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9 Things I Learned About America By Leaving It

With distance comes perspective.

My grandma says wanderlust is in my blood. She guesses it must have skipped a few generations, because I have the same burning need to wander that my distant relatives had when they left their homes in Croatia -- with no money to their names, no plans and no jobs -- in the hopes of building new lives in bright, unknown potential of America. My grandma, on the other hand, is a worrier and a homebody, the self-proclaimed matriarch of the family who keeps tabs on everyone in an effort to keep us all together.

When I was a little kid, my parents could drop me off at the home of any friend or relative (most frequently my grandma) with a suitcase anytime they needed a vacation, and I'd prance off unfazed by their leaving, ready for new adventures with new people. In middle school and high school I traveled to Canada and Mexico with groups of my peers, and my desire to travel escalated from there -- I've now visited 18 countries and spent some time living abroad.

I spent half of November traveling around Malaysia, and it made me realize that while I always learn a tremendous amount about each of the places I visit (especially when it comes to food), I also always learn a whole lot more than I'd expect to about the U.S. -- and how the rest of the world views the U.S. -- with the perspective of distance. Here are nine of the things I've learned:

  1. Our Cultural Exports Are Super Weird
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    At home, it can be easy to forget that not everything we're currently into within our shared cultural/media bubble makes it out to the rest of the world -- and that we have very little control over what other cultures are going to pick up and run with. When I was living in Taiwan in 2011, I regularly encountered people who knew only two English phrases: "Bling bling" and "DIY." Strangers on the street would run up to me just to excitedly point to the bedazzling on the butt of their jeans and say, "DIY bling bling!"

    In Malaysia this time around, the current hotness was Minions. Those little bastards seemed to be everywhere, trying to sell me everything from the breakfast combo at the local cafe to pants (for adults) in big department stores. I've also observed that the Playboy bunny logo features disturbingly prominently in a lot of children's clothing throughout Southeast Asia.

  2. Not Everyone Who Doesn't Live Here Thinks The U.S. Is Cool
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    Because we export so much culture and import so little, and because our corner of the Internet and our own media often reflect the notion that people all around the world are just as obsessed with American pop music and films as we are, it's easy to have the impression that the whole rest of the world just thinks Americans are super cool all the time.

    But actually, in a lot of places, there's a perception of Americans as overweight, lazy, nationalistic, overly optimistic and, to put it nicely, not super intelligent. I observed this one especially in... wait for it... Paris.

    People everywhere I've traveled have still generally been very kind to me one-on-one, but I've definitely heard things like, "You seem cool, but seriously wtf is wrong with the rest of Americans?"

  3. ...But A Whole Lot Of People Do
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    On the other hand, I've also traveled to tons of places where people are stoked to meet an American, and just assume that I'm cool because I'm from here, or think I must be BFFs with Taylor Swift (Only in my dreams) and hang out Leonardo DiCaprio on weekends.

    In a lot of the places I've traveled, people have also been super excited to tell me about their own travels to the U.S. I once had a very sweet taxi driver in Taiwan who didn't speak any English meticulously and excitedly make me look at every one of the cheesy postcards he'd ever received from the friends who'd traveled to various U.S. States while I nodded and smiled and struggled to say things in Mandarin like, "Oh yes, The Alamo, I've heard of that, how nice."

  4. The U.S. Is Not The Cleanest -- Or Safest -- Country In The World
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    This is another thing that might seem obvious to anyone who has ever traveled, but there's an aging myth that still seems to have a presence in our general consciousness that the U.S. is just the cleanest, safest place in the whole wide world. Which is not true.

    I thought U.S. cities were relatively clean (and they are cleaner than many of the places I've visited) until I visited Japan, where the cities I visited were so shockingly immaculate they made Manhattan feel like a rat-infested dumpster upon my return.

