Tag Archives: American

The “Dumb American”

“I like Americans, but they tend to be simple-minded,” Ichiro Ozawa, a key figure in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, said recently in a speech to Japanese lawmakers.  To be specific, he used a Japanese idiom that, taken literally, means “monocellular”.  “I don’t think (Americans) are very wise… but I highly rate their ability to put their choices into practice, “ he said, including the helpful tidbit: “They chose a black president for the first time in U.S. history,” adding that he once thought that would never be possible.

If you thought this a bit of a strange bout of pontification, consider this:  Last November, Ozawa graced the world with his view of Christianity – “exclusive and self-righteous” – and shared that U.S. and European societies were at a “dead end”.  Charming guy, huh?

A review of chipper Japanese commentary on the US would not be complete without input from former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who referenced Y2K panic to illustrate the differences between Japan and the US.

“When there was a Y2K problem, the Japanese bought water and noodles. Americans bought pistols and guns,” Mr. Mori said. “If a blackout happens, gangsters and murderers will come out. It is that kind of society.”

As a Swede who now calls America home, I’m conflicted about how to react to this kind of commentary.  Accusations of American simple-mindedness and overall dumbness are obviously launched by more than just the Japanese. Most of my life (with the exception of the last decade), has been spent outside the United States.  I will admit to frequently agreeing with worldwide sentiment regarding the “dumb American”.  Whenever treated to the sight of portly American tourists with their fanny packs and white sneakers, bumbling onto the wrong train on the London Underground, butchering orders in French restaurants or offering unsolicited political opinions at Filipino dinner parties, I would shake my head in disbelief and wonder why they didn’t just stay at home.

Stateside we’ve all heard some variation of the stats that say the same thing: the quality of American education is slipping and much of the American population is spectacularly uninformed. In Just How Stupid Are We, Historian Rick Shenkman looked at how American ignorance affects the health of American democracy.  Some of his findings: Only 2 of 5 voters could list the three branches of the federal government. Forty-nine percent of Americans thought the president had the authority to suspend the Constitution.  And only a third of Americans realized that much of the rest of the world was against Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  Quite apart from the oft-cited stats on slipping science scores and math ability, the above stats directly affect the health of the American democracy and how its citizens interact with the rest of the world.

The flipside is of course, that for every worrying smear of damning statistics, there is an equally bold sign that American world dominance is not going away in a hurry.  As Barack Obama frequently reminds us, despite the need for educational reform, American schools and universities are still the envy of the world.  No place draws as many international students as do the American shores.  I know it is anecdotal but I have personally experienced the draw of American tertiary education.  I left the UK (where – by the way – everyone is convinced the UK has the best schools) to come to the US to earn my degree.

A real look at the strength of the “dumb American” epithet has to look at the duality that defines American society.  The fittest and the most sickly obese human beings are Americans.  The worst polluters and the most ardent tree huggers find their home here.  And, circling back to our opening thought from Mr. Ozawa, while the average American may have troubling deficiencies, there is something damn impressive about American can-do-it-ness.  For all the refinement and world knowledge citizens of other countries may have, some of the largest leaps of progress in civil rights, personal prosperity and world influence (military, economic, cultural) have been American.  As embarrassing an image as extreme American idiots create for this country, America is still defined by extraordinary opportunity and this makes up for a multitude of sins.

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Bjorn Karlman

Grin and Bare It… Topless Culture Change

Topless - summer beach conceptIt was hands-down one of the funniest things I had ever seen on a beach.  I was with a friend in Nice, on the French Riviera, surrounded by locals and tourists in various stages of undress.  Not far from me were a couple of topless girls and local etiquette stipulated that everyone had to act like everything was normal.  And, for a French beach in the summer, everything basically was.  Well, at least it was until a group of American teenagers, in predictable khaki shorts and baseball caps, came over and struck up conversation with the topless ones.

The guys’ intent was clear: they wanted a picture with the women.  Amused at the ballsy request, the women obliged the horn dogs and posed with their newfound American friends.  The guys were delighted but conversation quickly dried up because of the language barrier and they took off.  The best part was when one of the guys hollered, “Y’all keep it up now!” over his shoulder.  Beautiful.

The young guys’ break with etiquette was amusing.  If they had been locals or at least somewhat accustomed to Mediterranean protocol, they would have been considerably less eager with their photo requests.  Everyone came out of this one well – the nervous kids, the nonchalant boob models and the amused onlookers.  Observing the whole incident made me think about the huge role of cultural rules in the day-to-day – right down to beach attire and how to acknowledge topless strangers.  It also made me think of what allows us to bend the rules of culture (in this case, approaching topless women) and test the boundaries society decides are appropriate.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book “The Tipping Point” identifies the drivers of societal change as Connectors (social magnets that are master networkers and love nothing more than working a crowd), Mavens (information specialists, people that have the information society needs) and Salesmen (Charismatic, persuasive people that can get people to agree with them).  When all three kinds of personalities come together and benefit from a strong message and favorable circumstances, you get enough traction to affect major societal shifts.

Watching the kids I saw each of the personality-based change agents.  There was the Connector – the kid in the group that probably was the reason they were all on the beach, skipping the assigned lecture on Franco-Spanish relations. Then there was the Maven – the pervy nerd who’d worked out what stretch of beach would yield the best topless odds. And finally, there was the Salesman who talked both his friends and the busty French into posing for the camera.

