality of life” categories has slipped alarmingly over the last 25 years. “Evil” China and “dirty” India graduate more doctors and scientists that we do. Most of our workers don’t have a true work-life balance, have no more than two weeks vacation per year, and don’t even have passports for that matter. Our “legacy” of empire-building around the globe has gained us as many enemies as friends. In short, we’ve lost our way.

Having said that, I don’t hate America.

Have you ever gazed over the North or South Rim into majestic depths of the Grand Canyon? Trust me that the brown ribbon in the distance – the raging Colorado River – is a long way down…and back up again. Have you ever stood at Glacier Point, astonished at the chasm of beauty that is the Yosemite Valley, framed by waterfalls and crowned by granite Half Dome? My first view of this grand panorama occurred in June 2001, and my dreamer’s soul has never been the same since. Have you ever circle-hiked the Mittens of Monument Valley? Hot, dry air notwithstanding, the otherworldly experience suggests to me what life on Mars might be like.

Have you ever strolled down Bourbon Street in New Orleans? Not the two-block stretch of hedonism and spring breakers, but the gaslamp-lit, so-quiet-it’s-spooky outlying blocks a bit further east? A walk there feels as if you’ve stepped back in time. Have you ever taken a taxi from one of NYC’s horrid airports across the Triborough Bridge, entering mid-town Manhattan at a point where ridiculously-tall buildings stretch as far as the eye can see in every direction? This is a humbling experience that always impresses, even on repeated visits. Have you ever gazed across the Reflecting Pool of the Mall in Washington, DC at the Lincoln Memorial and wondered what Honest Abe, one foot forward and one fist clenched, must be thinking? It is an evocative monument to be certain, and it’s even more pensive after dark.

I have been lucky enough to set foot in 70 countries across six continents. To me, the aforementioned experiences rank near the very top of my list of amazing travel experiences. The Washington Monument may not be as cool as the Eiffel Tower, but it is still an iconic site, and – like its Parisan counterpart – the surrounding grounds make a great spot for a picnic (if the DC Mall’s cops allow it). In terms of both design and height, the Stratosphere in Las Vegas may pale in comparison to the Taipei 101 Building in Taiwan, but then again, the Stratosphere has a better view: the twinkling lights of the two-mile-long Vegas Strip.

When you stop and consider that the U.S. has more history than we often give ourselves credit for, it may seem unfortunate that the “best” I can apparently say is that it has some vibrant cities and beautiful national wonders.

But hear me out: I grew disenchanted with my life there. I grew tired of the nasty partisan divide that continues to effectively halt any momentum towards forward progress in the areas of not just climate science and social values but also general infrastructure. I grew tired of trying to balance the privilege of a steady paycheck and the convenience of a fixed work schedule with the need to see the world outside my front door. Related to that, I grew tired of people’s blind confusion as to why I would ever want to leave the friendly confines (with apologies to Chicago’s Wrigley Field) to see other parts of the world, if only for one or two weeks at a time. “What’s there to see in ______?” some well-meaning but narrow-minded countryman would say to me when I announced, proudly, that I was traveling to Slovenia, or the Ukraine, or El Salvador, or ______.

I am not saying that these other countries are better. Well, some are. Most, however, are just different. To me, different can be good, as I believe more good than bad can come from being exposed to differing cultures and worldviews. I feel that I have learned more during my 2009-2012 travels, in particular, than from 11 years in corporate America. But alas, different frightens people (especially Americans, for some reason). Blind nationalism, on the other hand, frightens me.

Again, and in closing, I don’t hate America. I do love that it’s still possible to get a good college education in the U.S. I love that you can drink the tap water without getting sick. I love that our citizens (for the most part) aren’t put through the same visa hassles when they want to travel abroad as citizens from many poorer countries (Mexico comes to mind). I love that women are treated as (mostly) equal to men in our country, and that they often outnumber men in university enrollment. I love that people such as my parents are still able to find a quiet small town where they can retire. I hope that these good qualities remain, because although I currently am not living in the U.S., I still enjoy going back to visit.

It is late in the day as I finish writing this. For those of you who are Americans, I hope you had a good holiday and a relaxing long weekend. Seeing as you probably don’t have more than two weeks’ vacation time, you’ve certainly earned it. 🙂 Happy Fourth of July!

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Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

4 thoughts on “What the Fourth of July Means to Me, the Expat and Traveler”

  1. Every country will provide you with some sort of disillusionment once you’ve actually lived there, and the US is no different. Of course, some countries, like Afghanistan or Somalia, are totally hopeless cases. But at the other end, many Americans don’t recognize that there’s lots of other countries out there that are about as livable as the US (some slightly more, some slightly less), and even do some things much better than we do.

    But for those Americans that aren’t familiar with how some things (like say healthcare) work abroad, they’ll default to the position that we do it best in the US, simply defending a system they’re used to without actually having had the chance to compare with how it’s done abroad.

    I completely agree with you that the US has more history than even the most patriotic Americans give their own country credit for. For starters, we keep viewing 7/4/1776 as the “birth of the nation”, completely ignoring 2 centuries of colonial history before that. Of course, other civilizations are much older than even that. But the colonial era largely shaped American culture, in ways that we don’t see…for example, the Puritans’ fundamentalist Christianity is the reason we don’t really celebrate Christian holidays (like Easter) to the extent that they do in Europe and Latin America. (The Puritans viewed Easter, Christmas, etc, as pagan-rooted holidays, and so shunned them for that reason. Even Christmas wasn’t a major holiday in early America; it started becoming a major holiday in the US in the mid-19th century as a European influence). African-American contribution to American culture is another one that we tend to overlook; it’s regarded as an “ethnic” history relevant only to African-Americans, rather than something that has contributed to American culture as a whole. Or take the highly historic, but somewhat under-appreciated city of New Orleans, as you mentioned….I remember after Hurricane Katrina, some people were talking about just abandoning the city (would Italy ever abandon Venice?). We tend to disregard and overlook parts of American history that are not related to the State’s constitutional development…the life of the country started in 1776, and ever historical development since then is taught to American history students as a progression of the American Revolution.

    It’s a bizarre way of defining national identity, and it feeds into American Exceptionalism.

    In the end, it’s important to make that distinction between the concepts of “country” and “state”…a distinction that we in the United States don’t make, but the rest of the world does. You were talking about education and doctors and all that earlier: that all falls under the concept of “state”. OTOH, the history of a country, the landscape, architecture(s), language(s), culture(s), etc, that’s all “country”. It’s OKAY to criticize the state; it doesn’t mean you hate the country.

    Lastly, on “great nation” : Yes, the US *is* a “great nation”, as in: it’s managed to become one of the great civilizations of the world. And in that sense, Mexico, China, Japan, Spain, France, Britain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Russia, Germany, Korea, etc, these are also great nations. They all have their ups and downs, and the US is currently at the height of its empire (or may have just entered decline…and our imperial decline is NOTHING to fear…I look forward to being a normal country).


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