Patriotism Ain’t What It Used To Be

A few weeks ago, I entered a contest through the I Am Expat website to win tickets for an evening of comedy here in Utrecht. It turns out that I won! That meant that on Friday evening, G and I headed over to Schiller Theater on Minrebroederstraat to have a few laughs. It’s a small theater, but with some beautiful decorative details, including the lovely chandelier and some interesting decorative moldings along the ceiling.

The performers were Greg Shapiro — known as the American Nederlander — and Ava Vidal, a British comedian doing a short tour here in the Netherlands. Greg Shapiro was the one who helped organize this tour for Vidal, so he did the first half of the show and Ava Vidal did the second half. Shapiro has lived here in the Netherlands since 1994, or as he put it, he came for a long weekend in 1994 and never left. A lot of his comedy is based around the politics, and cultural politics, of both the US and the Netherlands.

Close to the beginning of his show, Shapiro asked the audience if anyone was from the US. Myself and a few others quietly half-raised our hands. As I was sitting on the center aisle a few rows back from the stage (and it’s an intimate setting anyway), he seemed to notice my half-hearted acknowledgment and commented on the way things have changed over the years. As he pointed out, it used to be that if someone asked if there were any Americans in the audience, you’d hear loud cries of “U-S-A!” or hoots and hollers and cheering. Nowadays, he’s noticed that the American members of the audience did what I and the few others did: half-raise our hands, while sinking down into our seats.

I’m sure some of us — especially those who have made a point of staying overseas for an extended period of time — are maybe less likely to be the rowdy, chanting type of foreigner in the first place. But he was right in pointing out that over the past decade, our government has made it embarrassing and frustrating to be an American overseas sometimes. Things have gotten better since Obama got elected, but there are times when you dread having to explain once again that no, you didn’t vote for Bush, and no, not every American is a right-wing, evangelical, warmonger.

It’s not that we’re ashamed of being American; it’s just that we recognize that the US isn’t the end all and be all of the world. Shapiro isn’t hesitant to knock some of the Dutch practices either, particularly when it comes to the assimilation programs (inburgering). He tells the story of sitting in his class next to a Muslim woman as the teacher says that the headscarf is a sign of oppression. The woman explained that before moving to the Netherlands, she wasn’t free to wear the headscarf, so for her, being able to wear the headscarf was actually a symbol of freedom. But no, when it comes to inburgering, the headscarf is a sign of oppression. Period.

The show wasn’t all dark politics, though, despite the discussion of racism by Ava Vidal. In fact, the whole night was incredibly funny, while also thought-provoking. I was walking away from the show wiping away tears of laughter, not tears of misery. Greg Shapiro is going to be back in Utrecht in May to present his full How To Be Orange show and we definitely want to go see it. The show includes actual questions from the inburgering exam that he has the audience try to answer, including the Dutch members of the audience to see if they can pass their own exam. For instance, one of the questions asked where the Dutch go on holiday every year. A) They travel within the Netherlands. B) They hitch up the caravan and go to France or Spain, or C) they go overseas. If you’ve spent any time in the Netherlands, you’re probably going to guess B or C, but it turns out that the correct answer was A. Tell that to the people stuck in long lines of traffic made up of Dutch caravans in France every summer. Although I hear some of them are starting to head to Italy now.
Greg Shapiro

11 thoughts on “Patriotism Ain’t What It Used To Be

  1. does he do his act in english or dutch?

    you are right, things are so much better with obama in office. I had a friend who came to amsterdam a few years ago on holiday, and he was advised to say he was canadian and not american. I have had not one negative reaction to being an american, but I would be shy to raise my hand in a crowd. I would not be sure how the dutch react to not just being an american, but NOT being dutch.

  2. (to Alison as well as Jane who posted above): I don’t think you need to be shy to admit to being an American at all. It’s just the over the top patriotism, like the USA is THE best nation EVER in the entire human history, that the Dutch (and Europeans in general) don’t get and certainly don’t appreciate. I’ve heard before that American tourists pretend to be Canadian, even to the point of sewing a Canadian flag onto their backpacks. I think that’s a bit overreacted though..

    That comedy evening sounds like a good laugh btw!

