My Country Is The World
By; Kyle Little
Throughout my four months living in France, the most rewarding aspect of it all has been meeting a variety of people and discussing different dimensions of life. I have spent a lot of time travelling to different parts of France and seen some fantastic sights- museums, historical landmarks, even the magnificent Alps. As awesome as each of these visits have been, nothing measures up to the humbling simplicity of conversation with a person who holds a different worldview.
One of the most interesting things I have encountered is the opinion of the United States, which in most regards, is positive and seems to be dominated by the idea that the whole country is like Hollywood. I have been asked on several occasions how many famous people I know, because from the outside it appears as if the country is teeming with movie stars and musicians. I can’t blame anyone not living in the U.S. for making this assumption, given the global domination of pop music, movies, and television shows.
The world is shrinking, at least in a communicative sense- in a world in which one can connect with a person on the other side of the globe through the overwhelming progression of technology. The issue with this is the perception that physically travelling to another corner of the world is being overrun by the simplicity of viewing it through a screen.
Before I had left the United States, I saw no other way to illuminate my mind, seeking a better understanding of the world. Surely I don’t expect every single person to spend their lives navigating the globe as I would like to, but even to catch a single glimpse of the world outside of your neighborhood is something that can only be seen as beneficial. An old quote from Mark Twain resonated in my mind, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
I think of this quote each and every time I read the news from the United States. There are societal issues that don’t exist outside of its borders, and many of my conversations with people I have met in France have amounted to inquisitions about the culture.
Culture is a funny word that is often misused and misappropriated, often used to form stereotypes about groups of people. In its most basic definition, culture describes a set of shared understandings from which individuals within a society draw upon to understand daily life. Each society certainly has its set of understandings that distinguish it from another, but to form a summation of a group of people on this basis is hardly ever a positive endeavor.
Before I left the United States, I knew in my heart that it was entirely necessary to explore other parts of the world. Some questioned this desire, wondering why I felt it necessary to spend so much time out of the United States. My response remained the same- the world is a huge place, and there are many different ways which people live. One of the problems that gnawed at my very soul was the prospect that I lived in the “greatest country in the world,” a comment that most often came from a person who had never left the United States.
I thought this opinion was some degree of patriotic ignorance, a lack of curiosity. This misconception that I can only describe as unfounded was something I did not expect to find outside of the borders of the United States, but I was naïve in making this assumption.
One night at a gathering of friends and family in a tiny village in France, a group of six sat before a spread of wine, cheese, bread, and other snacks. As the wine endlessly flowed in and out of our glasses, politics and society began to overwhelm our conversation. Before long, I felt as if I was speaking to someone from the United States, one of those who had questioned why in the world I felt it necessary to leave the country.
“Why did you want to come to France? You have everything in America!” The question stung me and my brain was perplexed by this inquiry. I couldn’t even place my train of thought, let alone find a place to begin my retort. This question came from a man who held dual citizenship- a native of Egypt who now resides in France- and had travelled to each and every continent throughout his life.
Beyond the question itself, it always confuses me when the United States is referred to as America, when the continent not only includes Mexico and Canada, but an entirely different continent to the South. I figured this was not a point to make, and sought to answer the question as straightforward as possible.
My reply was measured, seeking not to endure some deep political debate. “We don’t have Paris, for one thing,” I laughed and tried to get a grip on this conversation, feeling surprised that this worldly man held the opinion that the United States has everything.
“But if you want to see the Eiffel Tower, you can just go to Las Vegas!” I waited for a laugh, a smile, anything. It didn’t come. He was deadly serious, and my surprise became shock.
“It’s hardly the same,” I replied, “There’s no history in Las Vegas, I don’t think it qualifies as the same experience. I wanted to see a different way of life, see the beauty and history in all of France. There are no ancient structures in the United States- the country is just a baby.”
He persisted, discussing his time in the United States and explaining his sense of wonder, primarily founded on the fact that anything you could possibly want was available at every turn. He listed off things like fast-food restaurants and superstores that sold everything within the confines of four walls. I slowly came to realize he was excited by consumerism and not much more, he failed to appreciate my desire to meet different kinds of people and explore other cultures.
I lost myself in this conversation, trying to find a place to plant my feet on the ground and legitimately discuss my feelings. By the end of the discussion, I had the same twinge that came from a fellow resident of the United States when they referred to it as the “greatest country in the world,” even using the phrase himself more than once.
The discussion was disheartening to say the least. I’ve never understood patriotism or denial of other forms of existence. To insist that one way to live is better than another seems entirely unfounded and foreign to me. I find it easier to wrap my mind around quantum physics than this simplistic notion.
In the end I felt numb, perplexed by the entire conversation and unable to form any sort of conclusion. I felt only a retreat to that simple line from Thomas Paine, “My country is the world- all mankind are my brethren.”
I’ve been asked on numerous occasions if I think France is better than the United States. I have no reply. No one place is any better than another, it’s merely just different. Yet it is the same in many regards- people are just living their lives in the best way they know how, based on the shared understandings they have as a society. I see no use in ranking any aspect of life from one place to another, and I can’t figure out who this would possibly benefit.
I’ll continue to travel and experience other parts of the world and I’ll continue to ignore these types of conversations. I’ve never had a conversation that bears any divisiveness with a person that travels with an open mind and open heart, exploring rather than comparing. The differences are what make this world wonderful, and the sooner we can all acknowledge this as the very foundation of our existences, the sooner we can embrace the entire world as our home.