When I was about 11 years old I had a picture of the American flag on my wall. At that time, the witching hour between Neighbours and homework was spent watching The Wonder Years, Blossom, My So-Called Life and the 4,000 other US teen shows populated only by pretty people. I would daydream about living next door to my best friend, close enough so we could talk on walkie-talkies at night (a hangover from the great Tom Hanks vehicle Big, in which Hanks plays a child who has been turned into a grown-up by a spooky fairground ride. Hilarity ensues).

How I wished I had an American accent. I'd practise the words: sidewalk, movie, freeway (so much more glamorous than their pedestrian British equivalents: pavement, film, motorway). And how I longed to be at an American high school, where the cafeteria lunches fizzed with sexual tension and clique conflicts (geeks v emos v jocks v cheerleaders) peppered the day. It seemed the sun was always shining. And oh, those yellow school buses.

Bear in mind this was the early Nineties: Clinton pre-Monica, a decade before 9/11, with George W Bush still a figment of our innocent imagination. But America has always been good at selling itself, even when times are rough. It's the country's main export. What are Hollywood and Facebook, if not multibillion-dollar industries built around the repackaging of life into happy endings: photos where you always look good and stories where the guy gets the girl - and the girl is always thin?

All of this has nothing to do with the word America. Nothing at all. (No one seems to be entirely sure of the exact etymology, but most agree that the continent was named after Amerigo Vespucci, a navigator born in 1454 who claimed to have discovered the New World). Yet that's because the word is too powerful to be reduced to a definition. America is the land of the free, home of the brave, the melting pot. Walt Whitman described the country as the "greatest poem"; John Updike as a "vast conspiracy to make you happy". There is no greater dream than the American dream. But then not all dreams come true. I never got my walkie-talkie, for a start.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special