Ain’t That America…

I’ll trash talk Alabama, the ‘Ham, the U.S., even the Tide. But friend, when you as an outsider do it, understand that those are fighting words.

by Trevor C. Hale

Living abroad makes you understand yourself and your place in the world in profound and unexpected ways—what it means to be an American and an Alabaman.

Near the end of a friend’s birthday dinner in Beijing, a European at the table sang a song dissing the U.S. of A. In the way of the Chinese smiling tiger, who laughs with you while plotting your demise, I grinned and bore it, but it still irks me. I’ve fantasized about what my response should have been, and memorized the lyrics to the song I should have sung in response.

At the table were Americans, Chinese, Germans, Russians and Swedes. Having friends from all corners of the globe is typical here, and one of the greatest things about living in China.

The offending Swede had lived in Japan and fancied himself a singer. He’d had enough wine to belt out a happy birthday song, and infused with the courage singing out loud brings, he sang a song he wrote while living in Tokyo called, “Don’t call me an American.”

As a gaijin (gringo) living in Japan, he was often assumed to be American. I’ve always felt very welcome visiting Japan. Whether from Swedish pride or having been the target of complaints about the American military in Okinawa while living there, he felt the need to clarify his nationality in song, and regaled our dinner table with a rendition.

Because of the incredibly strong influence of the U.S. internationally, Americans living abroad, much more so than other expats, often find themselves fielding pointed questions about U.S. foreign policy, even at casual affairs. In the likely event you’re at dinner where the talk turns to America, you better have something interesting to say. You betcha.

A typical dinner in China includes folks as diverse as the first course dishes on the lazy susan. If the Swedes were an appetizer, they’d be the tofu-wrapped cucumbers that circle by, untouched as you wait for the American plate of tasty BBQ chicken.

This wasn’t an official dinner; it was a birthday party. And the singing Swede just insulted my country.

I’ll trash talk Alabama, the ‘Ham, the U.S., even the Tide. But friend, when you as an outsider do it, understand that those are fighting words.

“Don’t’ call me an American, don’t you dare; don’t call me an American…” After singing, he sat down. Obligatory applause. Curious looks from Chinese at tables nearby.

“Don’t call me an American.” The tune was catchy, but the lyrics have lingered with me like the stench of Stinky Tofu.

In the fantasy I relive of that night, instead of simply taking it, and finishing the dinner, this is what happened:

(standing) “Thanks for that. You know, sometimes it’s not easy being an American. For better or worse the world depends on us to do what’s right. We don’t always get it right. In fact, we screw up a lot.

“But let me tell you something (looking at each person at the table) we’re not afraid to get in there and mix it up. Who among us sitting here is willing to step up when it counts? To confront a bully. You?!

“Don’t worry though (glaring at the Swede) no one is asking you to be an American.

“If I were to diss Sweden like you did America, honestly, I wouldn’t know where to start. IKEA? Meatballs? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

“Does anyone really know…or care?

“Rather than go negative, like you did, I’ll offer up a song that speaks to America and what it’s about.…with apologies to you all and John Cougar Mellencamp.

(singing) “There’s a black man, with black hair, livin in a black neighborhood. He’s got an interstate running through his front yard, you know he thinks he’s, got it so good.

“And there’s a woman in the kitchen, bringin in the evening slop, and he looks at her and says, ‘hey darling I remember when you could…stop a clock.’

“There’s a young man, in a T-shirt, listenin to a rock and roll station. He’s got greasy hair, greasy smile, he’s says Lord this must be my destination.

“Cause they told me, when I was younger, said ‘boy you gonna be president,’ but just like everything else, those hopes and dreams, they kinda came and went.

“Aint that America, you and me. Aint that America, somethin to see baby, aint that America, home of the free. Little pink houses for you and me.”

Trevor C. Hale, a Cullman native lives and works in Shanghai and loves Swedish meatballs. He can be reached at

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