Travel Makes Me Love the US More

Last week I read this great blog post from Kim at So Many Places, about her feelings after coming back to America after traveling the world. She makes a ton of valid points about how frustrating it is to come home to a country obsessed with money and things, with rules and “safety” over experiences.

Everything she says is absolutely true, but I still felt this vague sense of disagreement as I read. I finally traced it back to one of the first lines of her post:

“In fact, my love affair with America has been on a sharp decline since I started traveling around the world two years ago.”

Oh. That’s Kim’s experience and it’s perfectly valid, but for me personally, the opposite has been true. The more I travel, the more I love and appreciate my home country.

When I started traveling, just after college, my primary goal was to be anywhere but the US. As a native Washingtonian with very liberal parents I grew up politically aware and well versed in many of the issues this country struggles with. I wasn’t happy with my country, and I was ready to see what else the world had to offer.

Well, I’ve been traveling off and on for the last 8 years, and I’ve found the world has a LOT to offer. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel through both very poor and very rich countries. I’ve lived in England, China, Argentina and Mexico- very, very different countries. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about America, and myself as an American.

Being an American who travels can be incredibly frustrating. You have to be an ambassador for your country and you have to constantly defy the stereotype of the ugly American. You have to answer questions about America’s policies on gun control, abortion, evolution etc, and usually the only answer you can give is “I don’t know, it’s messed up.”

I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel a little defensive about the US. I mean yeah, we suck at a lot of stuff! Yes, there are a lot of really dumb, incredibly vocal people here. But, there is a lot of awesome here too.

Here are just a few things I didn’t know I loved about the US before I started traveling:

  • America is incredibly multicultural. I adore the fact that I can eat authentic Mexican, Vietnamese, Ethiopian and Italian all in the same week.
  • People are friendly here. They smile at strangers, and start conversations on the subway. I love the fact that I can basically start talking to anyone sitting next to me at a bar and it won’t be weird.
  • American’s are optimistic. There is a strong belief in the US that you can grow up to do anything you want to do. Although the truth is more complicated, I love that we believe that.
  • Shopping- Capitalism at it’s ugly finest means that you can get a hold of anything and everything, usually for pretty cheap. Our supermarkets are sprawling, our electronics are affordable and our fashion is disposable (okay maybe that’s not great). There is a reason people from other country’s come to America to shop.
  • Ingenuity- So many interesting new businesses from tech start ups to food trucks. My favorite is America’s thriving craft beer scene.
  • We are constantly evolving. There are a lot of people pushing for terrible things, but an equal number pushing back, pushing for change and progress. Look at the push for marriage equality. It takes us awhile, but we’re getting there. That’s not just my optimism speaking.
  • We cook the best hamburger’s in the world. Juicy red-centered ones, e-coli be damned.

I love America as a traveler as well. It’s one of the most geographically, culturally and gastronomically diverse countries in the world. I truly believe I could spend the rest of my life just exploring the US and never run out of beautiful, interesting or weird things to see. I would never limit myself like that, but it’s nice to know that all this is waiting in my own backyard.

So do those wonderful things excuse America’s faults? Probably not, but they do complicate my view of this great and messy country.

There are a lot of things about America I do NOT love. Politics would be a big one. I obsess over each election cycle, bemoaning a system which convinces people to vote against their best interests. I am truly terrified by this country’s attitudes over gun control. I am, as always, frustrated by sexism, racism, classicism on and on and on. These things frustrate me, they make me worry about the future, and question whether we should make our homes abroad permanently.

Truthfully though, I’ll always come back to my home country. I love it, in spite of it’s many flaws, too much to stay away. My family is here, my roots are here and deep down- I feel like an America (hopefully not the ugly kind). As Christine mentions in this lovely post, there are both great and ugly people everywhere in the world. The US isn’t a collection of stereotypes, it’s a collection of very, very different people.

So, I guess our relationship, like all long-term relationships is complicated.

