March 2008 Reflection

I live in a house with one other American, two Irish and one Slovakian PhD students, and one Irish undergraduate. The conversations about the differences between Irish and American culture are endless. There is no shortage of topics to discuss, from pronunciation (vitamin and aluminum are contentious issues around these parts) to business hours in our respective countries. This may be misleading—we talk about a variety of topics as we eat dinner together, watch Desperate Housewives and avoid school work—but it’s hard to not notice how different things are.

That said, I think Allison and I have gone down a dangerous road in terms of the way we have brought American culture into the house. I think we are perfectly polite and articulate with our discussions, but we have unconsciously incorporated a tool into our repertoire that may hurt more than it helps.

I’ll quit the mysterious act: we watch an awful lot of American movies. American war movies, to be specific.

I won’t argue the merits of many of the film choices:
Band of Brothers, Glory, and other movies about American soldiers fighting in various wars often display values that transcend culture. Loyalty, camaraderie, integrity, bravery—these are traits valued by many cultures and are clearly not characteristic to America alone. But we’re treading on dangerous territory watching The Patriot, and not just because of its questionable attention to historical accuracy.

The danger lies in my tendency to slip into “America rocks” mode while watching these films. When I’m not exposed to the veritable fever caused by a fast paced, action packed war film, I feel I’m perfectly able to articulate both my love for my country while at the same time acknowledging its faults, commenting on ways to improve international relations, and discussing the promise and pitfalls of certain domestic policies. But put Saving Private Ryan in the DVD player and I lose all sensibility and I’m making the “rock on” symbol while shouting “Yeah America!” Once the movie ends, though, I regain my ability to recognize some of the morally ambiguous choices made by the U.S. in a given war, the mistakes, the mistreatment, the perspective of the other side—and I can rationally reconcile all these aspects alongside my pride in my country and my awe at certain acts of valor.

But that happens only once the movie is over.
I don’t think it’s a symptom solely of the war movies. Granted, the entertainment industry is really onto something here if it has that kind of impact, but I think my overwhelming sense of pride in being American is also a result of being in a minority population. I think the same applies to the Irish away from Ireland and anyone else far from their home country; landing in New York after coming from Dublin, the number of people on the plane wearing sweaters emblazoned with Ireland seems to increase exponentially from the departure terminal. All people, to some extent, want to hold on to a piece of their identity when they feel out of place—and national identity creates a huge component of who we consider ourselves to be, especially in unfamiliar places.

That said, I can’t say I feel out of place in Ireland anymore. I call my room at UCD “home” and I look forward to arriving back at school after I’ve taken a trip. I had great fun attempting to explain American football during the Super Bowl but I find just as much joy in watching, for example, Ireland v France in one of the Six Nations Rugby matches (beautiful second half, if only it had lasted a few more minutes). “Grand” and “brilliant” find their way into my vocabulary as often as “awesome” and I only know French fries as “chips” now. I don’t even hate the weather as much, anymore. Ireland has found its way under my skin, and I like it there.

Just refrain from selecting Gettysburg on movie night, lest I lose all sense of nuance.

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