Living abroad I’m often told that I don’t look American – by people who have never ventured outside their home country and have encountered few Americans in the flesh. Sometimes I’m the first American they’ve ever seen. And yet they’d rather believe that I’m German or French or British or Canadian or Russian or (stranger still) a native Chinese ethnic minority. One of my funniest moments in Urumqi – the little salesgirl at one of the university shops leaned over the counter and piqued, “I just have to ask you – what ethnic minority are you?“. More often in Bishkek people just assume that I’m Russian. At second glance that might not look quite right (the hair, the shoes) – but as I don’t match their assumption of Americanness, Russian it is.
And so what is American? And what defines one as American, as understood from the perspective of those who have never set foot in the states?
First, it must be the glow of wealth. We’re often asked why we don’t go live in America, why we would prefer to later settle in Turkey. Coupling with an American is seen as E’s good fortune, the opportunity to live in that golden land without the endless hurdles and hassles of visa applications. Why we might choose otherwise seems absurd.
Yes, E’s whole close-knit family is there; yes, the weather is generally better; yes, the food is fantastic and nobody has to worry about GMOs; yes, healthcare is basically free; yes, we would never be more than a ten hour drive from a seaside vacation; and, yes, there’s the cultural warmth…. but, you could live in America…
A few weeks ago I was sitting in the teagarden waiting for E to finish work when I began chatting with a female art teacher and a covered cherub-faced housewife who were out picnicking with their young kids. When I said I was from the states the housewife got this glazed look over her face. “America…I have a friend who lives in Texas. She has a duplex. It’s really nice – the houses, the houses in America are beautiful.”
When she says Texas, all I can think of is driving through hours of scrubland desert to have lunch at Lubbock, or the dead suburbs of Houston. While I can understand her envy at the spaciousness, neatness and private lawns of American homes – I’m still surprised when, driving through the Anatolian heartland, we often see single apartment blocks and not individual homes among the bare rolling hills – I don’t think she imagines the cultural bareness, the stifling droning summers, of American suburbs. Beautiful, but empty.
Second, it must be American brashness and boldness. I’m expected to wear jeans topped with sweatshirts or tiny tanks, baseball hat and ponytail if not minidress and glittering heels. Fabulously glam or down-on-the-bleachers sporty, or clipped blond hair and minivan warrior. That’s an American woman. And while I’ll admit that we do have elements of all those characters in American society, they certainly don’t form the composite whole. America has the world’s third largest population, and we’re far from homogeneous. And so where do these images come from?
The first culprit is definitely TV. When I first landed in China seven years ago, Chinese students devoured American television: Friends, Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Twighlight, Prison Break. Having watched Friends only in middle school and none of the others (did anyone over fifteen watch Twilight? Did anyone watch Prison Break?), I was at a loss when compared to their characters. But of course, if those are the images repeated over and over and over again, then they will be understood to represent the country as a whole. Pitch-perfect suburbs and glamorous downtown flats, career-ambitious, flirty, fun, forever partying, forever young, and completely assured of their place in the middle/upper class, cosmopolitanly comfortable. Feminism and female strength, when it reared it’s head, misinterpreted as sexual openness.
Yesterday at dinner with a few Turkish friends/neighbors one of them asked me what Americans our age really did in their free time. I first told them that it really depends on where you live; New Yorkers tend to be more urban-oriented in their free-time pursuits whereas West Coasters and Colorado residents spend many a weekend in the great outdoors, or just raising chickens in their backyard and doing bike tours of breweries. Among other activities, I also mentioned house parties, dinner parties and potlucks – thinking back to our loose college affairs, deep conversations over shared organic fare, and sitting on a porch at dusk consumed in political debates. Sometimes we’d pop open a bottle of wine or share the spoils from one of Portland’s many eclectic independent breweries. But at “houseparty” one guy’s eyes lit up “House parties! Yes, I’ve heard of those! You mean, like on TV? Like American Pie?” err… sure… just like American Pie. Minus most of the underage debauchery, and minus moms.
As in China, I find myself having to constantly remind people that, if TV shows were honest reflections of our daily lives, few people would watch them. They have to be different, a diversion – reflective of our culture to the extent that they are relevant, but more intense, more extreme, more engaging. Nobody wants to watch college kids cleaning dishes, searching through stacks of books, or working out at the gym before having a quiet dinner with one or two housemates. This is true as well of Chinese TV shows, which depict everyone as living a lux middle class lifestyle on a secretary’s salary, and Turkish TV shows (oh, the soap operas – just trying to read the plot summaries is dizzying). I mean, no one actually watches Twighlight and believes that America has vampires, right?
I suppose, for expats living in America, there’s always pressure to live up to the perceived wealth and abundance of America, especially when catching up with casual acquaintances. Would you tell about the loneliness of suburbs, the distant relations between neighbors, the poverty hanging around the corner, the three hours you spent on the phone just trying to track down the furniture you ordered from IKEA? Perhaps not, if those aren’t part of the narrative of America you audience wants to hear. And perhaps if you do include those other elements in your narrative, but they don’t fit into your audience’s pre-conceived idea of America and what they are expecting you to say, then those elements won’t stick. Renn Fayre debauchery they’ll remember; studying endless hours in the library, biking through the winter drizzle, or dealing with bureaucracy they won’t.
But one thing I don’t understand is how people can watch American movies and TV and not see that other side of American society – poverty-stricken, ignorant, and isolated America. I know that urban poverty is gang-glamified: ghetto rap iconized by Jay-Z and Rihanna, diamonds, Cadillacs and big rap bling; what people see isn’t often poverty. But what about that other side, rural poverty that so rudely sticks its nose into American media?
I know not all aspects of America are represented in the media most commonly consumed overseas; but grinding poverty is sometimes included – and yet rarely does it take a permanent place in the overseas idea of America. Last week we watched a few episodes of the 2014 season of True Detective, where rural blight practically serves as the third main character. True Detective is popular overseas too. Perhaps not to the extent of Twilight, but watched nonetheless. How is it though that people can also watch this show, with its long takes of desolate empty landscapes and dilapidated homes somehow still inhabited, and not incorporate this side of society into their conception of America? How is is that the easygoing lives of four singlesses in Manhattan is taken as representative, but rural blight as an anomaly?
And True Detective isn’t the only depiction. Both Mud and Winter’s Bone came out in the last few years, but apparently they didn’t make a dent in most people’s idea of America. I suppose I should also be asking why almost every American action film seems to have a mob of Russian-speaking mafia villains…