“I’m going to a friend’s house tonight to watch the inauguration,” said my Estonian friend Oli. “We’re having an America night. Making some apple pie. Eating some hot dogs.”
“Haha. Nice, is your friend American?” I ask.
“No, he’s Dutch.”
Kevin’s inauguration get-together reminded me of “The Bachelor” get-togethers my friend used to host every week.
No, Biden’s swear-in ceremony won’t be nearly as entertaining as “The Bachelor,” but the sentiment feels the same.
Europeans watch America like its reality TV. They can’t wait to see what happens next.
And I get it, America is a global power. Our decisions directly or indirectly affect the rest of the world, whether it be about our military presence in the Middle East or whether to tax carbon emissions.
We are the largest economy, and what we do matters.
But that’s not the only reason the world turns towards our politics. That’s not the only reason they care about what’s going on in our country as much as, if not more, than they do their own. That’s not the only reason that in German newspapers, the first three headlines are about America and not about Germany.
The Kim Kardashian effect
Now that I’ve lived in Berlin, Germany’s capital, for more than a year, I can better understand the perspective of an outsider looking in.
America is like the Kim Kardashian of the free world. It has all of this power and wealth. Or at least, it did. But it’s kind of oblivious at the same time.
Oblivious to other countries around it. Oblivious to other languages besides English.
It knows about certain world conflicts, the ones that affect it, such as Israel — Palestine or North Korea and its nuclear missiles, but is completely oblivious to other ones, like widespread poverty in India and Subsaharan Africa.
It goes around exerting influence, showing its power, but doesn’t look inward to try to fix all of the bleeding problems that exist within it. In the U.S.’s case, systemic racism, unaffordable healthcare, and soaring Covid-19 cases to name a few.
In the Kardashian family’s case, Kendall Jenner using her influencer status to promote the Fyre festival, which never happened. Or Kim’s marrying Kanye West. Behavior that is simply irresponsible.
Whether it’s a scandal at Goldman Sachs or Facebook, or Trump, just Trump, people are at the edge of their seats wondering what we’ll do next.
On several occasions, I have entered the common kitchen of my German partner’s apartment in Berlin to catch his four German roommates having a conversation about American politics.
And not just politics, about everything under the sun.
About how Americans, or “the Amis” as they call us, use utensils. Germans always have the fork in the left hand, knife in the right, whereas we cut with the knife in our right hand and then switch hands to put the food in our mouths. Well, some people apparently do this — I don’t. (There is a whole Wikipedia article about it if you’re interested.)
Several weeks back, a French guy at my co-working space told another eye-opening story. About how in grade school, as a project, each member of his English class had to choose an American cult to do a presentation on.
I wondered what kind of impression that class was left with.
As an American, hearing these things makes me feel a little exposed, a little bit defensive, a little bit on guard. I don’t know what to do with my hands.
It’s a big responsibility to be on the world’s stage.
But I can also see through these sometimes cynical musings.
Although they often pass as intellectual, important, and relevant, there’s more to it than that.
They’re a little bit caddy. They seem to fulfill some sort of human need to gossip about the popular girl in school.
To punch up.
Although I would now argue this has become more of a punch down.
These discussions, dare I say, reflect a deep-seated jealousy.
Now, let’s be clear here: Europeans have no need to be jealous. Germany,, at least, has its shit together way more than does the U.S. Many people know this.
Yet it still must sting when for example my German ex and I would get into the back of a cab in Cambodia, and the driver would ask us where we are from.
Cabbie: “Uh huh.”
Me: “I’m from the U.S.”
Cabbie: “America! Wow, yes.” [Begins to sing Sinatra’s “New York, New York”]
We may be a complete mess, but we are interesting and we can’t help it.
Still, my hope is that this inauguration will restore some of the sensibility of the post-Trump days. It will restore some order in the political tableaux of not just the U.S. but of the entire world.
My hope is that after today, we can be a little more boring, and the Germans can go back to talking about us only like 45% of the time.