Adam Jarret

Independent Cultural Immersion Project

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National Perception


It is not unusual for a culturally aware American to feel a little sheepish when discussing the latest US foreign policy decisions when traveling abroad. In fact, being a loud and proud American is an unfortunate stereotype that I usually try to avoid when traveling. I have never stooped so low as to say that I was Canadian to avoid anti-US hostility, but I have always refrained from anything that I would consider boastful or inflammatory.

However, being that I was raised in America, I have been naturally instilled with a healthy amount of patriotism. I do believe that we live in the greatest country in the world, and I would expect anyone from anywhere to say the same about their own homeland. The problem is that when your country is the last great hegemonic superpower, it feels like rooting for the Yankees. Sure, they win baseball games, but how much respect can you have for a team that just throws money at every problem? I always get the feeling that if I were to say something positive about America, someone would shoot me down by citing all the money and natural resources we waste, or how our culture is over-taking the world, choking out all other viewpoints and ideas.

This sentiment weighed heavily on my mind during my time abroad. I'm really no closer to being at ease with the feeling, but at least I have a more accurate picture of foreign viewpoints of America after meeting scores of interesting (and very frank) people on my travels. Overall, the attitudes varied from rosy and starry-eyed images of life in America to outright hostility at our nation's hubris. I met a fellow student at Leicester, from the area just outside Warsaw, who told me that "it is the dream of every teenager in Poland to go to an American house-party." He proceeded to talk excitedly about the keg tricks and drinking games and the fact that "there's always one guy taped to a tree or something."

Another popular topic of conversation was to have me explain Family Guy jokes or to say what the original english line was from a South Park episode that had been translated. I was surprised at how pervasive American TV is in Europe, and impressed that enough of it translated into something that is still funny in a foreign language. During my experience, I observed more than a few interpersonal interactions where no English was spoken, but I still completely understood what was going on. There are some basic categories of events that are commonplace enough to everyone; kids my age hanging out, parents scolding kids, younger siblings annoying each other, young teens trying to impress their friends and fit in, etc. Understanding the non-verbal communication and identifying with the situations befalling the people you pass throughout your day has a strange way of making you feel connected to a place and blurs the line a bit more of exactly where home is.

At my favorite local Leicester pub, The Shakespeare's Head, I got more than my share of earfuls on America. The reason I liked The Shakespeare's Head is because it's what I like to call an "old-man pub." Very different from the hustle and bustle of student bars, proper English pubs are more like an extension of your living room. I would sit in that pub after classes and watch all the retirees who were, by their own account, "hiding from their wives." They would sit and talk and drink and smoke for hours at a time. Everyone in the pub knew each other, but you could tell no one was really friends. These men shared the type of bond that forms between co-workers who spend a lit of time together at the office, but are not involved in their outside lives.

This type of environment, fueled by the availability of delicious micro-brews local to Leicester, was the perfect breeding ground for honest conversation. The phrase I heard most often in that pub was "no offense." You could tell that the older English men were not really impressed with America (except those who looked back fondly on past holidays spent driving around California) and they seemed to very much enjoy bringing up our nation's problems. It was almost always good natured ribbing, or at least an honest observation without malicious intent. Only once, in that pub, did I encounter a guy trying to pick a fight, and he was apparently a troublemaker by all accounts, so I would hesitate to call his hostility representative.

I was also surprised to learn that people from other countries understood that the war is unpopular in America as well as abroad. I think its a copout to hide behind the "I didn't vote for him" approach, but its also nice to know that people don't look at all Americans as being war-mongers. There are, of course, plenty of nuts in every country. Most memorably was an elderly and toothless man in Rome who took it upon himself to print out photos of American-caused atrocities and photos from Abu Gareb and the like and display them on one of the lesser fountains situated in a popular square. He took the further liberty of shoving them in our faces and shouting "This is President Bush, this is your democracy" as we passed.

