Being American Abroad
“We’re in Portugal,” I said. “We can’t get burgers.”
That didn’t stop me from staring lustfully at the burger stand in the Lisbon food court. From twenty feet away, I could still smell all the salt, grease, and diabetes. I looked over at Bethany and Amanda, who wouldn’t look at me because they were hypnotized by the word “BURGER” printed in white chalk on the menu overhead.
“Yeah, we can’t,” they agreed quietly, still staring at the burgers.
“Well,” I said, “is there anything distinctly Portuguese about them? Different from American burgers?”
“The meat,” Bethany said. “The meat is different.”
“And we couldn’t eat them in Spain, because we always eat with our host families,” I said. “And we had Portuguese food for lunch.”
Bethany and Amanda didn’t say anything, but looked at me expectantly with eyes that said, Just say it, Kylie.
“I’m going to do it,” I said.
“Me too,” Bethany and Amanda said.
Ten minutes later, we had trays of steaming hot burgers and fries. I had never felt more American, even though I rarely ate burgers while in the U.S. Halfway through my burger, I realized people were staring at us as they cut their burgers into pieces and speared them with forks.
I put my burger down and picked up a fry. “People eat burgers with forks and knives here?” I said.
“Apparently,” said Amanda. “I don’t care, though.”
“Well, we’re the ones doing it right because burgers are American and we’re American.”
“Kylie, be quiet. Everyone here speaks English.”
I stuffed more fries in my mouth before I could say anything else. As I looked up, I saw half the Emory group on the other side of the food court, coming closer to us.
“Shit,” I said, wiping my face with a napkin. “We’ve been caught.”
Bethany and Amanda turned around as Katherine and Jason appeared behind us. Katherine’s eyes locked on my food, which I tugged closer to me.
“How’s the burger?” Katherine said, smiling.
“Amazing,” I said, temporarily forgetting to be ashamed of being so American.
“Yeah, we all ate there half an hour ago,” Katherine said. “It was great.”
Three dysfunctional Americans exploring Portugal
“It’s actually not that expensive to ship candy corn from America to Spain,” I said.
“I was serious,” I said. “I’m getting desperate.”
Halloween was coming, and I hadn’t had any candy corn since August.
I’d searched every candy store in Salamanca. I’d tried describing it to my host mother, who frowned before pulling out a bag of triangular cherry candies that some French girls left for her. I told her that no, that wasn’t candy corn, but thanks for trying. Then ate the candy anyway.
Halloween was my favorite holiday. I loved to watch horror movies and laugh hysterically while my friends screamed and hid under the blankets. I loved buying tubs of 2/$4 candy corn from CVS, even when the cashier looked at me and said, “You nasty.” I loved wearing a superman costume under a white blouse on Halloween, then quickly unbuttoning it and saying, “Does anyone need help?” when my friends asked a question about our Chinese homework.
But Halloween had only just started trickling over to Spain. Some kids went trick-or-treating, but the grandmothers still said “How shameful!” at the idea of asking strangers for candy. College students stayed in bars until 9am, like always, except this time in costume.
But there were no jack-o-lanterns, no haunted houses, no bobbing for apples or donuts hung from strings. I planned to spend Halloween night in bed, surrounded by dangerously inexpensive candy from Carrefour, watching The Nightmare Before Christmas on my laptop.
The Friday before Halloween, while walking to the plaza, I got a text from Katherine.
“I have your candy corn.”
I dropped my phone on the sidewalk, scooped it up and read the text again to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.
I vaguely recalled a conversation a few weeks earlier when I’d seen Katherine in the street and mentioned my search for candy corn (which I talked about to anyone who would listen). She said her mom was visiting from the U.S. and could ask her to bring me candy corn, but I’d half forgotten about it and half thought that she wouldn’t actually do it.
I texted back:
“Literally any time and place that it’s convenient for you to give it to me, tell me and I’ll be there.”
That night, I cut open the bag and sat in bed marveling at the most beautiful, perfect pieces of candy corn I’d ever seen in my life.
I remembered Halloween sleepovers in middle school with bowls filled with candy corn all over my living room.
I remembered buying 99-cent bags of candy corn from CVS when I got out of work at the daycare back in 12th grade and eating them on the bus on the way home.
I remembered my friends at Emory buying bags of candy corn to help me get through study sessions until 2am.
I remembered sealing a half-eaten bag of candy corn with a purple hair tie during freshman year, then giving it to a guy I liked and later texting him to ask for my hair tie back.
I only ended up eating a few pieces of candy corn that night. I sealed the rest in a plastic bag and put in the drawer of my night stand. This was one piece of home that I wanted to last a long time.
Celebrating Halloween in 9am grammar class
“I heard that some people were killed in California,” Victoria said.
I spooned more potato and pimentón soup into my bowl. “Oh, sí?”
“Sí, sí, I heard it on the news.”
I broke off a chunk of bread and starting stirring my potatoes. “A shooting?” I said.
“I mean, I might have heard it wrong,” Victoria said quickly. “There was just something about it on TV right before I went to bed last night. I’m not trying to scare you.”
“It doesn’t scare me,” I said. “Pass the water, por favor.”
I finished filling my glass and saw that Victoria was still staring at me.
“Shootings don’t surprise me,” I said, setting down my spoon. “They happen all the time in America. In movie theaters, at schools…” I paused, wondering how to best translate “Planned Parenthood Clinic” into Spanish. I gave up and shook my head, picking up my spoon again. “It’s easy to get guns, en mi país.”
Almost as soon as I’d come to Spain, I’d started referring to America as “mi país,” or “my country.” Mostly because it saved time, since no one seemed to say “América” in Spanish, but rather, “Los Estados Unidos” and that was a mouthful to say every time I wanted to make a cultural comparison.
But in doing so, I’d unintentionally taken ownership of something that I never realized I wanted.
Sometimes it’s easy to be ashamed of America. I feel that way whenever I watch the news with my host mother and Donald Trump appears on the screen, or when we hear about yet another unnecessary shooting.
Yet, when I was suddenly stripped of the food, the ideology, and even the language of the country where I grew up, I started to miss things that I never even knew that I loved. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d said, “En los Estados Unidos,” because the U.S. wasn’t just a country to me anymore, it was my country, where I was from.
My country is massive, arrogant, and a little chubby, but it gave me a good education, a safe childhood, and raised me with the audacious notion that I can achieve all of my dreams. We have far too many guns and cheeseburgers, but America’s problems are my problems to fix. I can never wash America from my hands just by fleeing to Spain, nor would I want to. I will accept the amazing public education, the terrible health care system, the autumn leaves in New England, the rampant heart disease, the pumpkin pie, the xenophobic politicians, and the American Dream. Give it all to me. I’ll take every piece of it, good or bad.
I thought about this while sitting in my Spanish linguistics class as my professor played a campaign video from the 2012 U.S. elections, complete with “God Bless the U.S.A.” blaring in the background.
“I want to cry,” I whispered to Emma. “I love this song.”
“Kylie,” she said, “this is the cheesiest American song ever.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s why I love it.”
The only way to do Halloween, feat. Clark Kent 2013