What So Proudly We Hailed…

Aug. 17, 2008

The much-anticipated Stoplight Party took place Friday night.  You may recall from an earlier post that wearing green means you’re single, red means taken and yellow means “looking for fun.”  Just like a stoplight.  Very straightforward, and bordering on the edge of creepiness.

The party was a mixer for the international students, and the question on everyone’s lips was, “So where are you from?”  Replying over and over again with “Los Estados Unidos” is a mouthful, and it also brings along a lot of political baggage.  For example, the guapo young Mexican man who accompanied me to the party has said several times that he wishes I weren’t from the U.S.  “Pick any other country in the world,” he told me later. “But I could never” (or was it “would never”?) “live in America with you.”

Another friend, Dutch Rick, came to Monterrey through the Magellan program. He would have preferred to study in the U.S., he said, but the program’s American affiliate schools were in the South and Midwest – regions where, as a gay man, he didn’t believe he would be safe and/or accepted.

The shameful thing is, I don’t blame either of them for their beliefs about America. Plenty of Americans, myself included, bemoan our country’s loss of international prestige, a phenomenon often interconnected with or attributed to the supposed backwardness of the folks in the “fly-over country”, e.g. my family, neighbors, teachers and classmates.  We the flown-over support gun rights and loathe birth control; we don’t believe in evolution or global climate change; and we elected Bush 2 because we thought he’d be a nice guy to knock back a beer with.

We’re the kind of folks who end sentences in prepositions, if you know what I mean. (Which you do, as long as you didn’t go to a public school here.) We’re the ones who most hate Mexicans and gays.  Or aren’t we?

I like to think I’m a pretty typical Midwesterner; I was born and raised in Missouri’s suburbs just like the other suburban Missourians. I like to think the country’s heartland is full of people as addicted to the New York Times as I am – other folks desperate to get rid of Bush, other Human Rights Campaign donors, other ACLU members. And there are!  But maybe not many.

One of my new friends here, a guy from Washington state, told me yesterday that I’m the first liberal person he’s ever met from the Midwest.  Arkansas gets an even worse reputation.  This spring, my New Yorker sister-in-law “jokingly” told me not to marry anyone from Arkansas, because “if you stay there, your brother and I are not going to visit you.”

It’s hard to come from or live in a part of the country that others look down on, and it’s even harder to come from a country that has fallen so far in world opinion. (Liberty and justice for all?  Ha!)  Perhaps if I had stayed in the States for all four years of my education, I wouldn’t know what the rest of the world thought about us.  But I think the best thing I’ve done to enhance my American Studies major – and my International Relations major, and my life – is to study America from foreign contexts. It’s a lesson in self-flagellation, but a worthy one.

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