“A great way to learn about your country is to leave it.”
— Henry Rollins
Starting a post with a quote feels a little cheesy, but this quote by musician, writer, and actor Henry Rollins just fits too well.
If you were born and raised in the United States as I was, you likely grew up thinking you lived in the greatest country in the world. Maybe you do. And maybe you don’t. Since this is a subjective opinion, there is no right or wrong answer.
When I reflect on my life, I realize how fortunate I have been. I grew up with love in a middle-class suburban family. I got a decent education, never went hungry, and had top-notch medical care. To be born as a member of the majority in a wealthy, powerful country is a blessing that I did nothing to deserve.
Like many of my fellow Americans, I believed that we had the most freedom, the most opportunities, the best education, and the best medical care.
Now, after more than four years of traveling and living in Europe and Latin America, I feel that I, and my fellow citizens, have been sold a bill of goods.
Is Our Belief In Our Superiority Blinding Us?
The belief that we are the best, always the best, has left many U.S. citizens embarrassingly blind to the shortcomings of our society and the strengths of other countries. And if we can’t see those things, we can never improve.
During my time outside of the U.S., I have developed a recurring wish: that every American could travel to other countries for an extended time. Of course, not everyone can do that, nor would everyone want to. So here are eight observations I would like to share with my fellow citizens.
1. People in other countries know an impressive amount about the U.S.
As Steve and I travel, we continue to be astounded by the knowledge of people we meet. We have met many European and Latin American people who are well informed about the U.S.
Because we don’t have a car, we meet many taxi and Uber drivers. We have had thoughtful conversations with many of them about events in the U.S.
We met a woman from Poland who not only knew where Jacksonville, Florida (our home for 30 years) was but also knew the name of Jacksonville’s football team and a man from England who knew the name of Florida’s governor.
Contrast this with comments our daughters’ received from fellow Americans before their trip to Hungary. One was told that Hungary isn’t a country. Some people were concerned with what our daughters would eat (they have restaurants and grocery stores in Hungary just like in the U.S., who knew?).
Just recently, one person my daughter spoke with was shocked when he heard we were in Turkey. He was under the belief there was a war going on here.
2. Many people around the world are multilingual.
There may be nothing as humbling as seeing how many people around the world are multilingual. Yes, there are people in the U.S. that speak more than English, but we lag way behind many countries.
Data on bilingualism and multilingualism by country is hard to come by, but this article from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences claims that 25% of U.S. residents can speak more than one language. In the European Union, 66% of residents can. This data is from 2017, but I have no reason to think that things have changed dramatically in the past five years.
Seriously, how impressive is it when the guy driving your taxi can discuss your nation’s current events in your language while you are struggling to learn the basics of his?
We’ve been in more than one tour group in which young people from Europe were able to follow an English-speaking guide and ask intelligent questions.
And then there was a waiter we had in Budapest. He told us it was his first day on the job because he had just returned to Hungary. It turned out that he had been traveling in Europe for several years. Steve asked him how many languages he spoke. We stopped counting at seven.
3. Multilingual signs and phone menus won’t erase your culture.
There is no reason to get in a tizzy over them. If you speak English, read the English words, and pick the phone option for English. We need to get over the idea that presenting multiple languages hurts us. If they take away your language, then you have something to complain about.
Granted, Steve and I spend most of our time in cities that rely on tourism. It is to their benefit to offer the languages that most tourists speak. And I am sure that there are citizens in those countries who also resent foreign languages. I say the same to them: get over it.
Someday, you may find yourself in a place where your language isn’t the main one. If people are patient with you and options are made available, you will be as grateful as we are.
4. The U.S. isn’t the only country immigrants are flocking to.
If your world view is limited to the U.S., you may think that every immigrant is invading your country. This is far from true. You might be surprised to learn that since 2013 Germany has taken in more immigrants than the U.S. while their population is less than one-third of the U.S.
Countries taking in the most immigrants include Spain, Japan, and the U.K. These countries all have considerably smaller populations than the U.S.
Here are statistics on the number of immigrants by country from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.
5. Immigrants are not the enemy.
Even before we left the U.S., I was fortunate to meet many people of different races, nationalities, and religions as a member of two Toastmasters groups. Many of these people were immigrants to the U.S. These experiences made me more comfortable with people who are different than me (in some way) and appreciate their life experiences.
Now, as I travel, I am amazed at the number of people living in a country other than their native one. They are often well-educated, gainfully employed, and respectful of the country they are currently calling home.
Yes, nasty people can enter your country and cause harm. But from my experience, most people who go to other countries to live, temporarily or permanently, are not there to do harm and have the potential to make for a much richer nation.
While in Paris in 2018, Steve and I lived near a canal where there were a few hundred tents housing male migrants from Africa. The men kept to themselves while waiting for help from the French government. We even walked by the tents several times with no problem.
One day, we watched as the migrants listened patiently when a government representative spoke to them about their future. Another day, we watched with sadness when the tents and any remaining possessions were bulldozed after the migrants had been moved out.