One of the most interesting observations on America came from a Dutch guy I met on a flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf. He was about my age and warned me up front that he "didn't have the most positive view of America." When assured him that I wouldn't be offended, he continued to say how he resented the fact that we call ourselves the "land of the free". I had to laugh because from the Dutch perspective, it does seem completely ridiculous that we pride ourselves on having individual freedoms. The laws in Holland are famously lax, with a lot of emphasis placed on self-governance and open-mindedness. Apart from the specific laws in place, my new Dutch friend spoke with passion (he was at school to study social work) about educating kids about drugs and sex and not simply instilling fear and shame in the next generation. He told me how he organizes conferences and programs for troubled kids to have the opportunity to ask any questions they have about drugs without fear of being judged. He also told me about a recent program to provide drug testing stations in dance clubs that was gaining traction until banned by a recent conservative swing in government. I could never picture such freedom penetrating the most conservative corners of America.

During my time abroad I have discovered that America's three main exports are fast-food, entertainment and cigarettes. While this may sound like a typical high-minded quip bashing America, it does seem to be the overwhelming truth. There have been Burger King, McDonald's and KFC restaurants in every major city I've visited, and everyone seems to smoke Malborourghs and drink Coke. As I mentioned above, the Brits all wanted to talk about Family Guy and American movies and music, which surprised me. I do not remember being struck by the prevalence of American cinema the last time I was in Europe, but it makes sense to me why there is a market for American movies abroad. Making movies is one of the areas in which America can lead the world, and no one complains. Movies cost a lot of money to make, and require a certain expertise that not every culture has had a chance to hone; there is no equivalent to Hollywood in places like Germany and Holland, and people love movies everywhere.

The topic of other Americans abroad is a touchy subject as well. I would hate to speak ill of my fellow ex-pats, but there is always a lot of pressure to represent your country favorably when you are meeting people who already have a negative image of your homeland. There were more than a few Americans that I just wanted to swat. These people were the ones who did not realize how lucky they were for such a great chance to immerse themselves in another culture first hand. These people were the ones that complained constantly at european inefficiency or some tiny differences from home that, instead of encouraging them to explore, left them bellyaching. The other major problem with Americans abroad is how LOUD we all are. If you hear a drunk girl on a bus in Leicester, screaming about some random nonsense, there's a good chance she's American.

In Spain I learned that its not only the Americans who cannot wave their nation's colors as proudly as our ancestors once could. When I met Coco and Tammy (the two girls on the left; joined here by an extraneous French-Canadian) at my hostel in Barcelona, they surprised me when they talked about the shame felt by German youth as part of day to day life. Coco revealed that whenever people found out she was German, their first question was some mocking variation of "Have you met Hitler, personally?" Coco also talked about how she would never wear any clothing with a German flag or even the German colors for fear of being called a Nazi. She told me about the extremely strict laws regarding anti-semitism and displaying any Nazi paraphernalia of any kind. She also talked about hope - the pride that she felt during the previous World Cup (that was hosted by Germany). She said that for the first time in her life people were waving flags and seemed genuinely happy to be German. I felt so sorry for her (and all Germans) at that moment because all I could think about was how unfair it was for the sins of the last generation to have such a lingering impact on those trying to live in the shadow of such atrocity.

It only occurred to me a few months into my studies in England that the very act of asking how other countries viewed America was a unique postulation. Every time I got to talking with a random stranger in a bar or train or cafe, I would hear their thoughts on America. These thoughts would often include pop-culture references and knowledge of not only the political system but the candidates running for office in 2008. It hit me one day that if they had turned the question around and asked me something like "Well, what do you think of Ghana?" I would have to say something like "I hear it's hot there." What percentage of Americans can name one foreign political candidate? Most of my friends at home don't even know the current foreign leaders in the news now, let alone the intimate politics of that country's party system. But, in Europe, time after time I found myself discussing Hilary's chances for election and whether or not the country is ready for a black president.

The sad truth is that the majority of Americans are more ignorant of world affairs that most of the European countries. We seem to be very isolationist an immutable in our stronghold across the Atlantic, but by immersing myself in cultures foreign to mine, I feel as though I have a more complete world view. If nothing else my journey has shown me other ways of looking at the world, simply for the sake of argument. There are many things that I prefer about America by way of modern conveniences, building codes and safety regulations. But I think we in America could all learn something from the Dutch or the Spanish or the Italians if we could just relax a little. I never noticed how high-strung America is, but we topped the global charts again this past year for stress related illness. Hopefully in the future we can learn from each other's cultures and merge all the best ideas for the betterment of society, but the cynic in me says that ignorance and unyielding pride will be the undoing of such harmony.

©2007 Adam Jarret. All Rights Reserved.