First impressions of foreign countries
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a non-American who loves American culture, I have always wondered about how American pop culture presents foreign countries to Americans. What are some of your early memories of seeing foreign countries depicted in America pop culture? Did these depictions make you want to travel or stay home? —Cobus
For whatever reason, virtually all my early examples of other countries in the media were also about the past rather than the present; I read a lot of Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling, both of which are almost guaranteed to make very young readers simultaneously fascinated with Britain (so many dialects, so much history in the land and the buildings), and convinced that even today, it’s an old, crazy place with a long history of apathy and cruelty, particularly toward the poor and disenfranchised. (As opposed to America, where we treat our paupers with dignity and honor, of course.) Between those authors and Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and The Secret Garden and the Narnia books and Edith Nesbit and The Hundred And One Dalmatians and I don’t know what all else, I’m not sure I realized there was a contemporary, modern UK until I saw Trainspotting. (Now there’s a movie guaranteed to not encourage tourism.) Apart from being stuck in the past, I’m not sure I ever got a romanticized (or exaggeratedly evil) notion of a foreign country in childhood. Oh wait, except for that old Wendy’s ad (“Is next: dayware. Very nice!”) which depicted the USSR as a lightless, choiceless, grim place full of fat ladies in potato-sack dresses and grim party apparatchiks who pretended to like whatever they were told to like. It was fairly funny to recently watch the movie Mao’s Last Dancer and find out that kids in Mao-era schools were taught the same thing about America: that the sun only shines here an hour a day or so because capitalism is such a terrible way to run a country that we all live in grey twilight misery all the time.
Like Tasha, most of the cultural signals I picked up about England were from reading English literature from the 19th century—Thomas Hardy, the Brontës, the Lake Poets, as well as Dickens and Kipling—so I was convinced that English history had more or less stopped around the end of World War II. Later in life, when I was old enough to know better, I had become so immersed in the low-life highbrow literature of James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, and George Bernard Shaw that I imagined the whole of Ireland consisted of endless green hills broken up by the occasional pub, where educated drunks yelled at each other late into the night. I was mildly surprised to learn that they have cell phones and computers and stuff. Slightly more forgivable, I think, just because all I knew about the country came from weird comic books, noise rock, cult films, and American television, was my belief that Japanese culture is completely fucking insane.
It’s easy to get into the habit of seeing other countries only in terms of their eccentric qualities, and that seems especially true of Australia. The folks down under are so busy documenting adorable marsupials, getting eaten by sharks and stung to death by other sea-born freaks of nature, writing copy for Outback Steakhouse menus, and keeping Paul Hogan in check that they’d hardly have time for building a normal civilization, right? I recently read Bill Bryson’s travel book In A Sunburned Country, and it nearly cured me of my conception of Australia as a wild cauldron of exotic deaths and puzzling idioms. Sure, Bryson spends a lot of time discussing the continent’s abundance of insanely venomous critters, and refers to its vast interior landscape as “murderous” at least a dozen times, but he also reveals an admirable, welcoming society that the rest of the world largely tends to ignore. Apart from that whole matter of the Aborigines (but who are Americans to criticize?) and Australia’s history as a dumping ground for criminals, Bryson generally implies that the country has a lot to offer the rest of the civilized world. In fact, he concludes that its merits are also the reasons people forget about it: “It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t need watching, and so we don’t.” What an enticing contrast: a society that’s congenial and as fully formed as any in the Western world, but also seems permanently remote.
As a kid, I probably watched National Lampoon’s European Vacation a hundred times, and really, what better way to learn about Europe? Via the Griswolds, I learned that the British are unfailingly polite, the French are condescending assholes, the Germans can turn on you in a second, and the Italians are scheming conmen who will kidnap your wife. Well, all of that can happen if you’re the perpetually blundering Chevy Chase, whose gaffes and general cultural stupidity create all of their problems. The film certainly hit on some time-honored stereotypes, but the Griswolds were really the butt of the jokes. That said, when I found out I’d be hitting all of those countries (and others) on tour in 2001, my fantasy wasn’t all that different from Rusty’s:
Presumably driven by abysmal elementary-school curricula and the Zoobooks phenomenon, I had a tendency growing up to see the world as more of a series of sets featuring cool animals than as actual environments featuring actual people. Much like Epcot center, countries were stereotypes—Italy had pizza, accents, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In Mexico, everyone wore sombreros and played maracas. Chinese people wore those conical rice-patty hats, and the men had long, skinny braids down their backs. I still believe most people know far more about giraffes and hippos than they do about actual people from Africa. As an adult, I’m absolutely ashamed all these horrible oversights, and in turn I’ve tried to do good deal of reading and traveling to rectify most of those problems, avoiding tourist traps along the route at whatever cost, of course.
I know I’ve brought it up in this column before, but as anyone who’s spent a fair amount of time with me can tell you, I will take any opportunity to talk about The Chipmunk Adventure. The 1987 animated feature film was my absolute favorite movie as a kid, and still gives me plenty of nostalgic glee as an adult. (If nothing else, the beautiful animation—courtesy of a bunch of poached Disney artists—holds up great.) It was also my introduction to the world outside of Canton, Michigan, taking 5-year-old me on an Epcot-like journey through several foreign countries with its musical race-around-the-world plot. I learned that all Mexicans wear sombreros and are constantly having fiestas; Egypt is ruled by bratty pre-teen princes who have many brides and use giant snakes to guard their treasures; Antarctica is filled with adorable, jewelry-wearing penguins; and the jungles of South America are home to silly-headdress-wearing natives who make human (er, chipmunk) sacrifices, but also love to rock out to “Wooly Bully.” It also taught me that the Parthenon is the rockingest place in Greece, if not the world, and that couscous is delicious. Obviously, adult me can see the embarrassing clichés and stereotypes at play here, but I don’t think any of that affected how I view these places. (Though I do enjoy couscous.) Rather, I think The Chipmunk Adventure taught me that there are so many colorful, diverse cultures out there waiting to be seen and experienced, provided you have a healthy sense of adventure and a thematically appropriate song to sing while you’re getting out of a jam.
My older brother and I used to watch a short-lived PBS show called Powerhouse about kids at a community center who tackle such after-school-special problems as body-image issues, anti-Semitism, and, if memory serves, racehorse sabotage. The plot was occasionally interrupted by animated or live-action shorts that promoted self-esteem, physical fitness, etc. While I only remember bits and pieces of the show, one cartoon, featuring an American diver competing in the Olympics, stands out. The athlete’s execution is perfect, and the judges reciprocate with high marks across the board—until the camera pans to the Russian judge: “0.5.” This was the mid-’80s, but as a small child, I knew nothing of foreign relations or the Cold War. I did, however, come to think that Russians were snooty and hard to impress.
I didn’t have a TV until I was 10, so this one’s tough. I remember seeing The Third Man when I was 13 or thereabouts and thinking Vienna (and Austria) in general looked pretty dingy and beaten‐down, but surely things had to have improved since. The more movies I see from there, though, the less I’m sure; Michael Haneke doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in forward motion. A lot of my early impressions of foreign places were generally derived from older movies I was allowed to watch rather than potentially racy new ones, so I always felt behind, like I might as well be watching fictional countries. I mean, I was allowed to watch a healthy number of Jackie Chan movies, but I’m not sure what, if anything, I might’ve learned about Hong Kong from Twin Dragons.
Can I just say that my conception of Hong Kong (and Australian boarding schools) was shaped by the 1979 movie Felicity, and leave it at that?