3 Things moving to Mexico taught me about America

Jul 2, 2015 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Image: Hola Images/Getty Images

One summer, when our children were teenagers, we all traveled together in Europe. One night in Vienna, we left them happily watching television in our rented apartment while we went out with some friends. When we returned, they were crying.

“What happened?”  I had visions of burglars.

“We watched a Fourth of July program on television! There were fireworks and they sang “America the Beautiful” and it made us realize how happy we are to be Americans!”

As an expat living in Mexico for the past decade, I know that there is nothing like being away from one’s country to not only more fully appreciate its strengths but also to more clearly see the weaknesses. It is like standing back and looking at the whole scene through a window. You get a wider angle view than you do when you are inside.

What do I see from the outside looking in on this July Fourth? The good, the bad and the just plain ugly.

1. The good

There is so much good in the U.S. Good people, good families and communities. We have had a long history of freedom that has given us the ability to focus on constructive endeavors like universal education, upward mobility, human progress. Our roots are not perfect roots, but they are good roots and they give us the stability to keep growing. Not every country has had that advantage. Mexico, for example, has had a very different history. When Cortes came to Mexico in the early 1500s, he did not come to settle, he came to conquer. The centuries of enslavement and cruelty that ensued have given Mexico a legacy that is a struggle to overcome.

2. The bad

We are living in an age where money has flowed like a mudslide into politics. In fact, money seems to be on its way to becoming our national religion. Our consumer-based economy and consumptive culture encourage us with more and bigger “things.” We are selling our time for the money to buy “things” from houses to cars to electronics that we hope will make us happier. But they don’t; they just make us more stressed which affects everything we do and say. It is our national illness.

I once asked a Mexican woman who runs a restaurant frequented by foreigners in San Miguel if both Americans and Canadians are called gringos.

She told me no, only Americans are gringos, carefully mentioning that the word is not a pejorative.

“OK, but how can you tell the Americans from the Canadians?”

She smiled.

“Oh, I can always tell the Americans from the Canadians. The Americans are very stressed. I can see it in their faces."  “And,” she said, looking at me closely to assess whether I would be offended, ”they are in such a hurry that they talk faster than everyone else.”

3. The just plain ugly

Conversations large and small have become shouting matches too often marked by name calling, rudeness, a focus on privilege, speed and an accompanying impatience. Living in Mexico, where civility is an absolute cultural necessity, I hear all of this with heightened sensitivity.

I am not immune to this rudeness syndrome. I was in the U.S. working and I called a car service to take me to the airport. At five minutes before the specified arrival time, the driver called and told me that he was in heavy traffic and would be five minutes late. I defaulted into my U.S.-bred impatience and righteousness mode.

“It is unacceptable that anything like this should happen to me!” I wailed. “A person who drives for a living should take traffic conditions into account and make adjustments! What if I do not arrive at the gate with enough time to sit down, answer emails and have a coffee?”

Fortunately, I was only talking to myself. When the driver pulled up and took my luggage he apologized profusely. Although his accent was thick and I couldn’t exactly understand what the problem was, it seemed that there had been an accident and despite allowing an extra 30 minutes for traffic, it had not been enough.

I forced myself to move into my learned Mexican mode of communication; no time pressure because nothing is all that important, topped off with a conscious civil attitude.

“Never mind,”  I said. “Who can predict traffic? I have plenty of time.”

He looked at me with unabashed curiosity through the rear view mirror.

“Are you an American?” he asked.

I laughed.