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Seriously, what’s up with Americans?

They’re freaking everywhere.

How often I hear droning, cosmopolitan liberal-by-age-not-by-choice American college students speak of foreign perspectives of Americans.

It is just so gosh darn negative, they say.

They burn flags in Afghanistan. The subject of U.S. foreign policy brings laughter to businessmen in Germany.

Understand. Internationally, there is overwhelming criticism of American foreign policy. Great power rarely evokes indifference; it is either great respect or great antipathy, sometimes both. Ask most Americans, they tend to criticize that government of theirs as well. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the last round of polls, taken in mid-September, put President Bush’s approval rating in the low to mid 40s.

Indulge me in some expansive and irresponsible generalizing.

They wear anything Nike in Ghana; Mexican children want to touch Americans in Tijuana.

Here in Tokyo, Paris Hilton is loved, Madonna has a week of sold-out concerts, Richard Gere, yes, Philadelphia-born, Julia Roberts’ costar in Pretty Woman Richard Gere appears on billboards at major intersections. And his last movie was “Bee Season.” Yeah, I haven’t heard of it either.

My point is that both Americans and the global environment that is snickering at, and terrified of, U.S. diplomacy delineate between the American government and the American people.

Don’t let someone tell you that they hate Americans in Iraq or that Pakistanis or Lithuanians or the 9 million citizens of Bolivia do. You want to say Venezuelans hate the American government? Well, the Venezuelan president has taken to calling President Bush “the devil,” and I’ve never been there, so I can’t much argue it. But, Hugo Chavez does not hate Americans. It has been called political grandstanding and maybe it is, but the man has come to the United States to offer subsidized oil to poor American families. I know. I was there when he did just that in North Philadelphia.

And why shouldn’t the 200 or so countries of this world divide Americans from their government? There are Americans everywhere, and, damn it if some (I’ll hesitate from saying most) of them aren’t trying to help, or at least just trying to live their lives peacefully.

I am struck by that again and again here in Tokyo.

Temple University-Japan, where I am taking classes this semester, is the largest and oldest foreign university in the country and remains home to a handful of Americans who are now longtime Tokyo residents and influential Japanese academics.

One of the first weekends I was here I went to a lecture on sake, Japan’s historic rice-based alcoholic drink. Its featured speaker? An American. Ohio-born John Gaunter is known as leading the push for popularizing sake outside of Japan, as well as for his books and columns on sake. He also managed to become the only non-Japanese member of countless government and sake-industry organizations.

My fourth episode for JYA features a legend of Asian cultural studies who just happens to be an American. Donald Richie is as famous as an academic can be. He has lived in Tokyo for six decades and pumped out more than 40 books. He has written thousands of newspaper columns and reviews and found time to be a reporter, tour guide, film critic, director, actor, novelist, editor, professor, lecturer, actor and more. He also happened to be born in Ohio. (I don’t know what that coincidence is about.)

The United States is 150,000 births from the 300 millionth American, according to the Census Bureau. Do enough of us have the opportunity and the interest in traveling abroad to get a tour of another culture? Probably not. But, there are those that do, and, fortunately, some of them represent the United States well.

Tanks are not often appreciated as signs of friendship. But, luckily I believe the majority of this world knows that most Americans don’t drive tanks, and those that do don’t have much choice. There are Americans and there is the American government. That duality is unspeakably important.

You can support our government – I encourage that. You can agree with our government – I can respect that. Just don’t believe that others can’t recognize that duality, because I find that more Americans than non-Americans have difficulty seeing the difference – as if Americans living abroad tend to be hypercritical of their country out of embarrassment for their government.

Forget all that. I am as blindly patriotic as they come, but I see nothing difficult about traveling with an American flag while also trying to remain critical of my government. Dissension is not un-American. Indeed, rather I see nothing more patriotic than just that.

Mark it down as another reason to travel: show this world how beautiful and kindly and brilliant Americans can be.

Jaa mata,

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