Thursday, August 7, 2008

The USA Craze

I remember one day in the beginning of my tenth grade year, a senior guy who was a good friend of mine stopped me after school and said, "Hey! I need to talk to you! What’s all this stuff I keep hearing about you?" I stood there listening as he recalled all these things people - lots of different people - had been saying about me through the gossip chain. I remember my jaw dropping at some of the crazy rumors and then this really weird sensation came over me: why the heck would anyone care enough to be talking about me (much less take the time to make up stories)?

It's not that I had "low self-esteem" or thought I was completely unimportant. I went to a small school and the fact that I was a cheerleader, a good student, a party girl (just being honest here), and involved in every organization on campus put me in that not-so-exclusive "popular kids" group. But I had heard my share of rumors about other people, and I just couldn't think of anything that would make me so interesting that people all over town and around school would be talking about little ol’ me!

Last week, my post about my immersion class experience evoked some interesting comments, comments that took me back to my first couple of months living in Brasil. The couple of months that sort of reminded me of that day with my friend in tenth grade.

This time it wasn't that people were spreading awful rumors about me though. The first couple months in Brasil, I was constantly shocked at how much people wanted to talk about the United States. And not just because they were talking to me. Everyone I came across seemed to want to discuss US politics, culture, or problems. And they knew a lot! People here are following the presidential election closely and often have stronger opinions (good and bad) about my country than they do of their own! They certainly have more to say about President Bush than they do President Lula! (And oh, how uninformed they often are on that subject!)

I felt like that little 16 year old girl again as I listened to everyone talking about my country. Why the heck does everyone care so much? Why is it that there is something about US politics on the Brasilian news everyday? Why do people watch American movies and listen to American music, even though plenty of them don't understand English? Why do they think Americans eat fast food every single day (which most of us don't/didn't!), and furthermore, why do they care what we eat anyway? Why do they have such strong opinions about who my next president is - they don't pay US taxes, their national and personal security doesn't depend on who our next leader is. I went between flattered, that they spend so much of their time thinking about my country and embracing my culture (movies, etc.), to totally bewildered as to why.

I understand that the US is a key player in the international world. I understand that we export lots of goods. I understand that we have a huge entertainment industry. But I still don't fully understand the obsession.

So meanwhile, Americans get dubbed as not caring about or taking an interest in other cultures. But sometimes I think it's just that we are interested in the same thing - the United States of America!

12 comments:

Corinne said...

People in Brazil (and other contries) know much more about US politics and economy than we do about theirs, but that has a lot to do with the impact US politics and economy has on the rest of the world.

However, I am amazed at how some Brazilians (in my experience upper middle class) do seem obssessed with all things US and the English language. Case in point is the un-necessary use of English words and phrases in Portuguese. Why delivery, usually not spelled right, instead of entrega a domicílio? Or why do most of the comercial establishments in the neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca in Rio have English names (Barra Garden, Barra Square, New York City Center - complete with a replica of the Statue of Liberty)? Halloween, when there is no culture reason for there to be Halloween in Brazil? This morning in an editorial, Arnaldo Jabor (who I personally find annoying) was about Brazilian cinema and its relationship to politics used the phrase "happy end" (I guess he meant happy ending). It smacks of someone just showing off.

There is even a show on Brazilian cable TV called "Manhattan Connection" where commentators talk about the US and specifically New York. As a result, their viewers know more about NYC than most Americans. So, in my opinion, the USA craze seems to be a status thing for some.

Of course, the opposite exists too. A counter-movement trying to get English phrases removed from Brazilian Portuguese and a whole slew of ills/government policies blamed on US imperialism.

Justin said...

I was pretty surprised by how much Brazilians knew about American politics (and also how wrong their misconceptions about the average Americans were - most of them definitely had the impression that fast food was the primary staple of the American diet). However, I noticed the exact same thing in New Zealand. People there seemed just as concerned about American politicians as they were about their own politicians. I guess that, for better or worse, it's just an indication of the influence that the U.S. has on the world.

