Would you like fries with that?

I’m really not that American who travels abroad and eats at McDonalds.

OK, up until my trip to Prague last week, that was a true statement.

Immersing myself in local culture, eating foreign cuisine, and speaking as little English as possible are all checkpoints of a good overseas adventure in my book. Besides the pure enjoyment I get from doing something totally new and different, I’ve always felt like it’s a morally upstanding way to travel. You know, the whole “When in Rome”
aphorism.

Well, six months in Ukraine teaches you a lot of things. How much I love America is just one of them. That isn’t to say I don’t also love Ukraine. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t still be here. I’ve given props to borshch on more than one occasion, and I won’t rehash my affinity for babusyas and open-air markets. Yet there is something so wonderful about the familiar.

I’ve never been a big fan of huge chain restaurants, but I nearly wept at the sight of Starbucks. And I don’t even drink coffee. Walking up the steps, smelling the fresh grounds, hearing Starbuck-speak of “tall, grande, and venti,” was just good for my soul. Not to mention the free, high-speed wireless.

One of the many unexpected fruits of my travels has been a heightened sense of home. The more places I go, and the more varied friends I make, the more I value where I came from and the people I’ve known all my life. Not because they are superior circumstances or citizenry, but because they are mine. I was always one of those people who was quick to say the U.S. had no real “culture.” No national dress, no defining food, and overall very little that was actually “ours.” We have German Christmas Trees, a British Language, and cuisine from all over the globe. Although we may not have the traditional hallmark national customs, we certainly have our own culture, albeit a difficult one to define.

I’m still not quite sure what it is, but I can nearly always spot an American in Ukraine, or in Prague for the matter. Before they open their mouths, my US-Radar is alerted. Sometimes, it’s the tennis shoes, worn with jeans. Other times, it’s a particularly affable expression, a whistle on the lips or a bounce in their step, that exudes Americanness. Want another tell? Americans generally text with two hands, Ukrainians with only one. Granted, anyone from any walk of life could act like this, they just usually don’t. And even when they do, they don’t pull it off like an American. It’s probably how I look, stomping around in the snow in my knee-high boots, carrying plastic bags and all in all “looking the part” of a Ukrainian. But not really.

I still get higher cab rates, and clerks still speak to me in English, before I even have a chance to butcher the language.

As the world gets smaller, cultures blend and with it the concept of a “foreigner” becomes less black and white. I like that. I also like the idea of having my own identity, my own country, and my own culture.

The fact that America is a hodgepodge of European, Asian, Latin, and African traditions enriches our culture. It doesn’t diminish it.

About Claire St. Amant

Claire St. Amant, one of Editor & Publisher's Top 25 Under 35 in the newspaper industry, is a graduate of Baylor University. Claire was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine and has also lived in South America. She has written for a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Houston Chronicle, and D Magazine.