To be an American in a book (or movie for that matter) by a non-American is to be rude, uncouth, ill-mannered and porcine. We tromp around on delicate cobblestones, squeezing our overfed bulk into small cafés, complaining about the small portion sizes and lack of ketchup. We talk loudly and obnoxiously, simultaneously expecting that everyone to speak our language, and assuming that they can’t understand when we comment about their body odor and bad teeth.
“The British yob on holiday” is a similar stereotype, but even they don’t hesitate to take a drink of from the overflowing cup of American tourist haterade. I mean, Americans who have visited England: have you seen their faces when they hear your accent? They actually wince. Like, you seemed perfectly harmless, even pleasant, before it was discovered that you were American. I think part of the problem is that our accent is dreadfully unsexy. Whereas we tend to find foreign accents charming, our nasal tones do not seem as pleasing. This adverse reaction is hardly new; Edith Wharton was writing about the supercilious contempt directed toward American arrivistes.
For a long time I considered to myself to be above all this. If I spend an extended amount of time (say over two weeks) in an area, I try my best to pick up some of the local language. If I am fat, I am not fat enough to be automatically categorized as coming from the United States, as demonstrated by the fact that a French girl said, upon meeting me, “Mais t’es pas du tout grosse!” True story. And I may be many things, gentlefriends, but ignorant is not one of them. In fact, I used to be proud that no one ever guessed I was American…or expressed disbelief when I confessed my origins. Now I just find it depressing.
Still, all these accusations are pretty easy to shrug off. You can’t judge America by its reality TV; and if you do, well, who’s the ignorant one now?
One of the more insulting portrayals of an American abroad appears in Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam, a book by one of my favorite authors, Amélie Nothomb. The protagonist Amélie is living in Tokyo when she meets Amy, a young American, whose friend Rinri is a mutual acquaintance. Things start off badly. “Sa présence nous força à parler en anglais, ce qui me la rendit odieuse. Elle me déplut encore davantage quand je devinai qu’on l’avait invitée dans l’espoir de mettre à l’aise.” Yes, it’s a shame when you have to share the title of “Westerner” w/ an American.
Then it gets even more personal: Amy babbles incessantly on about peanut butter (well it’s GOOD, okay? And it doesn’t taste the same anywhere else!) and begins each of her sentences w/ “In Portland…”
Amélie, the daughter of diplomats, was born in Japan, and feels drawn to the country, which she explains to Rinri and his two Japanese friends.
“Do you have Japanese citizenship?” one inquires.
“No. It’s not enough to be born here. No nationality is as difficult to acquire.” (Uh-oh, the Germans aren’t going to like hearing that).
“You can become American,” remarks Amy. Amélie has to change the subject to avoid committing “un impair,” or grave insult.
Earlier, Amélie had been confused about the meaning of the verb asobu, which she thinks is a cognate for “jouer,” to play. Thus, when her host says, “Je vous en prie, you’re my guest…have a seat and play,” she’s searches for a game, perplexed.
“Amy saw my dismay and burst out laughing.
‘Asobu,’ she said.
‘Yes, asobu, to play, I know,’ I responded.
‘No, you don’t know. The verb asobu doesn’t mean the same thing as the verb “to play.” In Japanese, as soon as you aren’t working, that’s called asobu.’
So it was. I was outraged that it should be an expatriate* from Portland to tell me this, and at the same time, this plunged me into pedantry in order to teach her a lesson:
‘I see. That corresponds then with the notion of otium in Latin.’
‘Latin?’ asked Amy, terrorized.”
I said earlier that I found this to be more insulting; that’s b/c it’s closer to the truth. While Americans pride themselves on being open and inquisitive, I think we also believe, to varying degrees, that our culture is superior. I mean, we have peanut butter! What’s not to love? And who cares about Latin? Scat mortis. Horace sure doesn’t, b/c he’s dead! (the Horace. Not your great-uncle Horace, who seems to cling to life beyond all reason.) Since people are inundated w/ our culture, I think they become defensive of their own, hyper-sensitive to any indication of what is perceived as American imperialism. Incomprehensible as that seems to us, they don’t like peanut butter. Or maple syrup. Or root beer. (I’m going to piss some Canadians off by claiming all these…but hey, we’re all North Americans, right?)
Amy is not clueless or grotesquely fat, but she still possesses the quality of a true American: that brash arrogance. A kinder word for this might be forthrightness, albeit of a rather shameless sort. This makes her all the more believable, which in turn makes the situation all the more cringe-worthy. One has to wonder, how many people did I unknowingly insult and aggravate during the course of what I thought was a friendly cultural exchange? Maybe I wasn’t just imagining that their smiles seemed a little strained.
Is it our fault? Yes and no. Obviously, it’s our government and the industrial-entertainment complex that dominates so much of the outside world–not the individual traveler. Contrary to what South African immigration staff seem to think, I do not have President Obama on speed dial. I do think people take umbrage to the unspoken assumption radiated by Americans that other people want to be us, and would, if only they could. I honestly don’t think we’re trying to be obnoxious…it just seems to make perfect sense. Which of course rankles people who are proud NOT to be American, thank you v. much. But it is precisely b/c we do wield such widespread influence that they feel threatened by it. Are there v. many people wringing their hands over Basque nationalism? Not so much.
So what should an American do? When encountering people abroad, they seem to expect you to humbly prostrate yourself before the altar of their vituperative anti-American diatribes. As people in a relatively privileged position (although not anymore, you might argue!), perhaps it is our job to listen, to explore the reasons behind angry sentiments, and to look critically at our behaviors.
It’s hard, though. “I don’t even want to go to America,” a Namibian colleague one day informed me, a propos of nothing.
“Luckily I wasn’t offering to take you. I don’t think you’d like it; you would actually have to do your job,” I answered (in my head).
Oh well. As your mother used to say when the other girls teased you, they’re all just jealous.
*The word is ressortissante, which was hard to translate. Actually, I’m aware there’s some clunky syntax in my rendering; that’s b/c I wanted to stay as faithful to the original text as possible. I was more focused on content than calliphony.