Andrea Ayvazian: As the world sees U.S.
NORThAMPTON — During the month of March, I walked the Camino de Santiago — an ancient Christian pilgrimage from southern France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. There is much to say about the experience of walking 500 miles in 33 days — the rhythm that develops moving at that pace for weeks, the deep communion with the divine, the pressing on through terrible weather and lonely stretches.
But the insight I want to focus on here is how our country is viewed by the people I met from around the world.
Pilgrims (as the walkers are called) at any given time on the Camino are an international bunch. I walked and stayed in hostels with men and women in their 20s up through their 60s from many varied backgrounds. They came from South Korea, Australia, England, France, Denmark, Portugal, Colombia, Argentina, South Africa, Germany, Canada, Ireland, Mexico, Russia and of course Spain — and that is only a partial list.
When I fell into step with other pilgrims on the Camino, we would exchange names, and then the next question was always, “Where are you from?” I learned early on not to say “America” but “the United States” because my brothers and sisters from South America and Canada scolded me about how I was monopolizing our common origin.
What was striking to me was how folks from around the world saw this country — their impressions and stereotypes — and what they said about their experiences in the United States, if they had visited here.
Once people heard I was from the U.S., the first thing they did was to tell me their feelings about President Obama. Many people said they felt they had a friend in Obama and they said how much they admired how smart he is. People said they thought President Obama was more loved and admired on the international stage than at home.
People also love and admire Michelle Obama. A woman from Australia said that she felt Mrs. Obama was “First Lady to the World.” The next thing many folks said was they did not understand how and why people in this country shoot each other so much. The number one comment after talking about Obama was a question: “Why is your country so violent?” People are amazed at how citizens in this country are so heavily armed and shoot each other so often. Of course I had no answer. I am equally amazed.
A man from France about my age said his daughter came to this country a few years back with her high school orchestra to perform in New York City and Philadelphia. He said he was desperately frightened every day she was gone, fearing for her safety.
People I met on the Camino who had actually visited this country had powerful and disturbing questions and observations. A question they asked often was about the visible gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. Folks were stunned to see the level of poverty on the streets of major U.S. cities. One person said the poverty he witnessed in San Francisco and LA shocked and saddened him, negatively affecting his entire visit. One woman said, “Before I came to the U.S.A. I thought I was visiting a First World nation.”
The positive things people told me about this country mainly had to do with its natural beauty. Even people who had never visited this country mentioned the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and the Tetons. The few people who had been to Alaska were especially overflowing with praise and awe.
Seeing this country through the eyes of an international group of travelers was troubling to me. Many folks seemed to regard this country as a large, disconnected, sprawling, out-of-control place filled with people who are self-involved, violent, and excessively self-indulgent. Rarely in my life have I been put in the position of defending the U.S., but I found myself doing that repeatedly. I also found myself agreeing with their assessment on occasion.
When I spoke about the U.S., what I said most often is that we are a big country and that our people, for the most part, have big hearts. When asked about the U.S., I often said we are a contradictory and complicated people. As a group, we represent every extreme and everything in between. We are bratty, bossy and brash. And we are generous, peace-loving and compassionate.
One thing I learned while walking across Spain in the company of an international group of pilgrims is that people from around the world have strong feelings and opinions about the U.S. Sometimes I would simply say, “I am from the United States, and I am willing to listen.”
The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church, writes a monthly column on faith, culture and politics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.