Goodbye, American Exceptionalism.

Photo by tom coe on Unsplash

“Bye, Mom, love you.” She hugged me even harder. I hoped she wouldn’t cry.

I was 18 and leaving for college. At the time, a 9-hour drive away from my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wasn’t far enough. We grew up poor in an upper middle-class suburb, which meant I spent extra time worrying about fitting in. A new state with no one from high school nearby was the perfect setting to reinvent myself.

Even now in my mid-30s, this self-reinvention is something I haven’t quite grown out of. When I feel too comfortable, I look for the next challenge. New people and places have constantly been shaping me and teaching me more about who I am and what it means to be human.

This wanderlust has often led me past my nation’s borders. And today, I find myself an expat of three years, living in the bustling city of Puebla, México.

From this vantage point, I look back at my mother country — the USA — and I realize no matter how far away I get, I always worry about her.

When I left for college back in 2002, I was ready to forget about my hometown. Mom tells me I only called when I needed money or advice.

Subconsciously, I pushed my family away. I visited twice a year — Christmas and summer — and spent the rest of my time devouring books and leading campus clubs.

In hindsight, moving away from my family made me realize how much of them I had with me. I still loved making lists, going hiking, and eating grilled cheese with baked beans.

Even if I wasn’t calling my parents often, being away from my nuclear family helped me reflect on the ways their dedication and love were embedded in my DNA.

But I also desperately needed to grow apart from them.

Just as I had inherited many good habits from my family, I had equally learned the negatives. And the distance helped me evaluate and adjust. This space allowed me to learn new coping strategies and form new perspectives on the world.

While international travel can offer you similar perspectives on your home country, there is no replacement for living abroad within a new culture.

Consider with me for a moment:

  • What is it about the American Dream that has failed generations?
  • What is it that leaves so many barely making ends meet while surrounded by unprecedented wealth?
  • What creates a system where racism is not only tolerated but expected?

Fifteen years after my first big move, I found myself at the Nashville International Airport, saying goodbye again. This time, two connecting flights and a border crossing would stand between me and my family.

“I’ll text you when we land. I love you, Mom and Dad.” We hugged and held back tears.

With all my belongings packed into two suitcases, I felt ready for the new adventure. Or so I thought.

Back when I was 22, Texas felt like a distant land, but it isn’t. Committing to permanent residency in a foreign country stretched me in ways I didn’t know were possible.

For the first year, I lived in an in-between zone of constant instability. Having one foot in each country became a delicate balancing act.

Midway through my second year, I accepted that stretching my comfort zone wasn’t enough. I had to completely break it and form a new one. I had to distance myself from my past American expectations of life.

I fought to maintain my sense of self, but I learned to evaluate once again — but this this time, at a much deeper level.

If leaving my family at 18 pushed me to recognize the good and bad inherited from my parents, leaving the US has opened my eyes to a whole new set of dysfunctional behaviors inherited from being born an American.

During my third year living away from my birth country, I have found myself staring at a long held belief — that of American exceptionalism — and seeing it in a new light.

American exceptionalism is the belief that the USA is the best and greatest country on the planet. No questions asked.

While a sense of patriotic pride is not unique to the US, when you believe you are the best, this leads to an over-extended confidence. You inherently believe there is no reason to change.

After all, if you’re the richest, most powerful in the world, you must be doing it all right.

When you believe you are doing everything right, there isn’t any room to question long-held systems and patterns. And so, from across the border, I see many friends and family falling into the deception that the current way of life is the only option.

But it isn’t.

  • When the majority of Americans are willing to vote against raising a minimum wage, they vote against their own self-interest.
  • When Americans resist implementing a health care system that covers ALL workers, not just full-time employees, they agree that not all people deserve to lead healthy lives.
  • When Americans accept tax breaks as a means to generate more wealth in a top-down system, they blindly accept the rich getting richer and widening the gap in social class.
  • When Americans vote down common sense gun restrictions, they welcome more unneeded deaths by suicide, mass shootings, and homegrown terrorists.
  • When Americans claim they are not racists, they deny that school districts, home ownership, and employment opportunities have been strategically designed to limit upward mobility to black and brown citizens.
  • When Americans claim they see no color, they turn a blind eye to the injustices and deaths caused by a system that supports and enables racism.

And this, sadly, is where America’s overconfident belief in being the best has led us.

When profits are placed above the lives of people, the deceptions come easily. When greed drives a country, any excuse to demean the lives of the working class becomes acceptable.

As a result, those in power develop the means to oppress the middle class with debt. And the middle class oppresses the poor with lack of access. And the oppressed are convinced they are free.

They are free because they can own guns. They are free because they can choose to not pay for healthcare. They are free because they are not black.

The same system that enables corporate greed enables racism to grow. Because if you’re not rich, at least you’re not black.

I’m half-white on my mother’s side. But no one calls me white — not even my own mother. Because we still follow the one-drop rule from slavery.

No one assumes I’m white because my skin and hair and eyes have darker pigmentation.

But I grew up in a white family. I have white aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, nieces, and nephews. I am not anti-white. But I am anti-racism.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the current system is the only way. Don’t be lulled back into believing the US must be doing things right. Don’t use the next vote to maintain the status quo.

Being an American living abroad means I am watching alongside the rest of the world. Don’t confirm what most of us fear — that the exceptionalism was just a veneer covering up the hatred and injustices.

Ask hard questions.

Work for change.

Speak out.

Stand up for Truth.

Admit when you are wrong.

And maybe, just maybe, we can turn the tide.

Maybe future generations of Americans can truly be an exception.




Born a Midwestern American, now a permanent Mexican resident. Outdoor adventurer, language enthusiast, and lover of classical music.

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Alicia Ruth Mendez

Alicia Ruth Mendez

Born a Midwestern American, now a permanent Mexican resident. Outdoor adventurer, language enthusiast, and lover of classical music.

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