December 11, 2009
MAKASSAR, Indonesia – Spot the American(s) and the European(s).
A youngish couple, the woman blonde, pale, with blue eyes and a tad plump, her partner, skinny, taller than average, wearing a loud branded T-shirt, cargo pants and Velcro sandals. Meet on the guesthouse deck a slim solo traveler about their age, scarf knotted about his V-neck T-shirt, a literary novel open beside his steaming cup of black Torajan coffee.
The COUPLE pinches two fried clusters of dough from a plastic bag. The male half pops a plastic straw into a box carton of Milo chocolate drink. The woman cracks open a plastic bottle of grape punch.
HE asks how they can eat all the fried and processed stuff?
The male half of the COUPLE shrugs, “You get used to it I guess.” The woman’s airless laugh seems intended to push the conversation along.
The COUPLE is traveling with a Lonely Planet guide book and intends to take a guided tour into the rice terraced hills to see a Torajan funeral ceremony, as most tourists do.
In his struggle against globalization, HE forgoes guide books of any sort. He intends to motorbike into remote villagers and converse with strangers.
In town, HE and the COUPLE stop at a fruit truck. The woman asks, “How much for the mango?” The seller looks blank. The woman says more assertively, “How much, one mango?” No reply.
HE says, “Satu biji – berapa?” The seller says in Indonesian, “Three thousand.”
The woman half of the COUPLE says to the seller, “I’ll have three then, please.”
HE voices concern about the politics of the country and the pace of development. The COUPLE shows little interest.
* * *
Such encounters are commonplace in my travels, though when I mention the fact I am swiftly dismissed as an exception to the rule.*
Let’s see. I spent the first quarter century of my life in America, was raised by a fourth- (or is it fifth-?) generation American, attended public schools, played Little League, and was a Cub Scout (for two months at least). Like most Americans, my family moved every five years or so, from big cities to working class suburbs. And despite European claims of my exceptionalism, I’ve met a good number of Americans more well-read, health conscious, politically active, and worldly than myself. And come to think of it I keep meeting Europeans who are not nearly.
Am I really an exception?
The more time I spend with Europeans, the less convinced I am of the assumption they hold dear: that the “average European” is more sophisticated and enlightened than the “average American.”
A fair share that I meet abroad aren’t adventurous eaters. They stick primarily with fellow Europeans. They are incurious of local culture, customs, and politics. They cling to the beaten path as prescribed to them by guidebooks. They claim to be above that most “American” of consipracies, unfettered capitalism, but flock to and rave about its hollow new symbols, like Dubai. Meanwhile, I have a hard time just getting Europeans to name three American capitals (Dallas, wrong; LA, try again; New York, sorry). In a word, many of them prove to be as vapid and provincial as they accuse the guy from the next continent of being.
Why, in the face of so much contrary evidence, hasn’t the myth of European distinction been dispelled?
I see two main reasons. One, in detesting America, in struggling to maintain a high self-regard, Europeans have refused to see the degree to which they have embraced Americanization. As H.L. Mencken noted in his irreverently perceptive tome, The American Language, the British at the turn of the last century articulated their contempt for the infiltration of American slang into “proper” English by unwittingly using Americanisms. More recently, 30 years after McDonald’s set foot in France, it has opened 1,140 outlets across the country – making it the second most profitable operation besides the US. American influence on Europe – seen in everything from fashion and cuisine to entertainment and the arts – has only grown more pervasive in time. Denial is Europe’s bulwark against humiliation.
Secondly, many Europeans miss the fluidity of American culture, a point evinced by the degree to which they cling to old “evidence.” I still hear, for instance, that only 10 percent of Americans have passports. (Not true: see here and here). Or that American coffee and beer is crap, which is to ignore the revolution of the last 15 years. American beers today are among the most variegated and sophisticated in the world. And coffee is no longer something most Americans drink with powdered cream from a Styrofoam cup.
Nearly 40 years ago, French writer Jean-Francois Revel, who lived and traveled extensively in the US between 1970 and 1990, was “astonished by evidence that everything Europeans were saying about the US was false.” In a review of Revel’s Anti-Americanism, which examines Europe’s preoccupation with hating America, John Parker notes that “the conventional wisdom about the United States is even more wrong today than it was then.” That was in 2004. In the time since, the appalling abuses and pathetic blunders of the Bush presidency combined with the plethora of information playing to our prejudices in the internet age have done little to challenge people’s lazy assumptions about America. Maybe Obama can help change that.
This is not to argue against Europe and for America. I find both to be rich, diverse and fascinating civilizations. Nor is it to suggest that Americans are above being insular and provincial. But rather that the European obsession with America is built on a number of convenient illusions, preventing Europeans from seeing in their own culture what they see in America’s. Europeans will never be able to live up to their self-aggrandizing myths of enlightenment and sophistication until they do.
* Last month, in making this case, a European said most Americans are fat. In fact, 33 percent are, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, constituting a health crisis for sure, but hardly making people like myself an exception.