What’s the most American thing you can do

…while living in Kenya? That’s the question my American roommate and I have been discussing as we prepared for today, Independence Day. After some discussion, here’s what we decided on:

We are going to pan grill some burgers, drink Coca-Cola, and I am going to go to the grocery store today to see what other tasty American products can be purchased and consumed. We are also planning on chopping up potatoes to make fries—sorry Kenyans, sorry British expats living here, today they are not chips, they are FRIES.

Then, we are going to watch a movie that epitomizes all that is Amurrica. We went to a guy that sells DVDs, and for some reason that I cannot figure out, is somehow able to sell movies that are still in theaters, and is able, despite being a second-hand seller, is able to sell them for a sizable discount—more like $1.50 per DVD than $15. I can’t figure out what the reason for this is though, I am sure he must be selling them through perfectly legal channels, and if for some reason he wasn’t I would have absolutely no way of knowing.

We purchased The Avengers, which with its over the top action, box office records, and its presence of Captain America, seems like a pretty good movie to represent America. However, we decided that The Avengers is a movie that we might legitimately want to watch at some other point in our lives. Today, it would be better to pick a movie that was over-the-top, quintessentially American. Our verdict: Men in Black III.

This is my second consecutive 4th of July spent abroad, last year I celebrated by taking a final in a Spanish grammar class in Argentina. This time around though, I’ve been thinking a lot more about what it is that I truly appreciate about the States, and what it is that I hope changes in the future.

What I appreciate most I think about America is the quality and reliability of our institutions (I’m sure my political economy teacher would be proud). While we whine a lot about the government, we have a way of registering our property, having it enforced, and are able to go to courts to dispute conflicts in a way that we can have confidence in. Without paying more than my taxes, I was able to go to 13 years of school, including several in a program tailored towards my abilities. When we complain about the police in the US, it is often because they are punishing us for violating laws, such as when we get a ticket for speeding. In many other countries, people complain about the police when they’re punished, or extorted for a bribe, despite not having violated any laws. Elizabeth Warren I thought did a great job of articulating what about our country is worthy of acclaim (though it was in her case, a discussion about why taxes are necessary). However, the provision of basic and reliable institutions is taken for granted in the States, and I think sometimes it’s necessary that we experience less reliable ones for us to appreciate what we have.

On what still needs work: I thought Bill Easterly of NYU had an interesting, albeit brief discussion of this. He noted that The Declaration of Independence begins with the phrase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The last 226 years have been about expanding what we mean when we say “all”.

Argentina recently passed a law allowing for gay marriage, something that we seem years away from accomplishing in the States. In Kenya, (despite Al-Shabab’s efforts to change this) Muslims and Christians peacefully coexist in a way better than what I have experienced in the United States. My Muslim boss is able to tell another co-worker and me, both Christians, that he will pray for us when he goes to Friday prayer, and there is nothing strange about that. And still, in the States, there is a tremendous and unfortunate inequality of opportunity. Parts of our population do not have access to reliable education, health care, or reliable economic opportunities, while others are absurdly wealthy. There’s a lot about my country of citizenship that I love and appreciate, but it’s certainly hope that in 50 years, it will also be a lot better than it is now.

To conclude on a less serious note (for those of you still reading) for the first time I am actively going to solicit comments (though of course all comments are always welcome. Except for the sites that are spamming me. Please stop):

If you’re an American citizen, what would you do to celebrate the fourth if you were abroad? If you are abroad, what are you doing to celebrate the US of A? And if you are at home in the States, what do you think would be cool to do?

Happy Independence Day!

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5 Responses to What’s the most American thing you can do

  1. E.B. says:

    I think some like a bid light/ coors seem quite American. Also watching a little baseball w/ some apple pie would be American as well.

    Or stuff white people like…

  2. tooth sauce says:

    i’m gonna celebrate by watching fireworks

  3. N P says:

    I agree that since 1776 we have been gradually becoming more aware of the definition of all, and in my fourth grade I describe how eventually all grew to include people of color, and even females. As for religious peace, I fear that as evangelicals we have been too pugnacious in our attitude toward Islam. Perhaps we have forgotten the kindness of Jesus toward Samaritans and Syrophonecians. As for celebrating the fourth, I did what I usually do–took Daniel for a swim in Lakeshore’s outdoor pool. Hamburgers on the barbecue yet to come, and shooting off $15 of fireworks in the driveway later. Thanks for a thoughtful, informative, well-written blog!

  4. Dan Earl says:

    Nate: I would do pretty much what you are doing, but add Hendrix playing the National Anthem. Many at the time thought it was heresy, but I have never heard anyone put more feeling into it (many are tied with equal feeling). However, I would be VERY certain that you also participate in your host country’s celebration of ITS birthday!!

    PS I would be very careful about black market CDs/DVDs, as a matter of moral principle. As someone who works in the world of intellectual property, I have very strong feelings about people who STEAL from artists and their production companies.

    Uncle Dan

  5. Fumanchu says:

    Nate, as a member of the Chinese community, I must encourage you to continue to purchase pirated products because it provides the capital to fund our unreliable Chinatown bus routes. Also, poorly pirated movies often provide hours of unintentional hilarity, especially when it’s a foreign film using subtitles from a different movie.

    As for celebrating the 4th: I had a really good time getting wasted with folks from the American consulate in Shanghai. See what the FSOs are doing in Nairobi next year!

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