Traveling has broadened my views in countless ways, and as a U.S. citizen, it’s especially sharpened my ability to view my country in a more objective light. Growing up in America, it was common to hear boastful slogans like “We are #1,” and the ideology behind that sentiment was so engrained in the culture. Even though it’s embarrassing to admit, after visiting other countries and being aware of how self-centered that viewpoint is, it’s not hard to see why people who’ve never left the U.S.—and don’t go out of their way to learn about other countries—might hold onto such close-minded ideas.
I kind of equate it to people who argue that their religion or way of life is the only way, and that everyone else is wrong. How limiting to not want to be open to experiencing others’ ideas and think that there’s only one right faith, one best country, one best of… anything, really. Traveling outside of the U.S. for something like 400+ days of my life thus far has made it clear how crazy it would be to believe that any country could objectively be labeled as #1, much less the U.S.
I haven’t studied history since high school, but being in foreign countries and learning from people around the world has taught me so many more global lessons than school did. Last month was another reminder: after learning beyond what I was taught growing up, Thanksgiving can never be just about being with family, eating until we explode and giving thanks, when that day actually commemorates genocide and the destruction of Native American culture, covered up by a fictional story of Europeans and Native Americans sharing a meal together.
So much of what I learned about my country growing up was either false or omitting major truths. Questioning commonly held beliefs doesn’t make me any less connected to where I’m from, and I wouldn’t want to go back to living in a bubble of privilege where everything was sugar-coated.
Visiting Dresden, Germany was the biggest wake-up call I’d had about U.S. history, where our group learned about catastrophic events not mentioned in textbooks. At the end of World War II, the Americans and the British horrifically bombed the city of Dresden, which had been insignificant to the war, completely leveling the town. Most of the 25,000+ civilian deaths were by melting to death from the devastating, controversial attack.
Thinking critically about my country’s history doesn’t make me un-American; it makes me a critical thinker. It’s beyond frustrating when it feels like so much of the U.S. is still asleep nearing the end of 2017, not having woken up after electing an unhinged, racist lunatic and sexual predator, and remain asleep while Americans’ rights and civil liberties are being eroded more and more as this nightmare of an administration trudges on. I know it’s not the majority of people, but the fact that it’s a percentage of the population at all is heartbreaking. There are days I want to scream, days I want to check out and happily think, “I’m so glad I’m sooo far away in New Zealand”—and days I fantasize about simultaneously never going back and also about the U.S. magically transforming itself into a united, open-minded country where believing in human rights for all isn’t controversial.
I wish more Americans, and not just those who’ve traveled out of the country and have embraced other cultures and other ideas, would have the chance to allow their long-held beliefs to be shaken up a bit. Not because we all need to agree on everything, but because there is tremendous value in feeling completely foreign, away from all that feels “normal,” and just embracing all the weirdness that comes along with that experience. And from there, being open to whatever changes might take place within yourself on an individual scale. To feel foreign is a humbling, unique experience that can only make sense once you’ve gone through it yourself. It’s why I can’t convince someone to want to travel if they’ve never left the country. I can’t physically uproot people to make them understand how minuscule our lives in the U.S. are on the world’s scale.
The U.S. is not #1; that statement doesn’t even make sense. The U.S. is one country, in a world of many countries. And they all have history lessons to teach us—so much more than we could ever learn in school.