In the USA, today is a day of food, fireworks and friends. It’s a celebration of the birth of our country. It’s a uniquely American experience, one that we missed greatly when we were living in Italy years ago. You see, when you live in another country, you don’t just learn about other cultural traditions, you also learn about your own. You learn how your cultural traditions and beliefs, ones you may not even realize you have, affect you and shape you, and make you who you are.
I truly learned what it meant to be an American, a citizen of the United States of America, by living abroad.
I didn’t fully realize how much country and culture shaped me until I lived in a different one. When you have to navigate everyday life in another country, you discover how deeply rooted cultural norms and expectations are. It shows up in simple things, such as paying bills or grocery shopping, and more complex things, like navigating government processes or building friendships. There are certain ways you expect things to be done; certain procedures you expect things to follow; certain behaviors you expect people to exhibit. And when you live in another country, you realize how much those rules and expectations are based on a cultural understanding.
You realize that a shared culture is the foundation for all of our interactions.
Culture affects everything. And when you step away from the culture of your home country, you step away from that foundation onto what, for you, is shaky ground. It’s scary and it’s exhilarating. You realize that there are more ways of doing things than you ever imagined. You realize that the “right” way is relative to the culture you come from. And you might realize, as I did, that being “American” is fundamental to who you are.
As Americans, we have this shared basis of how things work, why we do the things we do, and what possibilities are available to us. Sure, it might vary based on geographic region, religion or socio-economic background, but underpinning it all are similar values and expectations. Really similar. In fact, I would say that we are more alike than we are different, here in the United States of America.
That might be hard to recognize when so much of what we hear around us is categorized as “us vs. them.” Look at the news media, always focusing on controversial issues. Of course they do… Conflict sells. It’s not exciting to talk about the things we all share in common, or the greater cultural foundation that underpins us all. But it’s there. I know it, because I had to live without it for two years. I learned and grew from the experience, but there is nothing so comfortable as coming back to that foundation, to live in a place where you feel at home.
My experience living abroad gave me a greater understanding of what it means to be an American. It gave me a deeper appreciation of our history, and how that has shaped our shared values and norms. It helped me understand how important my country is, to my history and my identity.
My experience living abroad also helped me see how we can’t expect every other country or culture to behave as we would. The USA is but one country on the earth. And each country has a unique history and culture, many of which transcend lines on a map. They go back much longer and are held more deeply than most Americans can comprehend, with our short 200+ year existence on the global scene. We all need to take the time to understand and respect that history, as much as we do our own. It helps to step outside of your cultural foundation, once in a while, and see the yourself and the rest of the world with a different perspective.
Now that we are back home, I greatly appreciate celebrating Independence Day. It’s not just a day of food, friends and fireworks. It is a celebration of the beginning of my country and the shared ideals and history that have shaped me and my fellow citizens.
I hope that on this day, more than any other, we can celebrate the common foundation we all stand on. Happy Independence Day!