Your comment about Lula reminds me of a joke one of my coworkers told me: Why is Lula like a turtle on a telephone pole? Because no one knows how he got there, no one knows what he's doing there, and no one knows how to get him down from there. I don't know much about Brazilian politics, but I got the idea that he didn't care for Lula.

Rachel said...

For better or for worse, the US has a huge effect on countries worldwide, so it's in everyone's best interests to follow what's going on there. I think Brazilians have a mixture of respect, fear, and amusement in regards to the US, and that also drives their interest. Also, since the US is arguably the most dominant country in the world, especially culturally, people are obsessed with English and making things "American," just like elitist Americans used to with everything French.

wondering ego said...

We have our share of americanization, I must agree.
There is a part of the brazilian population is US-crazed, those are usually the "shopping mall goers", that is, crazy for consumerism... those that go shopping in Miami or NYC... Another part are those seduced by the movies... and G-d! I hope that movies are just an industry, but not much representative of the real american culture (it must be something different).
Others are fascinated with modernity, and the face of modernity they know or were put in contact was the "americanism"... a pop and industrialized (canned) version of modernity.
And please don't get crazy on me, I don't hate the US, I am going there soon, for Harvard and MIT, mostly, not for shopping or to eat hamburgers... Also to enjoy lots of other good things I am sure they have!

Ray Adkins said...

Emily,

My job takes me around the world often, and recently in a conference in Budapest, Hungary, I found myself at a dinner table with folks from around the world, including France, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, China, South Africa, they were all in a heated debate, some defending president Bush's actions and others attacking, people had strong opinions about Obama and McCain, my head was spinning, I never witnessed anything like that back home...
I have relatives currently living in New Zealand who email me news about the major of Detroit being accused of corruption etc...before I have a chance to read it in the news myself.
People around the world are obsessed with the US because we are the current world leader nation, other countries expect us to intervene when there is trouble, they expect US leadership in many different circumstances.
The wrong idea folks have of us around the world I personally attribute to Hollywood, as an entertainment meca, sometimes they portrait American suburbs as a perfect paradise, "Desperate Housewives" for example, it is so fake, so unrealistic, everybody is perfect, they all have beautiful spotless homes and expensive brand new cars...
People really do think America is "P E R F E C T", and don't get me wrong, it is my favorite place to live, I do love my country.
But we are far from perfect, I used to tell my friends in Brazil we also have problems in the US, we also have crime, and a lot, just watch the local news in Philadelphia or New York city for a couple of days, you WILL be shocked...
I recently told a Brazilian friend, did you know doctors on the way to Iraq get trained on "gun shot wounds" in Philadelphia hospitals, YEAH, Philadelphia has an average of 100 gun shot wounds victims per DAY!
But according to Hollywood, we all drive expensive brand new HUMMERs, eat McD's for breakfast, lunch and dinner and all live in Wisteria lane...
Rachel is totally right, we had a HUGE French influence in the US not too long ago, and if you ask a couple of older Brazilians they will tell you, until the 1960's French was a required language in Brazilian schools and not English as it is today...
Brazil also had a very strong French OBSESSION on the first half of the last century...

what a great hot topic!

Good job Emily...

Take care

Ray

Lori - Blondie in Brazil said...

Like some others, we have experienced this in other countries in additon to Brazil.

What I find surprising is that people seem to think all of us talk about it all the time. I hate discussing politics and rarely ever do outside my immediate family. I definately don't want to have a conversation about it with a stranger from another country!

Similar to corinne the excessive use of the English language here surprises me. I mean, why not German or French. Why do they choose English? The mistakes crack me up a lot too, especially on tshirts. I have also seen some pretty inappropriate phrases on shirts in regular department stores. Much worse than in the US and I wonder if the people buying it even know what the shirt says. Probably not.

Anonymous said...

