The comedian Judah Friedlander (of 30 Rock fame) set me up one night. I was at the Comedy Cellar in New York City. My sister and I sat in the front row. Friedlander asked the audience, “Why do some countries hate America?”
This was back in 2012, when I was in my late 20s. I grew up in Texas, but I had only become a U.S. citizen a couple of years before moving to New York. I’m not someone who typically goes to comedy shows, and I’m definitely not someone who typically yells in a crowded room full of strangers. So I’m not sure why I responded to Friedlander.
He asked, “Why do some countries hate America?”
I responded, “Because Americans are stupid.”
My sister was in town, visiting from Texas. She loves comedy shows, and that’s why we were sitting in the front row that night. Several comedians preceded Friedlander, and one of them had asked us where we were from. My sister said we were Danish.
We’ve never had an easy time answering that question — where are you from — because, although we spent most of our time in the States, we thought of ourselves as outsiders. We had Canadian and Danish citizenship, but we lived in America, learning how to be Americans.
I know why I said, “Americans are stupid.” Those words were not my words. They were my Hungarian father’s words. I heard my father criticize Americans, while doing everything in his power to become an American.
Friedlander hated my response. He scoffed, “You just called yourself stupid.”
And he was right. I was technically an American now. I had a US passport. But I still didn’t think of myself as an American. And apparently, I had ingested my father’s cynicism. Did I really think Americans were stupid? Or was I trying to be funny?
We were at a comedy show. Friedlander asked the question to set up a joke. The joke went:
Q: Why do some countries hate America?
A: Because America has the greatest cheese in the world.
American cheese comes in a “protective” wrapper, Friedlander said. Other countries are jealous because they lack the technology to protect their cheese.
The joke was funny, but I didn’t laugh. I was still mulling over my stupid comment. I called Americans stupid, and then a comedian called me stupid. I felt stupid.
In 2017, Friedlander came out with a Netflix special called America Is the Greatest Country in the World. He described it as a “funny” criticism of the US. But even though the title is meant to be satirical, it’s also a statement many Americans still believe in.
I don’t know why countries need to be ranked. I guess it’s a way to keep track of so-called progress. Or is it a way to convince ourselves that we’re living our best lives?
When I travel outside of the US, I meet people who reflect America back to me. Canadians are often confused as to why they know more about Americans than we know about ourselves. Danes enjoy visiting New York City, but they can’t understand why our streets are filled with homeless people. Puerto Ricans move here, but they feel as if America siphons their wealth, as if their land is just a resource to be drained.
But calling Americans “stupid” is a stupid thing to do. I was acting stupid when I said that. I was calling myself stupid, and I was making a generalization about a country filled with smart people.
Being an American is hard, though. It’s hard to know where you stand in this country. I’m not sure what it means to be a “smart” American. Does it mean finding like-minded people to form a “protective” wrapper around your identity? Or does it mean constantly evolving and adapting, ready to position yourself for the next iteration of advancement?
Is it possible to just be an American? Or do I need to keep proving myself worthy of this country?