Dear America: Sorry about that first impression. You’re actually kinda cute.

My first day in a new place is always ridiculously stereotypical.  We’re talking caricature-worthy.  Maybe this is normal, you know, some twisted form of beginners luck.  Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a curse I’ve been given…by a God whose sense of humour is borderline racist, apparently.

It never fails.  My first day in France was so full of cheese and snobbery and nudity, I almost fondue’d myself (for lack of a better term).  After only a few hours in Cuba, all I could think was “Well, you guys seem awfully desperate for tips and full of cigars…”.  And during my first day living in Ottawa, EVERYONE seemed to be talking politics–I even overheard the penniless men outside of the homeless shelter discussing the Harper agenda.

It’s not that these stereotypes aren’t real.  They definitely exist outside of day 1. France has cheese. Cuba has cigars. Ottawa has politics. Never, though, is anything actually at the level it seems on the first day.  Upon arrival anywhere, I am immediately thrust into what feels like a South Park episode.  I go on to realize my first day was just a bad “So a guy walks into a bar…” joke.

Naturally, this can give me a nasty case of “get me out of here!”.  After that cursed first day, I can’t help but think ‘Canadian stereotypes? I can handle those.  Let’s do that instead.’   I can rock a poutine coma, an over-apologetic neighbor, or a morning spent shoveling the driveway (eh?).  Let’s face it, Canadians: our stereotypes are pretty much adorable.

Canada
Apparently, this is my definition of “adorable.” Hmm. May need to give that one a little more thought…

This brings me to my current situation: ‘Merica.

American stereotypes are not quite so playful. There are some pretty scary -isms lying around: American exceptionalism, racism, and lets-all-get-guns-ism to name a few.  I’m not trying to attack the United States, which has been so very welcoming to me so far.  I’m not trying to oversimplify or judge, either. But whenever I get talked at by Glen Beck, or I read an American history book which refuses to admit to losing any war ever, I pack away a few pre-concieved notions. And, yes, I have read my share of scary articles on health care, teen pregnancy, religion, literacy, obesity, bad nose jobs, and worse attitudes.

To be clear, when I crossed the border and moved to the US capital, I didn’t expect to come face-to-face with all the scary -isms. I didn’t desire or even consider that Fox News incarnate might be everywhere, least of all in Democratic DC. I assumed it was going to be like Canada, just a bit warmer and with more sugary cereal options.  And it is, or so I have come to realize after a few days. But after my first day? Hah.

Hah. Hah. Hah.

Let’s review how my first 24 hours in the States went, shall we?

First, I went outside for a walk and was given reason to post THIS within the first five minutes:

Atheism

Later that day, I saw a well-dressed white woman bully a black server at McDonalds, then inform her supervisor of the altercation in an attempt to get said server fired. Yeah, McDonalds–the only place I could find to eat when I got lost (well, that and a half-dozen Starbucks, I suppose).

I discussed Obama, gay marriage, and women’s rights with a young Baptist woman from Mississippi. She is definitely one of the loveliest people I have met so far (we ate dinner together today, actually).  Southern hospitality is the real deal–she makes a mean cheese/bacon dip, and I have huge respect for her love of College Football and Jesus.  But when I asked “Are all the stereotypes about [insert -ism here] true?” she responded with a resounding YES.  Her personal views, no surprise, often flew in the face of things my little Canadian self took for granted.  There was a pretty clear distaste for the words “Liberal” and “Socialist.”  My American stereotypes lived on.

On day one, there was no eye contact. No opening doors. Stars and stripes EVERYWHERE.  The people in suits were all White, while the people working minimum wage gigs were almost exclusively Black & Hispanic. The cheese on my burger tasted even LESS like cheese than Kraft Singles do (yes, it’s possible) and the Mountain Dew can was way too big.

Around 10 pm on the evening of day one (Sunday), I went down to the dining hall for a tea.  By that point, I was positive that all of my American-ism stereotypes were true.  I struck up a conversation with another girl in the kitchen (“Really, you got lost today too? Where?  Oh, I’m so glad it’s not just me!”).  I learned that she was an American Studies major from Philadelphia, and was immediately intrigued.  She had a lot to share.

I had a lot to ask.

We talked about education. About national identity, racism, systems, state power, patriotism, language, religion…everything.  One hour, two cups of tea and a number of revelations later, she turned the conversation to me: “So, do you think you could ever live here yourself?”

At that moment, after that day, I really did not know.  “I don’t think so,” I responded, “Unless I had a serious job opportunity.”

I understand how silly it was to declare this on day one.  Every….single….time I visit a new country, I learn and re-learn just how misleading first impressions can be (especially with the first day curse).  America has proved no different.

Let’s look at today.  Today, I received more random “Hello!” greetings, eye contact, unnecessary apologies, and good-natured jokes than would in the average Ottawa week (sorry, O-town.  You know I’m still your biggest fan.).  Today, I saw people of every kind of race working every kind of job (yes, it was still disproportionate, but I could swear it was a full divide on Sunday).  And while steering clear of fast food, I remembered the infamous Rideau Street McDonalds in Ottawa (see also: full-out brawl when a customer called a server the N-word).  I really don’t have the right to call out any MickeyDs conflict after that.

