Americans don’t travel internationally as much as Europeans. Not only am I not knowledgeable enough to explain why this is, I’m not ready to speak for the entire country. Money issues? Lack of curiosity or interest? Societal pressures to work as soon as school finishes? Fear? These speculations have the potential to go on ad infinitum, so I just won’t speculate.
As a result, people ask questions when they find out where I’m from. They ask about the ‘typical’ American – what do we eat? What do we do for fun? What are the obesity rates nowadays? The Swedish image of the typical American is horrid – fat, heavy breathing, languid, speaking in a slow Southern drawl that parallels an equally slow intellect. Then they say: “But you’re not like that! So what are Americans like?”
I enjoy addressing these questions mostly because I have many questions of my own about their country, but also because I realize I don’t have the answers. What does the typical American eat? I have no idea. I don’t know who the typical American is. It’s become the country of the world, and by that I mean that practically every nationality and ethnicity is represented at least a little. Ethnic neighborhoods mushroom overnight in urban areas, and they’re often just as authentic as the faraway lands they mimic. New York’s Chinatown feels like China and Greenpoint feels like Poland. Move to any Hispanic area anywhere and you’ll learn proper Spanish muy rapido.
I don’t want to give people erroneous impressions of the US by clumping 300 million people together. So I’ve learned to answer with a hesitant, “it depends”. Then I go on to clarify the parameters at hand – are we talking region and subregions? Age? Gender? Ethnicity? Socioeconomic levels? Only then can I begin to provide not-completely-wrong answers about the country as a whole. And even then, I loudly disclose the caveat that I’m but one American who not only hasn’t met millions of other Americans, but also hasn’t even traveled to many parts of the country. Because the rest of world keeps me so busy, I haven’t had Chicago-style pizza, Oregonian wine, or butter on a stick in Iowa. Blasphemous, I know.
I consider these conversations to be compelling and enlightening. Often when I explain the enormous amount of diversity within one border, the people I’m speaking with recognize the same diversities in their own countries. Globalization’s ways are vast and difficult to quantify. Sweden is not just composed of gorgeous blonde men and women (although the proportion is substantial). Immigrants from all over the world come to Sweden – from southern and eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia – in order to reap the advantages of one of the world’s highest functioning societies, and today almost ten percent of Sweden’s population are immigrants. Much of the younger generations have parents from elsewhere, just like most Americans have roots elsewhere.
I suppose the reasons behind America’s general lack of travel are as diverse as the country itself. I should be grateful for it, though. Due to that fact, these conversations are enabled with people very different than myself, and it’s easier for me to learn from people who are different rather than people who are just intelligent. Few are wise, everyone is different. Thus, everyone has a new perspective to offer. Every meeting or conversation is a chance to learn. And then a timeless lesson always makes itself known: the more I travel, the more I learn, and the more I realize how little I know.
In between thoughts, I’ve been enjoying Sweden immensely. I’ve had the great fortune to stay with a friend, so I’ve been doing Swedish things with Swedish people, like karaoke and barbecues and scuba diving. And photographing. Lots of that.