Monday, October 17, 2005

Americans Abroad

"You're from England? Australia? Canada?"

People often misidentify Benjamin and me as being from one of these countries (and I'm talking about English people, Australian people, and Canadians -- also French, Dutch, and so on...). I have no idea how or why -- sometimes it comes after a simple look at us and other times, it comes after a bit of conversation, which makes the idea of it even more ridiculous -- excluding Canada. We certainly don't sound English and Australian!

Some say our accents are subtle, that we do not sound American. Perhaps it is because we are not loud, obnoxious, brash, and arrogant. Before you've hung me, my fellow Americans, I only say this because this is a common perception of Americans on the part of the rest of the world, whom we have met while traveling from the deserts of India, to the mountaintops of China, to the seas of Vietnam, the temples of Cambodia, and the beaches of Indonesia and Thailand.

It is true. People from around the world have a negative impression of Americans. They are usually shocked that we are from that obnoxious place because we are not obnoxious. I imagine in their travels, these people must have met frat boys on vacation, yelling and commanding and demanding in abusive and drunken slurs, with baseball hats on backwards and an opinion that the rest of the world should be like America. I don't know how it would be possible to meet such people, though, as we have not met any or seen one.

Some of our foreign friends' shock comes from seeing real, live Americans in the first place. We are a rare species amongst travelers. And this is true. As I've said, we have barely met any Americans on the road, save a handful... a most of them were teaching in China... not traveling.

The Americans we have met have been nothing but pleasant and kind and considerate of cultural differences in the lands they travel -- it seems silly to get upset about the latter as that is one of the biggest reasons to travel in the first place: to discover foreign lands and people. The Americans we met have marveled, too, that they have come into contact with their countrymen. It's as if we are twins separated at birth and have met after 45 years in ignorance of each other: it is THAT compelling. Really.

For our Americans-teaching-in-China travel friends, it makes some sense. They'd been in China for upwards of 1 year and admitted to staring at Westerners the same way the Chinese do; we're uncommon to see (regardless of nationality).

So, as I was saying... there is a bad reputation out there for us, my fellow Americans, and we ought to wonder about it, concern ourselves with it, and do what we can do to change it.

This is a good segway to my next bit of news:

The other predominant comment we have encountered on the road is that everyone, the world over, cannot believe Americans put Bush back in office and when they DO happen to meet an American, that American claims to have had nothing to do with it.

Now, I know some of you out there reading this may have voted for the man. Please don't send me angry mail like the last time I ranted on Bush. Don't shoot the messenger. I am merely reporting what has been said to me and what I have experienced first hand.

These people tell me, "Every American I've met says on introduction, 'I'm from the US, but I didn't vote for Bush,' and I'm getting sick of hearing it." These people want us to stop apologizing for it already. They figure Americans they meet on the road are probably not the sort who voted for Bush anyway. They're not talking about holiday-makers and that lot, they're talking about backpackers.

There you have it. The TWO most common perceptions/comments/opinions about the USA and her people. We hear it over and over again.

There are other perceptions on American life that we've heard while traveling, and if I've heard it more than once, I've listed it in the following:

1. American life is like American movies (and tv programs)

This is the most startling thing I've encountered because I thought people were smarter than to think a movie is like real life. Especially with Hollywood in charge. I mean, other countries produce movies and their movies are not all depictions of reality. Who would go see movies if they were? They are an ESCAPE from reality.

Once, while I explaining the time and cost of traveling from NYC to SF by plane, a couple of Germans were astounded. "But in the movies, people fly across the country just to say 'hello'," they said with some duress brought on by confusion. "That's the movies," I told them, "you know... they are not real."

In India, we met a local shark (tuk tuk driver) who claimed that the United States has cheap cars. "You can get a nice (but used) car for $300.00," he stated. "Where? Tell me where!" I exclaimed, "I would like to buy a nice (but used) car for such little money!" He didn't believe me when I told him it was impossible (not surprising because liars are usually skeptical about the truth of things other say). He'd seen this price chalked onto the window of a CADILLAC or some such car in the background of a scene in, of course, a movie.

I was further happy to disappoint more Indian men by breaking the news that the WWF (world wrestling federation) is a sham, a farce, totally and utterly and completely fake. They thought it was real and the immense show of sorrow upon hearing the news was a small victory for me: in some way (perhaps a bit misplaced), it made up for all the trickery and deceit I'd suffered at the hands of their brethren... almost.

2. Americans are all rich and some have money trees growing in their yards

People from the most destitute third world nation to our European peers cannot believe there is poverty in the US. "Oh yes," I tell them, "you should see all the homeless people in San Francisco." And that doesn't even describe the poverty found in ghettos, slums, and entire forgotten industrial towns that stretch across the country.

But being such a rich nation, one that has enough money to go around 'fixing' countries the world over, it is difficult for people to imagine that American citizen want for anything (provisions for health care fall in line with this thinking as well). And I think they have a point. It's a bit like that old saying about the shoe-mender fixing other peoples' shoes while his children are barefoot. It goes something like that...

As for the money tree. Wouldn't it be nice? It is, of course, ridiculous and it has probably only been used in the conceptual way... But it is true that people think we have money to burn. It's why souvenir hawkers will never leave us alone. I think that they think we have so much money, we buy things we don't' even want or already have 10 of. I tell them, "I don't care how cheap it is -- yes, you're right... it's a very good price -- but I don't care how cheap it is. I just don't want it." They think if I can buy it, I will.

I want to return back to the homeless issue I raised a few minutes ago -- there is tons of homeless and begging in San Francisco. And as I've traveled, excluding India, I have not seen a fraction of it in the countries I've visited. Perhaps the communist countries of China and Vietnam are good examples to start with. Being 'red', people are probably expected to pull their weight. And they do -- while the poor may be shining shoes, driving a cyclo, or selling souvenirs, they are working -- not begging. Cambodia is so poor, the people probably don't even think to beg; they've been poor to long. And there, people are working -- picking garbage for pennies if they have to -- but they are working. It's admirable.

3. Americans are gun-toting, bullet-slinging wild men (and women)

I met Australians who think every American owns a gun and walks the streets with it in concealment, ready to shoot and kill. One burly, muscled, plasterer said he was afraid to visit the US and, in fact, would NOT visit the US because he is not ready to die. He's afraid of getting shot dead in the street for looking at someone the wrong way. And this guy is brutish-looking; believe me, no one would mess with him. A fear (and especially the admittance of one) coming from this guy is like hearing a Rotweiler dog with a helium-sounding bark. He gets this impression from all the news reports of murders and school shootings and street gangs and such from over the years...

I assured him not everyone has a gun and if they did, they wouldn't go around firing them off at every little thing. I'm sure he doesn't believe me.


So that's it. Draw what conclusions you please... I am amused and also disgusted that we are conceived of and judged by our movies and tv programs -- it's hardly right and fair to think we are like the characters in those awful Hollywood and primetime productions.

Our reputation as arrogant, loud, brash, and obnoxious is there, and was there long before Bush... but everyone has their opinions and stereotypes and every person from every country is judged in some sort of way (unfairly) because of them. I don't like it, but there's not much to do but act like a decent human being when away from home. AND refrain from doing it to others.

As for the money tree, I'm searching for one on eBay. I'm sure they have one. If they've had a grilled cheese sandwich with the face of Mary burned into it, I'm sure they have a money tree. I'll get my $300.00 Cadillac once I have my money tree.


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