Tonight, I think I could live here (this is obviously a good thing, seeing as I currently do live here). I’m not saying that I would absolutely want to live here permanently. I like my poutine comas.  But the thought itself is not so terrifying, really–not with DC, at least.

And so, I officially declare that my first day full of -isms was invalid: at least in this part of the country, at least for now.  I can handle you, DC.  Sorry about that first impression. You’re actually kinda cute.

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11 thoughts on “Dear America: Sorry about that first impression. You’re actually kinda cute.

  1. Great writing!! This brings me back to my days tramping around east africa but that was before the days blogging. (The the writing got weirder and weirder as the year wore on.)

  2. It’s called confirmation bias. You already “know” America is a right-wing, racist country, so that’s what you see. Later on you begin to understand the nuance of things. For example, we have 11 million illegal immigrants – many of whom are unskilled, non-English speaking people from Latin America. So when you see all the lawns in America being mowed (which doesn’t take a lot of skill or the ability to speak English) by Hispanic men, does that speak for or against America? Does it make us racist because they work cutting lawns or would it be racist to make them leave? It’s not as clear cut as it seems on Day One.

  3. “whenever I … I read an American history book which refuses to admit to losing any war ever”

    With all due respect, please name a single American history book which refuses to admit to losing any war ever. For example, name a single American history book that says that America won the war in Vietnam. You just made that up.

    1. Oh dear, I think you misunderstood me. Almost every American history textbook *I* have read does not mention them LOSING a war – but that doesn’t mean they claim to have WON every war. Far from it. The language, euphomisms, and tone in many texts *I* have read avoid terms like “lost” or “defeat” when refering to conflicts (or sometimes even battles) the United States did not fare well in, prefering to say that the US “pulled out of [country]” or “they signed a treaty with [government] to end the conflict.” Of course, our textbooks were 10-20 years old so the tone may have well shifted in recent texts. But this is my experience.

      Again, no American History book I have ever read claims to have WON every war – sorry you understood me that way. I agree that would be a ridiculous claim but that is not what I wrote. Hope that clears this up!

      1. Please name a single American history book that you have read that illustrates your point. Most people in their lives have read maybe 2-3 books on American history. You speak as if you have an extensive experience of American history books. Please name one.

  4. I actually do have a degree in History and have read my share of general American History textbooks, though specific examples don’t come to mind right now – I assume you’re trying to make a point here though?

    This is not a journalistic article about the specifics of American History textbooks. It is a 19-year-olds blog post written 4+ years ago, where I shared my pre-conceived notions based on what I had read/heard/seen in my life (including, yes, the general tone of some books I had read…none of which are in the room with me now, so I do not have titles). I feel like you see this as bashing the US because I explained what that perspective was. Not so. I was in a new country and was explaining the process many people go through in a new place – coming in with an idea of what to expect, having some things confirmed and others disproved. I hope it doesn’t make you defensive to read that people might have some negative stereotypes about your country, just like I’m sure you do about other countries?

    1. It’s one thing to have negative stereotypes — these are, by definition, subjective impressions not based on fact (although not necessarily incorrect). It’s another thing to make objective statements that are demonstrably wrong. If you are 23 years old, it’s an important distinction to learn to make in your writing. “It seems to me that Americans never want to admit that they lost a war” (which may or may not be true, but is your impression) vs “[a lot of] American history books refuse to admit to losing any war ever”( which is patently absurd). I am more than twice your age, have read many, American history books, and have never encountered one that is as you describe. BTW, my mother’s family is Canadian so I spent a great deal of my childhood visiting my aunts/uncles/cousins in Canada and I spent 5 years in graduate school in Canada. And while I can spout plenty of stereotypes about Canada , the only objective statement I feel safe making is: “The Montreal Canadiens have won the most Stanley Cups in league history”

      Sorry if I came off as defensive (or offensive) — that wasn’t my intention. But you can’t get past stereotypes unless you are rigorous in the “facts” you pass along..

  5. Fair point, thanks for clarifying. I guess I assumed that given that this is a personal blog post written in a narrative format, it was implied that this was my own opinion/experience. I also want to point out that I never said all history books came from that angle, I simply wrote “whenever…I read an American history book which refuses to admit to losing any war ever,” which is in fact an experience I maintain that I have had (again, it is the terminology and euphemisms rather than the outright “WE WON,” which is obviously ridiculous). Between the blog format and that wording, I suppose I didn’t see how someone would interpret this as a flat-out fact rather than an experience/opinion. Clearly you did, and I will be more sensitive to that in the future.

    1. Just remember that “whenever” is a kind of weasel word intended to score a point without having to back it up. “Whenever I see Chinese people abusing animals I’m reminded of how very different their relationship is to animals compared to Americans.” Massive innuendo backed by zero facts. I know you didn’t mean it this way. Just sayin’

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