  3. I’ve never seen either of them and now I’m curious; it sounds fun and interesting at the same time.
    Funny that you should mention this about Americans and how they seem to have toned down their shows of patriotism when abroad. The other day we were talking with a friend -another Argentinean living here in the NL- and we were discussing how certain “patriotric” talk or attitudes that we see back home (recently prompted by the revival of the Falklands issue) does not make sense at all to us and how we now seem to look at things relating our own country from a wider, almost objective perspective. We both agreed that after so many years among the Dutch, who are not very patriotric themselves (except when the oranje gekte explodes during the WK or Queen’s Day) had toned down our own sense of what it really means to be Argentinean.

  4. I’ve seen a similar show from Greg Shapiro over at Boom Chicago and must say that I felt very close to how you felt when it comes to the overall status of our country these days and especially how it feels sometimes embarrassing to be American abroad. Granted, every one will always have a million questions when meeting any other foreigner. Hopefully Obama is able to stick around a bit longer to finish his effort in trying to clean up the mess left by the Bush administration.

  5. Greg Shapiro is so funny. Congratulations on winning the tickets! I stopped being embarrassed about being American over here years ago. There are obnoxious people no matter what country you go to. Every place has their over the top, ignorant and closed minded folks. I clean the yoga studio I go to 6 hours per week and on 3 occasions 3 clients (Dutch) asked me a questions in **verrrryyyy slooooow Engish**. What I and my Dutch husband concluded was that because I was cleaning, they assumed I did not speak Dutch. The first time I didn’t think much of it, but by the 3d time it was bizarre. They had no reason to think that I did **not** speak Dutch. Of course, I answered them in Dutch and the look of surprise was priceless.

    I also overheard a couple (she was American and he was Dutch) talking with someone (Dutch). The young woman’s Dutch was a bit broken but she was doing fine. The person asked where she was from and after she responded, ‘The US’, she actually apologized because she was American but promised she was not ‘loud’. This really bothers me. No, I don’t wave a flag or am overly patriotic; I am very liberal (you know me, Ali!). A few nights ago in Amsterdam I saw several groups of tourists over the course of a few hours: French, Italian, and another speaking a language I didn’t recognize..and guess what? They were all pretty obnoxious ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I’m not embarrassed because I know where I stand politically, I know that the entire US is not a series of giant cars, strip malls and people who can’t find Europe on a map, etc.

  6. One of the first Americans I actually met was so obnoxious that for some years I was not even interested in visiting the US, haha. But then I did and most everyone I met (including people in ‘cold-hearted’ NYC) were actually (*gasp*) nice!
    I’ve also been in another country as a tourist and, on account of my race, was treated with suspicion that I was about to take away jobs from the residents. That’s when I decided to turn on the ‘charm’ (haha) and I think it worked.

    We all have pre-conceived notions about each ‘nationality’ and I believe that it is up to us individually to ‘set the record straight’.

  7. So that should have been English, not Engish! And if we make decisions about whether or not to travel or about entire populations based on meeting a few individuals we are not being very fair…

  8. I would have been hesitant raising my hand just because of what a comedian might do with the information: I wouldn’t want to end up on stage or as an example for a joke ๐Ÿ™‚

    I agree with other’s that exceptionalism, the ‘looking down your nose’ sort of patriotism, has largely gone out of fashion. The LA Olympics were the nadir of that attitude, and I think that the widely reported criticism made people more aware of how our exuberance was perceived outside the country. A decade of difficult military and economic policies have also taken their toll: many Americans have a more humble view of the consequences of their policies. Finally, the current Republican primary is serving up some genuinely cringe-worthy statements that are simply indefensible when living abroad.

    Personally, expatriate experiences have broadened my perspectives. I know that I see the good and bad characteristics of American society and government more clearly, the opportunities for the US to adopt some better practices from abroad.

  9. The claim of being Canadian and nice will go by the boards soon enough.
    For years Canadians played up their participation in the UN peacekeeping force for all it was worth – and the US and UK actually helped sell the image as facilitating Canada’s part in secret sharing of intelligence services. These days participating in land war far from home as part of group skulduggery by NATO is more likely to highlight Canadian – and Australian – expertise in sniping and working to paint targets for airborne ( often U.S. ) attack. This in places where war is not declared also.
    Nor are we happy about our Cons ( Bush style and Rove team coached ) having our forces be extra vigilant in throwing hapless victims into torture at Bagram AFB.
    But the word patriotism itself is seldom analysed for its roots in its corollary paternalism or male control of society.

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