The other night, I was sitting in a brasserie with a mixture of Americans and Parisians, and we started a conversation about patriotism. Patriotism in the United States makes me think of flying the flag, voting, celebrating the 4th of July, supporting our troops, and practicing and protecting our freedom.
Well, my Parisian conversational counterpart described the fact that, in her opinion, patriotism in France does not really exist. She had not felt patriotic in years until the other day when she participated in a grève, what we call a strike. Most people know strikes to be a preferred pastime, if not a national sport, in France. She also noted that flags only fly at City Hall and other government buildings, not out the windows of her French neighbors.
This made me think a little bit... that maybe citizens of different countries simply have a different idea of patriotism and different ways to express it. I have learned so much about how much French people love Frenchness - more specifically: French wine, French food, the French language, French art, French fashion, French cheese, etc. So who's to say that loving the cultural things of one's country does not show patriotism? Aha! I found my argument. I proposed this idea to her, and I was surprised when I got her response. She said (and pardon my French), "We don't really give a shit about those things. You see people here going to McDonald's all the time here, and no one goes and visits the museums." GULP. What?! Call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure that French people have an appreciation for French culture. I didn't know what to say at this point, but I still stand by my argument that the French appreciate their own culture.
Furthermore, Miss Parisienne explained how the movies and media portray an American idea that we all think that America is going to save the world. We think that everyone needs the "Americans" to help them, because American is the best and only way to be. Pardon moi? She continued to explain how we should just look after our own selves and not worry about everyone else. I saw a problem in her logic, so I begged further explanation by asking, "What's wrong with wanting to help other people who don't necessarily live in one's own country?" She was a bit stifled by this question, luckily. I continued to explain how her idea may be skewed because yes, many Americans want to help other people, but that doesn't mean wanting everyone to be American. I myself am a firm believer in philanthropy, whether you're helping an American or not. I don't think we should see borderlines as barriers when it comes to reaching out. I'm an American, but I don't think wanting to help people in the world means that I want everyone to abide by the rules of American democracy or even adapt an American way of life. This was the idea that she had. I was disappointed, to say the least, that Miss Parisienne had this view of my country. Luckily I was given the opportunity to offer my perspective, and have a real exchange about cultural differences and perceptions.
One thing I've learned while living abroad is how to stick up for what I think. The people of this world are so quick to challenge my foundation, my country, my faith, my personality, and my general way of life. I'm okay with this, because not only does it make for interesting conversation, but it also breaks down stereotypes and the barriers that stand between me and someone different.
I've come to notice that citizens from all over the world are misunderstood. What it takes is a true exchange with an individual in order to find out who they really are. Forget the guidebooks, the textbooks, the journals, the media, and especially the political representatives - the only way to really find out about a place is to get to know its people through true face-to-face interactions.