I just know that I’ll always come home.

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42 thoughts on “Travel Makes Me Love the US More”

  1. This is a really interesting perspective, Steph. The more I travel, the more I notice things in the UK that just make my blood boil. The ridiculous price of things like electricity and gas; how bad the fruit we import tastes; the disturbing trend of people becoming progressively more racist and xenophobic for no good reason thanks to hate groups like UKIP and Britain First playing on the average citizen’s disillusionment with our lying, cheating government.

    Yet, it makes me look at my country more. It makes me more adventurous and want to explore parts of it I’ve never been to, and it makes me appreciate how fortunate I am to come from a country where live is relatively easy and people don’t have to deal with issues like excessive corruption, poverty, or a lack of access to things like water, public transport, or the internet.

    If there’s one thing that travel does, it’s open our minds. It’s made me hate the things I already hated about my country even more, and love the things that I love even more. Going back home is always a strange mix of emotions, both good, bad, and befuddled.

  2. Something didn’t sit quite right with me on that post as well. I mean, if ALL Americans were so obsessed with all those things in the Cadillac, how did people like me, you, and the authors get out there and travel the world? There are 300 million people in the U.S, you cannot use a broad brush on it, simple as that.

  3. I agree! The more I travel, the more it makes me aware of how grateful I need to be for everything we, as Americans, have access to. During my first backpacking trip abroad (right after I left for college), I met a few Finnish girls in a hostel that scoffed at me after I admitted that I am American and not Canadian. They made fun of the fact that they knew so much about US politics, and I knew nothing about the structure of most European governments. They told me that Americans are arrogant, self-righteous and ignorant. For some reason, I took what they said to heart, and I felt ashamed for being American. Now, looking back, I realize how close-minded those girls were. I do think there are parts of our culture that make us, perhaps, disliked as tourists. But just look at the little mini cultures we have in each of our fifty states! And our backyard isn’t so bad… Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon… the list goes on!

  4. I really like this post, I can only agree to a certain extent because I am not American, but I love the US so so so much and definitely want to move there at some point in the future! Every time I am there I have the best time because the people are SO friendly (especially compared to Germans) and I adore the endless variety of landscapes-
    It really makes me angry that people hate the US so much and obviously there are loads of things that are scarily wrong with it, but so are other countries. Every country has their own problems and traveling through is often not enough to realize that.
    No country is perfect.

  5. Definitely an interesting topic to dialogue about. I have found that over the years my travels have made me understand better what the USA DOES have to offer over some other places and how good we really do have it for a lot of reasons. Yes, there are other places in the world that align better with some of my ideals, but traveling has generally made me really appreciate being born an American. I think many travelers (especially those just starting out) tend to idealize other cultures and lifestyles and I know I did at first too. But, I’ve also come to realize that the USA is a pretty incredible place.

  6. I agree – with you and the people who come back to the US not loving the US.

    I’ve alternated between living in the US and somewhere else my whole life. I’m currently in Germany. Living and traveling abroad, as well as living and traveling around the US has made me see things from this weird perspective.

    For things I used to be pretty unforgiving about towards my own American culture, I can now cut some slack.

    Every country – even countries that have stereotypes suggesting otherwise – is on some point on a scale for everything. I haven’t seen any country get it perfect – although, in my mind, Switzerland is as close to perfection as I can imagine.

    I saw people in small towns in China gawking and staring at blondes and I was lenient towards that because – how often do small town Chinese people see blondes? But, why wasn’t I as lenient as that to small town Americans? Is it because Americans should know better? But, what, Chinese shouldn’t? Is it because we make such a big deal about it in America? Well, if that’s the case then I’m glad we do.

