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Those who know me well know that I’m pretty sheepish about being American. It’s always good for a laugh when I’m introducing myself to someone new here in Russia, and they ask where I’m from, and I say, “Iz Ameriki, k sozheleniyu.” (“From America, unfortunately.”) The main reasons are these: 1) My government’s foreign policy, particularly in the last four years, is a complete outrage; 2) Americans have an international reputation for being loudmouthed and clueless, and while I certainly can be loud, I hope I have a clue; and 3) American pop culture is really a shame (but then, whose isn’t?).

When an English-Canadian colleague told me last August that I was obviously American, but in “the nicest possible way,” it got me thinking. Despite doing my best to blend in wherever I am, I can’t escape the fact that I’m American, particularly since I’m not sufficiently gifted at languages, or lying. This colleague said that my idealism and my eagerness to do something about my ideals were the hallmarks of my Americanness, and that it wasn’t a bad thing, “it’s actually kind of nice.”

Reading Jeremy Rifkin’s The European Dream and, strangely enough, watching “The Aviator” has given me some sort of historical perspective on this. America was a country of innovation, of mobility, of self-reliance. (Whether that’s still the case today is debatable.) The “American Dream” is the belief that if you want something to happen, there is a way to make it happen, and it is up to you to figure it out.

Being in Russia helps me understand that this belief is not universal. Because of their history, many Russians seem to accept a lot of unpleasant things as unchangeable facts of life. Being here makes me appreciate the fact that I grew up believing I could do anything I wanted with my life, regardless of gender, regardless of financial circumstances. Even though I know it’s not true for Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds, it’s been true for me.

Listening to Russian cynicism about politics is depressing, though understandable. When asked what they think about President Putin, a typical response is that “he’s not ideal, but he’s the best Russia can hope for.” One can be cynical about American politics, especially in these times, saying that all politicians are corrupt, that none of them have the people’s best interests at heart. Still, a sufficient number of us get worked up every four years because we believe that politics still has the power to affect people’s quality of life for the better. We get disappointed, but we keep trying.

Americans continue to push for rapid social change and technological development, often chaotically, at cross purposes with one another (for instance, the push for gay marriage rights and the push for an anti-gay constitutional amendment). Innovation for its own sake can be dangerous, and it seems to me that Western Europe’s slowly-evolved social democracies, with their skepticism toward things like genetically modified foods, are healthier places to be at this historical moment. Nonetheless, this predilection for novelty and constant change is ingrained in me, inextricable.

So I’m still a bit sheepish about being an American. I try not to talk too loudly (except when drunk); I do my best not to be “ugly”. Nonetheless, I’ve come to accept that once I open my mouth, my Americanness comes tumbling out, and not just in my accent. Sometimes it feels entirely naive in the face of Russian defeatism. But I’ve learned that with a little self-deprecation, people don’t seem to mind it too much, and some of them kind of like it.

If you don’t know what this is a reference to, you’ve been living under a rock, but here‘s a tip.

About This Blog

I'm an American who started blogging when I moved to Russia in 2004. Eventually I moved to Sweden, where life is pleasant but uneventful, and stopped blogging for lack of interesting things to say. And then I joined Facebook, which further destroyed any motivation for blogging. Maybe someday I'll start blogging again, but for now, this blog is dormant, an archive of The Russia Years: 2004-2008.

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February 2005