Culture

Last night we reunited with friends who also travel and also know the USAID world. Sometimes we don’t see each other for months even though we don’t live that far apart. In our conversation the topic of how people in other countries see America came up; we all have stories about that. It reminded me of sitting with a group of Iraqis, at a time that bombings in Baghdad were common and planes spiraled into the airport to avoid hits. We were in the lobby of the Marriott hotel in Amman and I skyped with Axel in Manchester. The Iraqis crowded around me and questioned Axel about the danger of living in America. It was such a contradiction and showed, once again, that was is unknown is dangerous, an old reflex probably form the stone ages.

The soap opera Dallas did much to export the notion that America is all about sex and money, greed and aggression. We could think of many instances where sex and money were the main themes in conversations with foreigners (beyond Europe) when we talked about America.

I was one of those people once who only knew about America from second hand sources. In my young age America and China were the two exotic places I dreamed of visiting. I knew America from the weekly Donald Duck cartoon that my family subscribed to and which was the focus of a bicycle race home between my brother and I. He always won so I had to wait until he finished. It is from this that I learned a few things about America:

• The front door leads straight into the living room (no halls)
• The mailbox sits on a stick by the road
• There are yellow buses that take kids from home to school and back
• Boys wear little caps (I later learned were called beanies)
• It is a place full of inventors, odd balls and rich people (in Dutch they were called respectively Willie Wortel (William Carrot) the mishap-prone inventor, Goofy (pronounced khowfie)the oddball and Dagobert Duck (Uncle Scrooge).

When I finally made my first visit to the US in 1973 I often said, “wow, it is just like in [the] Donald Duck!” So that is how America was exporting its culture then. Movies did the rest, and McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts of course. And now much of the world is homogenizing or already homogenized (I am thinking of Manila) to a culture that America can no longer call its own. I am sure I will find it in Ulaanbator too.

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