What is America? A View from Outside

By Paul Vanderveen

April 24, 1998

Copyright ©1998 by Paul Vanderveen

In the "What is America?" discussion, Peter Saint-Andre (March 6) noted the advantage of an outside perspective, urging input from those of us outside the USA. As an American living in Senegal for the past two years, I have made a hobby of exploring various places in Africa and Asia, interacting with local people, observing similarities and differences and testing my impressions. Contrasts between life in America and life in less "developed" locales is often great, making certain features of contemporary American life stand out--for instance:

  1. Many Americans are transparent and honest in their dealings with each other and relatively few government employees are corrupt, whereas in some other places extortion by officials, bribery, forgery, fraud and palm greasing affects everyday life much more, so that who you know and payoff counts, reminiscent of ancient Rome or the Mafia.

  2. Many Americans tend to regard themselves and other persons as self-responsible and autonomous individuals, whereas in some other places sex, race, tribe, caste, family, age and so forth determine much more what people do in life and how they treat each other.

  3. Most Americans basically know that a deal is a deal, whereas in some other places people have an uneven comprehension of contractual relationships and are not guided so much by such considerations in their interactions with each other.

  4. Many Americans not only pursue their individual happiness, they also consider it personally attainable and believe that they have a right to pursue it, making them optimistic about the future, whereas in some other places people don't think so much about their happiness (or think Americans are deluding themselves).

  5. Many Americans, regarding their lives as their own, are adventuresome and take calculated risks, investing their time and effort in new projects and directions in life and making America an unparalleled land of innovation where a disproportionate number of inventions and concepts originate, whereas in some other places many people more routinely do as others expect and as people have done before them.

  6. Many Americans have a sophisticated level of competence in a variety of technical areas, whether acquired through formal education or practical experience, and as a result things in America usually work and are safe, whereas in some other places people struggle with countless things that Americans take for granted, living harsher lives as a result.

  7. Many Americans understand the idea of "customer satisfaction" and try to discover what other people think and want, whereas in some other places many people are more narrowly bound by their own expectations, don't give others as much consideration and, as a result, are handicapped in the world of trade.
Few of the travelers I've encountered in Africa and Asia have been Americans (perhaps 5%), but most of these seem to have acquired, as a result of their travels, a renewed appreciation of America's strengths.