    Living in Germany I always hear about how organized and efficient this country is. But, you know what, it’s not. Maybe it’s organized and efficient compared to neighboring countries, I don’t know. And there are definitely aspects of it that are so logical and precise that I can’t imagine it done any other way – but it’s not perfect. And there are plenty of examples where I’d prefer the American system over this one (standing in any lines, getting internet service in my apartment earlier than 2 weeks after move-in, having someone who knows someone else’s job well enough to be able to help you while the normal person is on a 3 week holiday). (And – for the record – I recognize that this may be because I’m an expat living here and if I was not an American and had to go through their system to live there I would not be happy either. I’m just saying that not every country, even the one that is stereotyped to be efficient, is actually efficient.)

    I love the things you pointed out: the friendliness (or at least, more of a chance of friendliness – there are friendlier places, but also meaner places (ahem)), the multicultural everything – food, celebrations, people, the ingenuity, the shopping, evolving – I love all of it. And I ESPECIALLY love a good American hamburger.

  7. I couldn’t agree more with you, Steph! When I left the US to live abroad for the first time in 2009 I hated the country I was leaving and couldn’t wait to never come back. As I’ve lived abroad and traveled more I’ve come to appreciate so many things about our home country. Like you, a lot of (most probably) the political things infuriate me but the food, beer, friendliness, landscapes, etc. have me longing for home. I’ve been living in London for the past 10 months and holy hell people will NOT converse with strangers here. Even at a bar. It’s like…you must not talk to or look at anyone you do not know. Ever. It drives me crazy.

    I think that when you are traveling, and even when you are an expat somewhere, it’s easy to only see the good things about a place. Every country has their problems but when you are only passing through or don’t speak the language or have a big bank account compared to the “locals” it can be easy to look past these things.

    Also, consumerism is not solely an American problem.

    1. London was my first big trip abroad. It’s STILL my favorite international city but man, it got really old having to tone down my personality.
      Good point about consumerism.

  8. It’s so true that traveling makes us appreciate where we come from! Like you, I wanted to be anywhere but the US! Well, I really just wanted to get the hell out of Florida. And I did–to Portland, Oregon. (The Pacific Northwest is truly amazing, yeah?)

    I finally left the states nearly two years ago to teach in Korea, and now I’m in New Zealand. Although I’m sometimes embarrassed to admit where I come from (because of the stereotypes), I now look back fondly of my home country. There are so many things that I took for granted when I lived there.

    But I sure don’t miss the small talk Americans like to do!

    1. Oh man, you know, I HATE getting my haircut because I feel so awkward trying to make small talk with the stylist. I guess I would put that on my “don’t love” list.

  9. While I understand the frustration that Kim expressed in her post and have certainly felt similarly, I do agree with your point of view as well. I think there is nothing like leaving your home country for a while to help you appreciate it. Maybe there’s something to that whole “grass is always greener” philosophy, but I know that before we left to travel, Tony couldn’t list 5 things he liked about the U.S. Now, even though we LOVED Asia, after 2 years away, I can tell you that he has now come to realize that so many of the things he took for granted, things that were obscured by what is wrong in the U.S., are ones he now recognizes & appreciates. Being able to drink water straight from the tap, see roads free from litter, the diversity of the landscape, the quality of the services on offer… these were things we both were blind to before.

    As travelers, I think it’s easy to romanticize the places we visit, because the truth is, we’re not really there long enough to dig beneath the surface and truly appreciate the realities of what it is to live there as a citizen. The more I travel, the more I realize that every place has it’s problems, from poverty to corrupt governments to women’s rights to drinking water and health care. It’s easy to ignore things like this when you’re just passing through (even if you’re there for a few months), but I’ve yet to visit a single place in my travels of 20+ countries that didn’t have some issue that wasn’t disturbing.

    1. Very good points. If I were to go back and re-write this I might say that LIVING abroad was what really made me appreciate the US, more so than just traveling. It is easy to romanticize places but it doesn’t take long to realize everywhere has problems. Argentina and China in particular made me really appreciate our own flawed government system, London made me appreciate the people and Mexico, Mexico definitely made me appreciate tap water 🙂

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