Being American Outside of America

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The more time that I spend in Spain and in Europe, the more I can’t help but compare just about every detail to life at home in the US. There’s the obvious differences: the fact that people eat at different times of day, the fact that people dress differently, the way that people speak to each other. But living in another country allows you to see deeper than all of that; to make connections and find differences in political party structures, to analyze differences in health care systems, to see how social issues manifest.

When people ask me where I’m from, the answer is simple, I’m American. But what weight does this answer hold? What does it mean to be from America? Most people here in Europe have preconceived notions about the US, as we all do for different countries. And one piece of my identity that I’ve been trying to explore is that when I introduce myself in another country, how do I feel when say that I’m from America? Do I feel proud or ashamed? The answer is that I feel both.

Given America’s dark past and complicated present, we should all feel ashamed in my opinion. The statistics around police brutality are absolutely unjustifiable. The fact that we have never had a woman president is debilitating. The fact that there are still anti-LGBTQ movements happening in schools in the south is horrific. The anti-immigration rhetoric used in media is inhumane. Personally, when I think about America, it makes me feel ashamed to feel associated with these politics. But I tear up every time till this day when I watch videos of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. I feel empowered when I see #MeToo tweets online and I know that there is a safe space for women to tell their stories. America has horrible problems, but we talk about them. We have a generation of young people that fights every day for a kinder and more inclusive society. In my opinion, I think this is admirable and for this, I feel proud to come from a country where I can use my voice to make a difference.

I think when people in the US think of Europe, they automatically associate it with being better than the rest of the world, but it’s not that simple. In Spain, there are lots of aspects of society that I like. For example, everyone can access health care and education – no questions asked. The public hospitals and schools are better than any private institution, and everyone is eligible to use them. Transportation systems are incredibly efficient, well-maintained and affordable (My monthly subway card costs $20 a month versus the $90 a month I pay in Boston). There are phone plans for everyone that cost less than $15 a month, groceries are cheaper. The downside is the fact that some people pay up to 50% of their income in taxes, as well as the fact that almost all of the incomes in Spain are significantly lower than what they would be for the same job in the US. So, it’s all give and take.

However, Spain has a dark history and complicated present as well. For example, Spain and many of the countries in Europe are simply not diverse, and this is the result of events as drastic as the Holocaust and the Inquisition, all the way to the present day with tight immigration laws. For example, I learned that Spain, Italy, and Greece have special agreements with border countries such as Turkey, Algeria, and Morocco, where the European countries pay the border countries to keep refugees and immigrants from crossing, which leads to severe overcrowding in border camps, human rights violations, and a number of other problems. We saw an infographic in class that said that during the Syrian refugee crisis, 2.5 million Syrian refugees were in Turkey, over 1 million in Lebanon, and a mere 180,000 that were accepted into the EU of 27 countries. Why not any more? At the moment, Europe has accepted millions of Ukrainian refugees – proving that they are in fact capable of accepting and integrating this number of refugees. It’s not a bad thing that Ukrainian refugees are being supported, but we need to ask where this support was during the crises in Syria, in Yemen, and be critical of that. Does it have to with race, religion and who these countries want to welcome? Many people of color and people who have immigrated to Spain say that they experience discrimination daily, including friends I have who are studying abroad with me here. Many of the immigrants I work with in my internship have expressed that they don’t feel welcomed at all in Spain. There’s a clear segregation in the job market, that limits immigrants to jobs in domestic work, agriculture, and construction, as well as it being nearly impossible for a foreign degree to be accredited here. There’s other microaggressions such as people with foreign accents, even including Latin American Spanish, being discriminated against when trying to buy houses, get jobs, and do day-to-day tasks such as ride the subway or eat at restaurants. It’s not to say that America doesn’t have these same problems, but what feels different is the way people talk about these issues: in America we see protests, we see social media movements, and I feel like we are seeing progress in the new generations. But in Spain, I feel like these ideas are much more deeply rooted into the nation’s history, like all countries in Europe, and people simply don’t talk about them. If you ask people in America if there are problems with racism, most people would say yes. But in Spain, they don’t. It’s not to say one place is better or worse than another, but the bottom line is that every country has work to do. And, to answer my original question, the answer is that I feel both proud and ashamed of my country. I think that’s our responsibility as citizens: to be appreciative of what we have, but to criticize, criticize, criticize so we can make these countries better places for everyone.