6. We have more to fear from governments run amok than from individuals, including immigrants.
While running for president in 2015, Donald Trump portrayed Mexicans entering the U.S. as rapists, with the acknowledgment that some might be good people. He was exploiting the basic human trait of fearing what we do not know.
While an individual can cause great harm, it seems to me that it is governments gone to extremes that cause the most damage.
As we’ve traveled to various cities, we repeatedly find one or more museums dedicated to the horrific actions of a previous government. Not only does this include memorials to victims of the Holocaust, but also events like Argentina’s Dirty War, which I knew nothing about before visiting Buenos Aires.
In 1976, Argentina’s government was overthrown by right-wing forces with U.S. support. It is estimated that 30,000 people disappeared during this time. You can learn more about that in this article from The Guardian or in this one from The Conversation.
One of the most powerful things we have seen is the surviving mothers of the people who disappeared during the Dirty War walking in the Plaza de Mayo as they have done every Thursday afternoon for over four decades. While the mothers and their supporters march, they call out the names of the missing, followed by a demand that the current government “presente” or tell them what happened to their loved ones.
Medellin is the only city we have visited where the impact of one criminal, drug lord Pablo Escobar, was strong enough to make a lasting impression. The Inflexion Commemorative Park was developed on the site of one of Escobar’s former homes. It is a place to remember the more than 46,000 victims of narcoterrorism during Escobar’s reign.
7. There is less anger in other countries.
There seems to be less anger in other countries. I have never seen someone flip off another person or chase them down to exact revenge (as in road rage). It probably happens, but overall I have found a more peaceful, forgiving climate.
The few times Steve and I have seen an argument break out in public, we have said to each other, “If this were the U.S., someone would probably be shot by now.”
If you think that is extreme, consider that for the first seven months of 2022, the U.S has seen more than one mass shooting per day. This article on Wikipedia has done a great job of tracking the 2022 mass shootings.
8. A lot of places have good, affordable medical care.
It has been a relief to travel and not have to worry about the cost of medical care. We’ve had experiences with medical care in several places in Europe and South America. Except for Steve’s horrible hospital stay in Bulgaria, the care has been high-quality and affordable.
Since we both routinely take several prescriptions, it has been a godsend to be able to pay for our medicines out of pocket. That doesn’t mean they are dirt cheap, but even the most expensive ones are within reach.
As older people with savings, we could travel almost anywhere in the world and be able to pay for medical care out of pocket. There is no way we would take that chance in the U.S.
The above observations are based on my admittedly limited experiences and are anecdotal. Here are some statistics that look at the ranking of countries for various benchmarks:
Citizens of many countries enjoy freedom of speech. Ranking of countries with the most freedom of speech by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranks the U.S. 13th along with Luxembourg and Peru.
The U.S. ranks even lower for freedom of the press based on data compiled by Reporters Without Borders in their World Press Freedom Index for 2022. Not only does the U.S. not make the top ten, but it ranks 42nd.
A 2021 analysis of health care systems in 11 high-income countries by The Commonwealth Fund ranks the U.S. last in every one of five categories except care process, where it ranked 2nd.
And finally, the Economist Intelligence Unit recently released a list of the most livable cities in the world. No U.S. city made the top ten. The first U.S. city on the list is San Francisco, at number 35. Our lovely neighbors to the north have three cities in the top ten. To see all 100 cities with beautiful photos, click here.
Areas Where The U.S. is Strong
The U.S. does lead the world in higher education. According to the QS World University Rankings the U.S. is home to five of the top ten universities in the world. Leading the pack is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The United Kingdom is second with four of the top ten.
Other rankings have slightly different outcomes, but in all of them, the U.S. dominates higher education.
Other areas where the U.S. remains strong include technological innovation, space exploration, and cultural influence.
The U.S. has also won the most Olympic medals. However, if you take population into account, it doesn’t even make the top ten. You can see the statistics here.
Why “Love It or Leave It” is Misguided
Some readers may be thinking, “If you don’t like it in the U.S., you can leave.”
I know I can leave. I did leave to see the rest of the world, and frankly, I am in no hurry to return. But whether or not I live in the U.S. or am even a U.S. citizen, I have a right to my opinion.
This sophomoric reaction, along with “love it or leave it,” may feel warm and fuzzy, but it also shuts down critical thinking and shows an unwillingness to acknowledge, let alone address, the issues the U.S. faces.
A Final Thought
If you have read this far and are saying, “I don’t care what you say, The United States is still the greatest country in the world,” I have one last observation to share with you.
One morning, I was walking down the street in Cuenca, Ecuador, as children were heading to school when a thought hit me: as a U.S. citizen, the country of Ecuador wasn’t even on my radar. Before visiting, I could only name one city in Ecuador, the capital of Quito, and I knew that the Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador. Yet, as I watched those kids heading to school, I realized they could go to school without worrying about being shot. Their parents could rest much easier than the parents of U.S. students.
Can any country whose children are being murdered at school be called “The Greatest Country in the World?”
Until Next Time
I hope you have found this article informative and thought-provoking. Steve and I would love to hear your opinions on these issues. For the American travelers out there, have you found these things to be true?
Safe and inspiring travels,
Featured photo by Gerd Altmann on pixabay.com