    In terms of safety, there's obviously quite a range of "safety levels" here in the U.S. depending on where you are. But early in my travels I was surprised to find that I often felt safer, especially alone, at night, in many non-U.S. cities with well-documented low crime rates. While I was in Malaysia, it never once occurred to me that there could be a mass-shooting at any moment while I was in public spaces; upon my return home on November 27, I was quickly reminded of that very-American reality.

  5. America Does Not Have The Best Democracy In The World
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    As Americans, we're kind of raised with this collective understanding that we invented democracy (which actually isn't too far off when you consider that Native Americans created some of the world's earliest democracies), and that we're leading the world by example.

    I'd always been aware that our two-party system had its problems, but it wasn't until I started talking with other travelers about their own countries' political systems while abroad that I realized most other industrialized democracies (Germany, India, Mexico, Finland, Denmark, Brazil... this list goes on) are very effectively using multi-party systems. In fact, a lot of non-Americans are pretty baffled by our country's continued refusal to do the same, even when it's painfully clear that not all Americans are being effectively represented now.

    Voter turnout in America is also among the lowest in the developed world. During our last presidential election in 2012, only 53 percent of the voting population bothered to cast a ballot. In countries like Belgium, where voting is compulsory (meaning you'll be fined for not voting), over 87 percent of the population votes in major elections, and in many other countries with better voter turnout, election days are set aside as national holidays (or even just held on holidays weekends) to effectively encourage people to actually participate in their democracies.

  6. ...Or Technology, Education Or Social Services
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    I recently wrote about other countries that are doing sex-ed better than the U.S. As it turns out, our overall educational system also ranks pretty low on the scale with other developed nations.

    While we're still leaders in many ways when it comes to tech, we're lagging behind in others. When I moved to Taiwan, I was shocked by how much faster their internet is than ours. And they don't even make the top-10 list of nations with the fastest Internet in the world (the U.S. ranks 17th).

    For all the complaining we hear about mythical "welfare queens" in the U.S., I've learned that Americans are getting shockingly little for their tax dollars compared to much of the developed world. For example, in many other countries, weeks of paid parental leave for both parents is mandatory, whereas the U.S. has zero guaranteed paid parental leave for new moms or dads. Don't even get me started on all the virtually free check-ups and top-notch dental work I loaded up on in Taiwan, thanks to the universal healthcare my work visa granted me access to.

  7. To Most Of The World, Americans Are Notoriously Bad At Geography And History
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    Almost everywhere I've traveled, someone has (usually teasingly) made reference to their assumption that I as an American would have a poor grasp on both geography and history. It should be no secret to most Americans that even the smartest among us actually are bad at those things -- what's always surprising (and humbling) is the discovery that most people from most other places seem to be so incredibly knowledgeable in those departments.

  8. People Throughout The World Know A LOT About American Politics
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    When I was traveling around Southeast Asia during the 2004 U.S. presidential election, people who spoke English frequently approached me to ask my predictions for the outcome, as well as my opinion on that whole George W. Bush recount debacle from the first time he won. They often had a surprisingly in-depth knowledge of the circumstances surrounding those events.

    Every time I've traveled since then, I've been amazed by the depth and nuance with which people I've met -- many of whom don't even speak English as a first language -- are able to discuss whatever was currently going on in American politics. In turn, I've often felt embarrassed by my own near-total lack of knowledge or ability to weigh in on the French, English, Japanese or Taiwanese political climate -- until I'd been there for long enough and paid close enough attention to keep up, at least -- let alone in a non-native language.

  9. Even When You Can See All Its Flaws, It's Still Home
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    Despite all the new perspective I've gained about America's flaws throughout my travels, absence really does make the heart grow fonder. There's no other place in the world where I feel as known and well-understood as I do here, and returning after a long time away always makes home feel more comforting and special than it did when I left.

    For me, traveling also always serves as a poignant reminder that it's possible to love the U.S. while also thinking critically about the ways it could be better and recognizing that there's a lot we can learn from the rest of the world -- and as an inspiration to do everything I can to try and help us get there.