Kirk MacGibbon: I love America
I love America
By Kirk MacGibbon
I love America. And I have to say I love Americans too. I feel the need to say this because as a New Zealander living overseas I often hear about what a friendly nation we are and how we’re always happy to help people out and ‘lend a hand.’ But here’s a news flash, so are Americans – incredibly so and in my view they’re a lot more friendlier than your average Kiwi.
I’ve decided to mention my admiration of things American because, as I contemplate returning to New Zealand, I dread having to listen to New Zealanders’ open and largely ignorant prejudice against America and Americans. This prejudice isn’t a recent phenomenon either. It been alive and well for ages. At University in the 80s I remember students walking out on some lecturers because they were perceived as ‘pro-american.’ They weren’t of course.
This prejudice is, as far as I can tell, is largely based on stereotypical ‘loud American tourist in a Hawaiian shirt’ who has the temerity to complain about his or food or service in New Zealand, probably because said food or service was in fact rubbish. I don’t believe Americans are a particularly fussy people, but they do believe in getting good service and are prepared to pay for it. In the US media recently was news that the federal minimum wage is just US$5.25 an hour and hasn’t been adjusted since 1997. On the surface of it a terrible state of affairs and no doubt many would say its just symptomatic of how the country treats unskilled workers. Until you find out that many states actually have minimum wage levels much higher than that and the American practice of tipping, particularly in the lower paid service jobs, ensures a much higher income. The usual tipping rate is around 15 per cent and that ensures that some waiters and bar tenders, particularly in the more upmarket bars and restaurants, can earn as much as $2-3000 a week. The practice of tipping can make a drink in New York (or anywhere else for that matter) a pretty expensive proposition. Particularly when you quickly learn that if you want to ensure good service throughout the night, it pays to tip more for the first round. That way you know they’ll look after you well.
New Zealanders’ prejudice against Americans probably also comes from their limited understanding of American foreign policy or is picked up by the New Zealand media’s once over lightly analysis of what that country’s president may or may not have done, or said. I know of no other country whose citizens are continually held to account for what their leader does. Certainly no-one has ever bailed me up for the actions of our prime minister or abused me because of our country’s presence in Afghanistan. (Truth be told in the whole time I have been away I have never seen any news of New Zealand in the New York Times or any other media.) Yet I am still welcomed with open arms by just about everyone I meet in America.
New Zealanders point to the fact there is widespread poverty in America and little will to address it. There might be an element of truth to that at the federal level, but there are incredible things going on at a state and city level. And there is poverty in New Zealand too.
There is violence in America, although I have never witnessed any. In contrast, just about every time I went down Courtenay Place, Cuba Street or Manners Street in Wellington on a Friday night I would see violence of some sort. True, the chances of getting shot are minimal, but they’re minimal in America too.
New Zealanders are fond of pointing out that Americans are largely ignorant of the world outside their country, and its true that around 80 per cent of Americans don’t have a passport and around 70 per cent never leave the state in which they were born. But this belies the sheer size of that country and also ignores the fact that if you take out Australia as a destination – and let’s face it, the distance between NZ and Australia is about the same as traveling between LA and Miami – about the same proportion of New Zealanders would travel further abroad as do Americans. We’re just less conspicuous I guess.
I will be returning home soon. And in many ways I am looking forward to it, but in other ways I will miss the vibrancy and sheer energy of New York. I’ll miss the sheer energy and optimism of Americans, their utter belief in the attainability of the American dream, and their kindness.
God bless America.