When I was living in Europe, and for that matter, traveled around the world, I often heard the complaint or criticism, that while the rest of the world knew a lot about the US, the US seemed to be sorely ignorant about the rest of the world.
I often defended the American public, and would counter that it was easy to know something about America, since America had a lot of exposure on television, in movies, etc. It is relatively easy for someone to passively acquire knowledge about how America’s government works, school systems, how cities look, etc, just by watching episodes of the West Wing, CSI, and even Beverly Hills 90210. These shows are of course not perfect reflections of reality in the US, but they give people a ballpark idea.
And because we in the US are not exposed to television shows etc. from Sweden, it is hard for us to acquire passive knowledge about that culture. A Dane might complain that we know nothing of their government, while they understand how Congress works, etc. And a Nigerian might have the same complaint to America: that we can’t offer them reciprocal knowledge of their cultures, while they have a relatively good understanding of ours. But you can easily turn the tables on them by asking the Dane if he has a good understanding of Nigerian culture, and vice-versa.
We are living in a fishbowl, and the rest of the world looks in.
Last week I visited my boyfriend at his new station. He is living in Alabama. I was very excited to visit the South, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. I was literally squealing with delight at what I perceived as its quaintness.
Alabama seemed like the anti-Los Angeles. People were more relaxed, friendlier, and seemed more sincere. I started teasing my boyfriend that he lived on a movie set, as I rarely saw anyone drive up and down his street. However in the afternoons, families were on the lawns of their houses, playing with the children. Kids were riding bikes, parents pulling younger children in Radio Flyer red wagons. I thought I was in a Norman Rockwell painting.
The radio commercials for political candidates made me laugh at how conservative they were. Here in Los Angeles most candidates are chided for their conservative values, for example, a huge minus point here would be someone who was pro-life. This stance would be often repeated at how a candidate was against women’s right to choose. But in Alabama it seemed like “liberal” was a dirty word. In one advertisement in support of a conservative candidate, they mentioned how “liberal” his opponent was, and *gasp*shock* how he supported an openly gay candidate.
There were many roadside stands selling among other produce “boiled peanuts”. And along the highway there were signs indicating that people had cakes for sale from their house. It was really like some parallel universe. Almost like traveling back in time to how I imagine the 1950s, but at the same time with most of life’s modern conveniences.
And then it struck me: most of metropolitan America doesn’t really even know about this part of America because they are rarely exposed to it. But this part of America is pretty informed about the rest of America.
I can remember the shock that many urbanites had after the 2004 elections, and the discovery of Red America. They had assumed that the rest of America was like them, since media outlets are based in the cities, and mostly ignored non-urban areas. They were being ethnocentric, and thinking that their way of thinking was shared by most Americans.
And when I was in Alabama and surprised at all I was seeing and hearing, I realized that once again, those in the fishbowl have difficulty seeing out.