Some years ago, a man at Davos was singing the praises of America. He was from East Asia — I can’t remember exactly where. One thing he brought up was the matter of group photos. “In my part of the world,” he said, “everyone knows where to stand. There is a hierarchy. Everyone knows his place. In America, no one knows where to stand. They just fall in, and somebody takes the picture.”
I thought this was a very interesting observation about our country — one only a foreigner could make.
You recall what Aunt Eller says in Oklahoma!: “I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!”
At naturalization ceremonies, the presiding officer — could be a judge, even a Supreme Court justice; sometimes it’s the president of the United States — often says, “You are now just as American as descendants of the Mayflower Pilgrims.” (Sometimes they are more so, in outlook and appreciation; sometimes they aren’t.)
A few months ago, I landed at JFK Airport after a trip abroad. As I was making for a cab line, I saw an airport official giving a vendor a hard time. The vendor was clearly an immigrant from Africa. He said, in his accented English, “I know my rights!” Made me grin.
Once, I was sitting with a group of journalists, questioning the prime minister of Egypt. The Middle Eastern journalists were addressing him as “your excellency.” This struck my ear as odd, especially considering that Egypt was then keen to be seen as a democratic country. Happy to play the brash Yank, I said to the prime minister, “How did someone in your position come to be called ‘your excellency’?” The people around me bristled, audibly. But the prime minister was a good sport, saying with a twinkle in his eye, “Well, 50 years ago it was ‘pasha.’”
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Angela Merkel visited America for the first time. She was in her mid 30s, about to begin a political career. In San Diego, a clerk in a store said to her, “How are you?” This startled the visitor from Germany (East Germany, actually). She found herself saying, “Great!”
I like being an American abroad — you can get away with a lot. In Austria, a pedestrian waits at the intersection if the sign says “Don’t walk.” It doesn’t matter if it’s two in the morning, with no car for miles. He waits. My American feet won’t do it. I figure I will be excused, as the American who doesn’t know better.
In Salzburg, where I do some annual work, the concert halls are very, very hot. Most people are dressed to the nines. I always take off my jacket. Then something happens. The men around me look at their wives as if to say, “Well, if he’s doing it . . .” The wives will shrug, and the men will remove their jackets, in grateful relief.
That’s American leadership, baby.