Last Update: 05 Feb 00
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For those of you who have temporarily misplaced your dictionaries, "xenophobia" means "fear of foreigners". While it seems to be a part of human nature to look a bit cross-eyed at somebody who isn't a part of your own group, true xenophobia grows out of sheer ignorance. Unfortunately, too many Americans seem to have a heaping helping of this ignorance.
The phenomenon known as the "Ugly American" syndrome is very real. Being in the military and having been stationed outside of the United States for a total of nearly five years, I've seen it in full bloom on too many occasions. It can best be summarized as the attitude that there's something wrong with you or your country if you don't do things the way that Americans do them. You see it a lot among young servicemen who are sent overseas for the first time. Many of them have barely been out of their own neighborhoods before, much less to another country where the language and customs are unfamiliar to them. But, for them, it's more "culture shock" than anything. Most adapt quickly and end up having a great time learning new things.
But, some are completely buffaloed (at least, at first). A good example I witnessed was a young soldier who was eating his first meal in a real German restaurant. When the salad was served, he looked at it with utter confusion. You see, a German salad is not an "American" tossed salad. It comes on a plate as separate piles of shredded vegetables and is served with oil and vinegar. You mix the oil and vinegar at the table and pour it over the ingredients. Then, you take a little from each pile with your fork (or however else you choose to eat it) and enjoy. This soldier, however, turned the plate around and around with a look of consternation and finally proclaimed "I can't eat this!". When asked why he couldn't, he replied "Because it's not mixed together!". It just never occurred to him that there might be another way to eat a salad.
Now, that's a harmless (and humorous) case, but it's not always that way. Upon my arrival at a new assignment in Izmir, Turkey, I was going through a Turkish Headstart class where incoming soldiers learn the basics about the country and its language and customs. After a block on Islamic societal and religious customs, a Lieutenant Colonel in the class announced that "These Turks are just going to have to change their ways and join the 20th century". Frankly, I was too astounded by that statement to say anything in reply. Why should it be necessary for Turkey to change just to suit American tastes? Being stationed in another country is a bit like being a guest in someone else's home. While there, you need to follow their rules and respect their ways.
Americans seem to have little innate ability to deal with non-American customs or languages. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that we are a very isolated nation and rarely have any need to deal with anything that is not strictly American. It's easy to adopt the attitude that everybody does things the way we do them. In Europe, however, it's quite different. The distances between countries and cultures are quite small. Europeans need to be familiar with other languages and customs since it's almost impossible not to encounter them. Sure, there's nationalism in Europe, too, but it's not nearly so widespread and arrogant as it gets here in the US.
Unfortunately, American xenophobia now seems to be on the rise within our own borders. We seem to have forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants and are turning an increasingly hostile eye towards new arrivals. Shootings of European tourists in Florida are only the tip of the iceberg. It's as if we're trying to roll out the "Go Home" sign instead of the traditional "Welcome" mat.
However, the current response is a movement known as "multiculturalism" -- which, in my opinion, goes too far in the other direction. While it's wonderful to delight in our differences and in the opportunity to learn new things and expand our understanding of the world, we cannot, in the process, lose sight of the fact that everybody in this country needs to be Americans first. That is what built this country -- a people united by one common bond. By all means, be proud of your heritage. But, be an American first. One needs only to examine the example of the former Soviet Union to see what can happen when "one country" is actually a polyglot of dozens or hundreds of separate groups, languages, and customs with no one common uniting focus.
The campaign to make English the official language of the United States is often derided as being a slap in the face to the people in this country whose primary language is something other than English. This, however, is neither correct nor does it understand the focus of the effort. Making English our official language would ensure better opportunities for equal education and success for everybody. English is not only the dominant language in this country, but it is the de facto official language of the world's business economy. I feel that non-English-speaking parents are doing their children a grave disservice by not trying to ensure that those children can speak English as well as their native tongue. Nobody's culture or heritage has to be sacrificed in order to do this and a better future for those children would be ensured.
Side note -- Let's drop the "hyphenated-American" nonsense. My heritage is Norwegian and I'm only the third generation of my family to be in this country. I'm an American and I'm also proud of my heritage, but I'm not going to go around demanding that I be called a "Norwegian-American". If I must elaborate beyond being an "American", I'm an "American of Norwegian descent". Maybe if we quit trying to hang special labels on different groups, we could all just be "Americans". Would that be such a bad thing?
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