"So meanwhile, Americans get dubbed as not caring about or taking an interest in other cultures. But sometimes I think it's just that we are interested in the same thing - the United States of America!"

Yes, you are right - Americans can be very insular. I met some 20-year-old Americans in Brasil a few months ago and they were saying to the Brasilians "Get with the 21st century! Why are you not speaking English?"

Anonymous said...

"Why do they have such strong opinions about who my next president is - they don't pay US taxes, their national and personal security doesn't depend on who our next leader is."

The US has a huge influence on lives of citizens of the world, so their security and safety indeed does depend on who is elected.
Not sure if the Brasilians who talk to you about the election are bilingual or speak Portuguese only. I would venture to say if they are speaking to you in English, they are striving to improve themselves by learning the language and thus watch English-language television stations in Brasil, one of which is CNN. That station devotes a large percentage of its time to the US election; therefore its viewers will know more than a few details about it and when they want to practice their language skills with a US citizen that is the topic they will have knowledge about.

Anonymous said...

I read your blog quite regularly since I found it positive and nice guide to living in Brasil as an expat.
However, this post disappointed me. On one hand I do understand how it is to be from the country that (you feel) is misregarded with other nations. I can say that because I am from one of these countries. On the other hand, I feel that you do not really comprehend what influence US imposes on other countries on Earth. Lets just say that we would not care who your next president is going to be if the last one did not start at least 2 wars in countries very far away of USA. The wars that still influences people all over the world. The only reason why US is as you call it "key player" in the international world (until now) is because your government is pushy self absorbed system who is purely money oriented.
The only thing that people from rest of the educated world would like to hear is no news from US. Live and let live kind of philosophy. Or so called - play in your own yard.

Anonymous said...

My dear friend Emily started this blog to keep her family and friends in the USA connected to her and Eric while they live abroad. Simple as that.

Over the months she has attracted some outside readers. Some have proven to be openminded and genuinly intersted in her day to day encounters with a foreign country. Some, however, have chosen to be quite nasty and cowardly with their comments taking her words as a personal attack. Chill out people.

Emily is one of the nicest, non-judgemental people that I know and is simply trying to survive a few thousand miles away from the comforts of home and family by keeping a "journal" of her thoughts and adventures.

Em, I thought this to be one of your greatest posts and I would love to see how others would do in your situation; my assumption is not to well!
Amanda

Emily said...

Lots of interesting experiences and opinions on this one. I believe everyone is entitled to their own opinion, so I won't try to defend my position or comment on everything. I think my main two points might have been lost somewhere in all my rambling though, so I will try to just summarize with this:

1. I understand the US is a large nation (in size, population, exports/imports, world influence, etc.) But I've personally never thought of it as so important that I expect the rest of the world to take an interest. For this reason, I am flattered but also shocked at how much the rest of the world knows about, talks about, and just generally takes an interest in my country.

2. I have always heard, and said myself, that the average American takes less interest in foreign cultures than people from other countries do. Now that I have lived and done some traveling in Central and South America, I've noticed that most of these countries are interested in foreign culture, but mostly that of the US. (And I'm not referring to just the langauge.) My point there is that I don't see people watching French films, or wearing t-shirts with Chinese writing, or eating at German restaurant chains, or broadcasting TV shows from India. In my experience, the foreign culture interest seems to be in the USA and not in foreign cultures in general.

Bru said...

That's exactly what I meant back then. I mean, we have already enough problems in Brazil to be caring about other countries' problems so much. And I don't see why I would want Americans (or Frenchmen, or Japanese or whatever) to know anything and care about Brazil. To me, having the knowledge that we speak PORTUGUESE, that Buenos Aires is not our capital and that we do have technology and big cities, is enough. The rest, you can leave to a nice conversation with a brazilian if you have the chance to bump into one and ask aaaaaall of the questions you might have :)
As for the English, the obsession is easy to understand: you don't get a decent job in this country if you don't speak AT LEAST english. For educated people, it has become mandatory, and a third language, a huge plus...