Opinion column: O Canada! O Canada!

By Bridget Sharkey

I spent part of this summer backpacking through Europe with my sister. We visited as many places as we could in three weeks: Madrid, Barcelona, Nice, Paris, Cinque Terra, Berlin, Munich, London, Venice, Rome, Florence and Interlaken. (I can’t remember if we went to Amsterdam).

Some of it was exciting. Some of it was fun. Some of it made me want to run home to Illinois. But all of it made me realize one thing: People do not like tourists, and they especially do not like U.S. tourists.

I know it sounds crazy. How could people not like us? We bring them Hollywood and McDonald’s, the Hilton sisters and Pizza Hut, and what do we get in return? “Americani” slurs and cold stares on the Metro.

Before we left for Europe, my sister and I read a Web site with guidelines on international travel. The site suggested we bring a dog or carry around a newspaper so that we would appear local. It further suggested that if we were caught being tourists, we should at least claim to be Canadian tourists.

It turns out this isn’t an uncommon lie for U.S. citizens. We even met a couple of Canadians who told us they chose not to sew Canadian flags on their backpacks out of fear that people would assume they were simply hiding their U.S. citizenship.

What a head trip. Picture back to when you were a starry-eyed kid in third-grade history class. “We, the People” is opened on your lap. Mrs. Martin is circling the year 1776 on the chalkboard. You’re drawing a mustache on a picture of George Washington. We thought we were the heroes then, the “good guys.” Fast forward 10 years, and I am pretending to be from Avril Lavigne’s home country.

It wasn’t as if we were arrogant children. We were told to believe those things. We weren’t born believing that Washington could not tell a lie. We weren’t born believing that the American Indians welcomed us to their land with open arms. We weren’t born believing we saved the world from Hitler. We were taught that.

I wonder if it is still being taught or if it will be taught again when this generation of college students picks up the proverbial chalk and eraser.

Youthful idealism has a shorter and shorter life span as generations wear on. Children just are not as na‹ve as they used to be. The fact that neither the United States nor its citizens are perfect is so pervasive that even history textbooks have to stand up and take politically correct notice. Gone is the Christopher Columbus of yesteryear; the “peculiar institution” of slavery and the descriptions of “savage Injuns.”

Needless to say, this probably is for the better. Perhaps the cruelty and intensity of the media has taken the political “truth” too far. Every kid with basic cable has seen the United States lampooned by either Bill O’Reilly or Darrell Hammond. At this rate, Big Bird himself will be satirizing Bush in a couple of years.

In the end, we might not have gone to Woodstock or been alive when Kennedy was shot, but we still have experienced our own mini cultural revolution. We have seen our U.S. citizenship lose value and esteem in the eyes of almost every foreigner. We were told that we were born in the “greatest country in the world.” I wonder if we will tell our grandchildren the same line. Probably not.

Nobody wants to see a cynical 4 year old running around, and we don’t want a chain-smoking toddler making “You might be an American if …” jokes at show-and-tell.

But there is more to diplomacy than taglines. Maybe it’s a good thing that U.S. citizens are becoming disillusioned and uncomfortable. Maybe it’s a good thing that we are losing our complacency and replacing it with doubt. Maybe then people will TiVo the game and get out to vote in the upcoming election.

Look at it this way. By the time our kids go off to college, they will be old pros at speaking Canadian.

There’s a silver lining in every dark cloud, eh?

Bridget Sharkey is a senior in LAS. Her column runs Mondays. She can be reached at [email protected]