"I think Americans are fake," someone told me recently while I was out having drinks.
“When I was in New York, someone on the subway told me ‘I like your shoes.'” She waited for this to sink in. “It was so strange.”
I have a version of this conversation at least once a month in the Netherlands. Nearly everyone I meet has been to the US, or knows of America from the many fine quality television programs that people are exposed to ("Everybody Loves Raymond," "Jersey Shore," "The A Team").
Based on the culture we export you can hardly blame people for thinking that Americans are fake.
Fake hair. Fake tan. Fake boobs. Fake smiles. Fakefakefakefakefake.
“I went into stores and people said, ‘How’s your day?’ But they didn’t really want to know how my day was, did they? Did they!?”
Hrm. No, in fact. I could see where that would seem fake, but to many of us it is just as natural as saying “bless you” after someone sneezes. A habit or a vocal tick that is perhaps not the most genuine of interactions, but which I still wouldn’t cast off as fake. More of a cultural thing. Like how the Dutch avoid eye contact and run into you with their shopping carts. I don't think you're all homicidal, now do I?
I feel defensive when people talk about my country in such a way. I’m not fake. My friends aren’t fake. Even Joan Rivers isn't fake. (She is true to herself damnit!) We just do things you don’t quite understand. Things we don’t quite understand. But we aren’t all bad and we aren't all Botoxed.
Sometimes I attempt to make excuses for us by explaining our regional subtleties “Well, in the Midwest, where I come from, people aren’t fake but southern California, whew, well that’s another story.” But I know that isn't really the truth.
As much as it pains me to say it, in some ways the Dutch might be right. But not all of the way right.
I had a strange experience last time I visited my mom in Ashland, Oregon. I started to notice that the questions strangers asked me were not limited to "How are you?" -- which I nearly always answer with “good” or if I’m feeling extra feisty “hungry" -- but were more personal and required multisyllabic answers.
“How are you going to spend the weekend?” a checkout girl at the food co-op asked me. She was trying to be nice, but somehow it felt invasive and difficult to answer. You can’t really want to know, I thought, awkwardly trying to figure out something to say as I swiped my debit card.
“Um, well, I’m going to take my grandma to the store to buy some gluten-free muffin mix and kitty litter, then I’m going to do some work on my as-yet-unpublished book, touch up my roots with Sun-in, then I might watch 'Cougar Town' on Hulu.”
"Uh-huh," she smiled and handed me the receipt. I left feeling perturbed.
“What are you up to today?” a girl at the coffee shop asked the next morning. What was this craziness?, the Dutch me said to myself. I didn't remember the questions being so personal. But then I was struck with a thought. Perhaps, my actual schedule wasn't really the point. Maybe, just like answering, "I'm fine" to inquiries about how I was doing, I was just supposed to say something -- anything -- back to her with a perky voice.
"Oh, mostly cookie-baking and self-flagellation!" I dropped some change into the tip jar.
She smiled at me and handed me my Americano. “Have fun!” she called after me.
"Thanks! I like your sweater!" I replied sunnily (because I did like it) and, as I burst forth onto the sidewalk, I realized that the interaction, however meaningless, had actually made me feel better. I am an American after all. I like being treated nicely. Even if it's just an obligation.