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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

There was a message I got that I never did get around to responding to and I figure it’s about time I straighten out a few things. The only thing you really have to know that might help you understand this better is that the area I identify as home is a fairly conservative area – though I by no means spent my entire life growing up there. I also spent some time in what I get the impression was a shady area around L.A. and a good two year stint in the Middle East. I was by no means sheltered; I had plenty of exposure to different cultures and religions. Far more than what I’d imagine the average American experiences in a lifetime. All by the time I was ten.

Growing up I didn’t have much interest in politics. I did read the newspaper, but I usually skipped anything about politics because it seemed boring. Every once in a while something that had some connection to politics would catch my eye and I’d read it but by and large I didn’t really care. And I believed just about anything that was written in the paper – which explains why for the longest time I thought Rush Limbaugh was just a giant asshole picking on Howard Stern (yes, I really did think that based solely on an article I read). At one point I remember thinking it was possible to make the Palestinians and Israelis like each other if we could just get them to dialogue. Or if somebody would just passionately speak to them about the wonders of unity. (I was young and naive, don’t judge me!).

In high school I had a little bit of an identity crisis. I’d always been taught to be proud of who I am and to love my country. But all that newspaper reading – even though it was mostly non-political – had drained a lot of that out. I was far more interested in European cultures than my own. They seemed more refined, more worldly. To me, they seemed to “get it.” Where the USA had no history or culture in my young mind, Europe had gobs of it. They had hundreds of years of history, castles that had lasted centuries, and great, exotic foods, whereas the USA has a couple of hundred years of history marred by thousands of dead natives, slavery, and a rather embarrassing lack of sophistication. This is what I started to think based solely on what I had read in the paper. I was certainly not a conservative and my parents, God love ’em, didn’t try to change my mind or bury me in evidence I was wrong. My dad in particular listened to my concerns and tried to answer my questions, but he never pushed a political agenda. Even into my senior year in high school I was convinced that Europe was somehow better – and even expressed that to my friend (who is European).

Despite all that I’ve always had a thing for the military. I’ve always liked the idea of carrying on a tradition, so even though what I really wanted to do was to go directly to college, it didn’t bother me at all when I realized I didn’t have the grades to get scholarships to pay, so the military would be the only way I was going to get a reliable job and make money for college. But even then my opinions about a lot of things never shifted. America was still the embarrassing little sibling with snot running down its nose and dirty clothes carrying around naive ideas about life and culture. So you can imagine how overjoyed I was to find I was getting stationed in Germany. When I found out where I was going I felt like I was finally going to get the culture I had been craving.

To an extent, that was true; I loved my time in Germany and I wouldn’t take a minute of it back. I made great friends, traveled to some pretty cool places, and ate some delicious foods. But by the time I was out and on my way back to the good ole’ USA I had realized something: Europe is not all it’s cracked up to be. I think a big eye-opener was what happened after 9/11, when flowers were laid outside the base gate and “everyone was an American” only to be replaced just a couple months later with protesters dead set against our current policies. I dealt with troops who had run-ins with locals who attacked them when they found out they were American and I remember being told to be extra careful when out in the city at night because as military we were walking targets to any goons who wanted to mess with the Americans. Being military AND American was like a double whammy. When I went to a soccer game with some friends and we decided to hit a popular bar area afterwards, we had a bit of a friendly rivalry going on with some other guys who happened to have been rooting for the other team. Until they realized we were Americans (and very obviously military – you can’t disguise a military guy’s haircut), at which point friendly soccer banter turned to some pretty insensitive political hounding.

I know some people will say that’s just my personal experience in one area, what do I know? Let me contrast that with the time I spent in Japan. Not only were the Japanese thrilled that I was American, they were genuinely impressed with and incredibly interested in the fact that I was in the military. When I was out shopping with a friend we found some Navy BDU pants with the name still sewn on above the back pocket and I thought it was amusing. My friend told the shopkeeper that I was in the US military and he thought that was just the coolest thing ever. When I went to an elementary school as part of a class activity and a little girl came up to read my name tag (which also had my nationality on it) she was super excited to find out I was an American and expressed it by running back to her friends shouting “America-jin! America-jin desu!” (“American! She’s American!”)

At this point you’re probably wondering what my point is. Well, it’s this: in the time I spent overseas I learned a few lessons that were really hard to swallow at first, but over time have stopped being the bitter pills they initially started out as. I saw firsthand what it was like to live in a country where nobody had any pride in who they were, much less where they came from. I saw what it was really like to live in a country that is desperate to bury its past indiscretions instead of really owning up to them, admitting they happened, and then moving on. It was depressing, if you ask me. Nobody in Germany was proud to be German. All their amazing history, warts and all, and the only time any national pride would kick in was when a soccer game was going on. That was a real shock to me, because even though by the time I moved to Europe I had a pretty low opinion of a lot of the stuff my country had done, I was proud to be an American. Even though I thought we were uncouth hicks with a bit of a chip on our shoulder I realized we’d done some pretty darn amazing things and I’ve always been proud of the fact that we can own up to the mistakes we’ve made in the past.

Think about it: when was the last time you heard anybody talking about the European slave trade? The American slaves didn’t get here by chance, they were brought over by Europeans, who bought them from warring tribes in Africa. But if you mention slavery the US is the only one anybody ever talks about. And if you’ll notice, we’ve never tried to justify it or made fake mea culpas. We’ve acknowledged it and we’ve attempted to move on. The only reason it’s still an issue today is because certain entities need a victim class or they’ll lose their funding.

Another thing to ponder: how many “empires” have you ever known to give land back? Our military, stationed around the world, will pick up at the drop of a hat and move if our government is told the local people don’t want us there. We have graveyards in Europe. That is the only permanent land we’ve kept outside of the 50 states. Even our protectorates periodically vote as to whether or not they want to become states themselves or completely sovereign. And if they did want to leave we’d let them, because that’s how we roll.

I learned a lot about the US just from living outside of it. I’ve learned that vastly different cultures look at the world in a completely different way than we do from living in those cultures. And since 9/11 I’ve learned a lot about foreign policy because it directly affected my job at the time. None of my opinions on foreign matters from high school survived slamming into the real world. Not one. Domestic matters took a little longer, but given my experience with somebody I know who is currently wasting my tax dollars – and has been for a long time – my pie-in-the-sky opinions about “evil” rich people and “oppressed” poor people haven’t survived the Real Life Cluebat©, either.

To sum it all up, the opinions and positions I now hold are based on a lifetime of experience, not some “hard-coding” in my brain’s wiring because I spent a good deal of my life growing up in a conservative area. I know that will upset some people. I know that some people like to see me as being unable to change because it makes them feel better about the time they’ve spent talking to me; if it’s me that has the problem – if I’m the one who can’t change – then they don’t have to rethink any of their opinions or positions. Ultimately, I’m fine with that. I know who I am, I know what I stand for, and I know none of that came to me as easily as they’d like to think it was. I had to make a lot of mistakes and be willing to change A LOT of preconceived notions I had. Even now I’m still evolving in my opinions. Some might be set in stone, but that doesn’t mean the stone can’t be cracked. Heck, where I used to be a pretty hardcore conservative (following my bout with liberalism in high school) I’m now pretty hardcore libertarian politically.

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