To My Way of Thinking

What Are Americans Like?


Living on the Key Peninsula, growing older and more reflective, I have been reminded how life seems to be a circle — we often end up right where we started. For me, that’s small-town America. I grew up in a town in northern Pennsylvania, much more rural than the KP. Graduating class of 15. Walked seven miles to school, uphill both ways in blinding snow (perhaps a slight exaggeration). We always joked our town was 300 miles from nowhere, and everyone knew where the highway was (since there was only one).

Over the years, living or spending significant time in 15 states and more than 15 countries, in some of the largest and smallest cities, it’s funny how my wife, Tanya, and I now call the KP home, and Lakebay seems perfect on the Goldilocks scale. Over the years while in the Army and later working in corporate life, it’s been an amazing range of experiences, and we have been blessed with so many friends and the opportunity to learn about different cultures and practices. I have now lived in Washington for over eight years — longer than I have ever lived anywhere else, and it is home.

It’s good to be home.

In every country where I have lived, at some point in my relationships with the locals I have been asked the same question: What are Americans like? It’s the most difficult cultural question I’ve ever been asked because there is no simple answer.

We are one of the most diverse countries that has ever existed. In addition to being a true melting pot of peoples, we are also a mosaic of strong political sentiments, quite often highly polarized. But over the years I have come to my answer that seems most accurate about “who we are,” collectively speaking.

Simply put, Americans are a construct and a belief, an understanding that while we are not perfect, we should be more perfect. We hold ourselves to an unrelenting standard. Our national debate among our citizens, which sometimes seems tribal and mean, at its core is a great debate about how to be more perfect. A more perfect union.

When I share this concept of Americans, most non-Americans find it interesting, and it seems to fit with the historical view of our country and people. But in recent years, some of my friends have questioned this concept, pointing out where it may ring hollow. And my friends are right — the America we were 30 years ago is different from the America of today.

Some of my non-American friends also wonder why we so strongly dislike our government. It’s a weird thought at first, but logical when you think about it. Our founders, as imperfect as they were, strongly believed that government and government power should be subservient to the individual. That the structure and power of government should be set up to ensure it is controlled by the individual, to protect individual liberty and freedom. During my elementary and secondary school years, most of my textbooks spoke clearly and directly about this founding principle, and it became part of me and I’m sure many of you.

This is quite different in most other cultures. When you attend school in other countries, you are not taught that a big, powerful government that controls individuals is evil — a construct to be avoided. Their education systems speak to a benevolent government, where the power to control individuals ensures a common good for everyone. So it’s not unusual that they find us weird. And quite often weirdly attractive.

Moving forward, I plan to address some of these points where others see us differently from the way we perceive ourselves, as well as how our views and values seem to be shifting over time. Our educational system, economics, participation, equality, discrimination, belief in institutions, immigration, political process — just to name a few of the topics we all probably find worthy of discussion.

Bob Perry lives in Lakebay.