Anyone who has been able to travel outside of the U.S. has experienced the phenomenon of globalization — the international interdependence of cultural and economic activities. It is difficult to avoid the lingering influence of American popular culture. Twenty-five years ago I sat in a bar-room with German graduate students, in Germany, and was disappointed to hear American rock music blaring. Foolishly, I had expected some oompah music, or perhaps some classical. In my travels now, the more obvious evidence of “Americanization” is in the spread of U.S. based restaurants and cafes – I’ve sat in Starbucks in Vienna and Glasgow, seen McDonalds, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken everywhere. And the movie posters!! Fifty Shades of Grey is everywhere. Here’s how the ads look in Vienna:
And, here’s a street shot in Prague with a Hooters ad (yes, a Hooters ad) and a Starbucks. After that, a Vienna street scene:
I attended a writer group last week in Glasgow that turned out to have a very international flavor. The leader was Canadian. Other attendees had roots in Guyana, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. I was the lone American. When I said where I was from, the gentleman from Africa commented, “Well, we’re all Americans really, aren’t we?” I said no and watched the fellow from Ireland get pretty upset. He clearly did not want to be called an American.
After we’d discussed the writing that had been submitted in advance, I joined several of the group members for a pint at a nearby pub. The Irish fellow wanted to know, “What is next for America?” I wasn’t sure what he was asking about and said so. “Well, politically, you know. I mean so much of what happens here depends on what happens there – certainly economically.” I don’t know if I spoke well on behalf of the U.S., but I tried. I spoke of my concerns of the continuing healthcare issues – that even though we have healthcare for all (supposedly) now, it seems it will be a long, bumpy ride before we really do. I spoke of my ongoing concerns regarding the disrespect and polarization in our country – politically, racially, economically – you name it, we seem to find a way to “take sides.” I spoke of my concerns that the economy continued to be on quicksand, rather than solid footing – that I worry constantly for one of my children who has had a hard time finding steady work. I said that I wished I could explain how very large America is – how different individual states are – that I was only speaking as someone with a white, middle-class, mostly rural and then suburban, experience. I was speaking from a position of privilege and education – not the spot every single American occupies. Not the spot every single person in my extended family occupies, across many states. We are a large and diverse nation — I felt the responsibility of speaking on behalf of my country, with the reality that I could only speak from my experience and views.
So when my new friend from Guyana said, “We’re all Americans, aren’t we?” I was able to understand the statement after some thought. American television, fast food, movies and music are prevalent in other countries. The “American perspective” or “American experience” – whatever that really means – is shared abroad and experienced abroad. For some, these snippets of the U.S., will be all they know. And for Americans who don’t get to travel abroad, they may not realize why – for many foreigners – there is a subtext, a rankling unease, when they meet an American. “We’re all Americans, aren’t we?”
No. No, truly we’re not.
But, we are all people. We all get hungry and need to eat. We all get tired and need to sleep. We all – as global citizens – have an obligation to do what we can to enhance and not hurt our corner of the globe. At that writing group, I thought the best I could do was try to speak well of my country, while sharing my concerns. And so, I tried.