“Part of being an American abroad means answering questions.” If I had heard this statement prior to my experience in India, I would have judged it and coated in the lens of egotistical nationalism. However, I am learning to put down the sword and recognize the truth. Sure, the U.S. has a problem with placing itself at the center of all the world’s concerns and conversations, but no classroom or academic criticism is going to change that. The U.S. is undeniably a major topic in much of the world’s debate, and with that placement comes a hidden opportunity. At first, I ran from it.
I wanted no part in encouraging the global fascination with my country because I spent so much time and energy criticizing it. I said no to selfies with Indian families at tourist sites, scolded face-lightening creams and USA t-shirts, and I would not allow myself to criticize India’s pollution problem too heavily because I believed it to be a direct result of neo-colonialism centered in U.S. consumption. To an extent, the opinions rooted in these observations still remain true, but I have drastically changed my approach to them.
The turning point came as I sat under twinkling lights on a deck at the NGO I am working at outside of Varanasi with my fellow volunteers from Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Spain. For most of them, I am the first American they have gotten to know well despite their extensive knowledge about American politics, culture and life. As I was being drilled with 100 questions on the Trump administration and fast food, I felt myself shift away from criticism to a new, strange sense of pride. I understood a lot of what they were saying, but I felt liberated to share the efforts I have seen and been a part of. I marched, I spoke and I listened when it was hard to. I told them there are good people on all sides of the equation, and I felt proud to share my reflections on the issues they brought up.
For the first time, I realized that my criticism was change in itself. I have spent the last two and a half months with the rest of my program, filled with students studying in the U.S., criticising the western role in some of India’s major problems. However, in the process, I forgot to take a step back and recognize how powerful it is to simply look at these challenges on the other side of the world and say, “I am a part of this problem, and I have responsibility to fix it.” Some of my friends here do not see their role in the problem because they have not faced it in the same way. This is not their fault entirely, and I don’t mean to criticize the European lens by any means; I just think there is pride to be had in the fact that more and more people in the U.S. are being open to criticism of our deepest issues.
Being an American is a wonderful thing because it means something so different to everyone you ask, and I am learning to embrace the questions and seeking to define what it means to me.