Saturday, December 10, 2011



It’s been fascinating on this trip to hear what people in various countries have to say about the USA. First, though, we had to figure out how to refer to the place where we live. In South America—which is America too—we were very careful to say “We’re from the United States.” Actually, I learned in Peru to say “Soy norteamericana,” which I liked because it encompassed both my Canadian childhood and my adult home. But when we told people in Africa and Asia that we were from the United States, they’d sometimes look puzzled for a second and then say, “Oh! America!”

Occasionally someone would make a critical comment about American geo-politics, but usually they were too polite. More often they’d mention someone—a cousin, a niece, a son—who was studying in the US. Or maybe they’d say, “I want to go there someday.”  Frequently they asked what we thought of Obama and barely waited for our reply before sharing their own enthusiasm and admiration. 

A young South African man was astonished to hear there’s a lot of interest in organic food in the USA. He didn’t say so, but I gather his impression was that all we eat—and all we want to eat—are genetically modified organisms and the products of vast chemical-spewing agribusinesses.

A man who ran a little restaurant in Antananarivo, Madagascar couldn’t believe he was talking to people from America. “It is so far!” he said in French, the look on his face expressing real shock. Then, after a pause, he added, “Everybody is intelligent there.” We laughed. “Well,” we said, “some are, some aren’t.”

In Peru one day, I got into a discussion with my Spanish teacher—an intelligent, university-educated man—about access to medical care for poor people in each of our countries. “Are there poor people in the United States?” he asked me, clearly surprised.

A well-traveled professor we met on a train in India exclaimed that when he visited the United States he encountered “such respect for life!” He wasn’t talking about a religious viewpoint, it turned out—he was talking about traffic. “I started across a zebra crossing,” he told us, “and suddenly I saw a car was coming towards me. ‘What should I do?’ I asked myself. ‘Should I go back to the sidewalk?’ But the car stopped and the driver did this”—he made a motioning-across gesture. “And I saw that behind her were many more cars. And they all waited for me to go across!” Having experienced Indian city streets—where, the joke goes, you need to hire a rickshaw to cross the street—we understood why the incident seemed so remarkable to him. But I also thought he was lucky he hadn’t been on some US street corners I know.

Obama-wear was everywhere we went in Africa. His face was on ties, t-shirts, backpacks, belts. Some of the clothing may have been donated by US charities, but some—the sarongs printed with his face, for instance—sure looked locally made. It seemed that people there were proud of him and of the fact his father was Kenyan. It seemed they wanted the world to know he was one of their own.
The influence of American pop culture was dismayingly widespread. Our guide in the empty wilderness at the southern tip of Chile turned out to be a big fan of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” A waitress in a café in northern Peru played a Garth Brooks song about Baton Rouge over and over and over again so she'd be able to sing it in the karaoke bar. And a sunglass-wearing doorman in Madagascar told us that all Americans were very strong--he knew, he had seen "Top Gun." 

We arrived in Botswana just before the Fourth of July. We’d been gone so long from home—and had encountered so few norteamericanos—that I was thrilled to hear the exuberant white woman hosting the gathering we’d been invited to address another guest as “Sugar Pie.” Americans! And not just Americans—Southerners! We introduced ourselves and were hugged and welcomed and pulled into a volleyball game, all of which bolstered one of the better stereotypes about our citizens abroad. Whatever else we may be, Americans sure are friendly—and at that moment I was very glad of it. 

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, the man in the optical store was reading my passport information out loud so his coworker could write up a receipt for my glasses. He got to “place of birth,” and a note of envy and longing crept into his voice as he read, “New York, USA.” I felt like saying, “I’m not rich! My life is nowhere near as privileged as you think it is!” But it is. I am tremendously privileged and most of the time I don’t even know it.

At Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient capital near Agra, India, a young teenager latched onto us in the crowded market just as we realized we’d missed the road leading up to the entrance to the historic site. He insisted on steering us through twisting narrow alleys up the steep hill, chatting all the while in English. “America? Very good country.” And then in a rush of enthusiasm he said, stringing it all together so it sounded like one word, “MichaelJacksonMichaelJordanObama.” He paused, then went on. “Well, Michael Jackson is dead. But do you know Michael Jordan?” The face of a street-smart teenager planning to steer us to a little shop he knew became suddenly naïve and hopeful. “Do you know Obama?”


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