Does Living Overseas Make You Less American?

Do I feel more or less American living overseas?

I get this question a lot.

I’ve been living outside the States for 19 years, and, to answer the question I’m so often asked,

I’ve never felt more American than I do today.

Living in the States (I lived in Baltimore, Maryland, for my first 35 years), we Americans take being American for granted. Every year since I left Baltimore, I’ve been more aware of my American-ness.

Thinking superficially, this is easy to understand. My husband and I, along with our children, lived in Ireland for seven years, long enough to acquire Irish passports even. But we’re not Irish… not really.

We were in Paris for four years, and both our children think of that city as home. It’s where our blended family bonded, where my son, Jackson, started school, and from where my daughter, Kaitlin, left our nest to start college. 

We still have the apartment where we four lived together. In fact, it’s from this apartment that I write today…

Here, in storage, we keep plastic tubs containing school report cards and gifts the kids made for me for Mother’s Days. Seated at my little desk in the living room, as I am right now, everywhere I look brings back more memories from when my children were young.

We love being here in Paris, but we’re surely not French.

In Panama, where we lived for nine years, as in Ireland and in Paris, we put down roots. We have friends, our children have friends, and we’re building a house on the beach at Los Islotes that is part of our long-term plan. We’re in Panama for the long haul… but we’ll never be Panamanian.

No… we’re American, from our accents to our Levi’s.

And in less obvious ways, too.

When I sit down in a business meeting anywhere in the world, I’m the American at the table. I could be negotiating the cost of an apartment for sale in Buenos Aires, Argentina… considering a new business idea in Panama City, Panama… meeting with a new writer in Paris, France… or discussing residency visa options with an attorney in Medellín, Colombia. On the other end of the conversation is an Argentine, a Panamanian, a Frenchman, a Colombian… what have you. I’m the American. And to the table I bring the American perspective.

The longer I’m outside the States, the greater has grown my appreciation for what that means and also for how unique our American perspective is. 

The rest of the world doesn’t think like we Americans think. That’s neither good nor bad. It just is. And it creates an opportunity.

I have the chance, every time I engage with some non-American anywhere in the world, to learn from his non-American ways… and to put my American ways to good use.

We Americans are the world’s optimists. We believe in ourselves and in our collective ability to figure things out… to make things better… to make things work. 

We’re dreamers… and wanderers. We value hard work, we like efficiency, and we pride ourselves on our willingness to act on opportunity when we perceive one.

What’s over the next hill? Let’s go find out. What could we do tomorrow that we didn’t do today? Let’s get up early in the morning and figure that out. How can we make this thing, this idea, this effort better? Let’s roll up our sleeves and see where a little elbow grease leads us…

Those are American sentiments. Wherever we travel in the world, whoever we encounter, personally or in business, these are the attitudes that we bring to the table.

So, yes, living overseas I feel more American than ever. In a good way.

Kathleen Peddicord

***

“Kathleen, re: More or Less American?…thoughts from the edge. In stark comparison to others covering this beat, I love your candor in describing the realities of this world (don’t forget to compute the cost of home leave…yes, there are snakes in the tropical forests, and so on), but I must respond to your latest essay.

“I was born and raised in Canada to an American father. Thus I am a birthright dual-citizen. I, my lovely wife of 50 years, and our four kids have been expats in Portugal, France, and the UK for 17 years, while employed by a very large U.S. defense contractor. We still travel to Europe two times a year and are actually leaving again tomorrow afternoon. I am absolutely smitten by the European lifestyle and we don’t even drink! We use our Canadian passports as much as possible overseas and always when the terrorism alerts are posted.

“I really enjoy my U.S.-born friends but when they travel they are tempted to express their vaunted ‘American Exceptionalism’ pride in an often-disgusting form of ‘loud arrogance.’ Most could benefit in viewing the iconic ‘Ugly American’ movie. Many are certain that the way to help stupid and/or rude Parisians to understand ‘American’ is to yell.

“Raising the buffoon factor, the sad truth is that for a growing sector of the population, the United States is no longer even a rich nation and U.S. public primary and secondary education is no longer even a world-class contender. Although many foreigners can recite from memory the latest figures from League Tables, sadly most U.S. travelers don’t even realize that someone tracks this stuff.

“I used to travel for Ford Motor Co. to Baltimore in the late 1960s, before its harbor zone gentrification, so I know that you must have had some exposure to the underbelly of U.S. life. Since we are allergic to snow, we now live in the Deep South and our real estate is dirt cheap, occasionally even trumping some of your international deals. Since we missed the housing boom we didn’t have much of a 2009 bust. Mobile homes must make up half of our housing units, and they depreciate like two-week-old Lincolns. Our cities are stuffed with payday loan shops and ‘buy-here-pay-here’ car dealerships.

“Our state is a U.S. leader in the percentage of residents receiving federal disability income and, especially troubling, in the number of children in foster care. I hire a parade of part-time welders and mechanics for US$9 to US$10 an hour and am ridiculed by friends who pay carpenters and electricians even less. Nuclear families are vaporizing before our eyes. So many grandmothers are becoming addicted to meth that the remaining patriarch now is often a great-grandmother. My wife volunteers for the state child protection services and spends much of her time hauling the urchins to their familial visits with mom in rehab and dad in jail. Foster parents are tempted to take on ever larger numbers of children and harvest the US$430-per-month-per-child stipends to meet obscene payments on their new SUVs while shopping for the kids’ clothes in thrift stores.

“Note: The county I’m describing has a very low African-American population so this is not a racial rant.

“Honduras doesn’t look too different from here. Kids may soon be wading the Rio Grande and riding trains south chasing a better dream.

“Thanks for your great country descriptions.”

–Robert S., United States

***
“Kathleen, this is just a quick note to thank you for your essay entitled
‘Do I Feel More Or Less American Living Overseas?’ A great post accentuating everything about the red, white, and blue that personifies who we are as a people.

“I am humbled by your words. And I hope they help Live and Invest Overseas readers to remember that, whether we live in the States or abroad, nothing is promised to us. America is the Land of Opportunity not guarantees.”

–Michael H., United States

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