So there you have it:  a little example of how cultural change, however insignificant, can be achieved. Whenever cultural rules feel rigid and overbearing, remember that with some clever planning, some key leadership and a little luck, rules can bend and boundaries can shift.  And there’s nothing that some teenage spunk and some multicultural levity can’t fix.

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Bjorn Karlman

Offend Anyone Anywhere With These Five Simple Screwups

loose gears

I really enjoy it when people get what’s coming to them. Rarely have I found this more satisfying than in cross-cultural situations when some oaf has clearly made no effort to be culturally sensitive and then suffers the inevitable backlash. Case in point: during Nato’s airstrikes against Belgrade in 1999, a Serbian friend of mine was talking about how beautiful the city was when a visiting citizen of one of the Nato member countries helpfully offered, “Well it won’t be when we are done bombing it.” The offender was shunned from that point on.

If you are reading this you probably have as little pity for this clown as I did. But what happens when YOU are the offender? There is a good chance that if you do any kind of mingling with people from other countries, something you say will upset someone. There is obviously no fool-proof way to avoid causing this kind of offense and it is possible to be too paranoid about potential insensitivity. However, there are a few avoidable moves that will frame you as a dimwitted, nationalistic philistine without a cosmopolitan bone in your body. Here they are:

Talking too much about your own country
Yes, if you are an American traveler, you will take an international beating for the reputation Americans have as loud-mouthed, nationalistic brutes whether or not you yourself have done anything to encourage this stereotype. Luckily, Barack Obama’s reversing of George W. Bush’s moronic unilateralism has made today the easiest time for Americans to travel in at least a decade. Talking too much about one’s own country is something that anyone from anywhere can be accused of. When I first moved to the US I was a little too eager to tell people about Sweden. I look back now and I am embarrassed… luckily my American friends where gracious and gave me some time to adjust to the fact that as interesting as Sweden may be, I was now living in the US and could afford to wave my own flag a little less.

Unnecessary Comparisons
This is a screw-up that is very closely linked to excessive commentary on your own country. Sometimes it is soooo tempting on overseas trips or in discussions of international flavor, to compare foreign lands to your own. Steer clear of it. If you have a local guide, they are hoping to show off their country, they don’t need to hear about yours and they certainly don’t want to hear about how your country’s architecture/health care/communication style somehow is better.

Lazy Assumptions
I got a lecture from an Argentine friend when I suggested that refined conversation was, by definition, calm and collected. She completely disagreed. Refinement, she said, did not at all come from the kind of monotone, subdued interaction that I was describing. Animation, energy, passion and dramatic fluctuations in tone and volume were not just OK, they were just as refined as anything I was talking about. I backed right down from my Northern European assumption.

Wimpy Eating Habits
Whenever my family and I visited friends’ homes growing up in Asia, food would appear. Our hosts were often intensely interested in what we thought about their food. I learned very quickly that it was NOT OK to ignore the curry and make comments about the food tasting “interesting.” If you are traveling, embrace the opportunity to try something different. Stick your neck out, puff up your chest and ask for another pupusa…

Being an Island Unto Yourself and Your Own
It’s tricky. You are a long way from home. You are homesick. And the confusing blend of new language, food, customs and beliefs has you wanting to either stay indoors or join a club that exclusively admits your own nationals. Resist this urge to hibernate. Some culture clash is to be expected. If people sense that you have no interest in reaching out and learning about your host country, they are less likely to make an effort with you.

One final word: don’t freak out if you are guilty of any of the above. International interaction and cross-cultural communication of any kind is going to involve a lot of trial and error. If you upset someone, a sincere apology is often all that is needed to move forward and enjoy the process of learning about new ways to be human.

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Bjorn Karlman

Well-Traveled, Multilingual and Clueless –Third Culture Kids Unpacked

At a wedding near LA with TCK friends I grew up with in the Philippines
At a wedding near LA with TCK friends I grew up with in the Philippines

I can go from zero to awkward, mumbling mess in no time when Western pop culture predating the late 90s is brought up in conversation. I have no clue what to say because a lot of the time, I have never heard of the actor/singer/quirky 80s celebrity of ambiguous sexuality being discussed. It is painful. I sound American. My Northern European genes make me look like I’ve got straight-laced, Mayflower Puritanical blood.  But I grew up next to sugar cane fields and coffee plantations in the Philippines and I have never seen a single episode of Miami Vice.

Luckily I grew up with other expat kids who were just as lost. We were all Third Culture Kids (we’d grown up in a culture different from that of our parents.)  Instead of being perpetually bummed about the fact that we didn’t completely fit into any culture or country, we bonded over our oddball similarities.  The transition to adulthood has changed very little so here’s my list of TCK traits:

1) Most of us speak English better than our mother tongue and are stumped if some zealous patriot asks us to recite the words to our own national anthems.

2) Whether or not we’ve ever stepped foot on American soil, our accents are often, to one degree or another, American.

3) We are flakes when it came to growing roots anywhere.  I’ve kept in touch with a number of my fellow TCKs and a lot of them have kept moving, never staying in the same place for more than a few years.

4) TMI!  We are used to sharing a lot very quickly because growing up we knew that we didn’t have much time to make friends before we had to leave again. But there is a flipside to this. Steph Yiu on denizen-mag.com puts it well:  “once you get to know us, you might find that we keep you at bay. We’re just so used to leaving (or being left by) people who are close to us that sometimes we don’t want to form very deep relationships, for fear of losing them.”

5) We were raised watching cultures clash on a daily basis so we are OK with grey areas.  We don’t expect life to be black and white.

6) We may have been mature teenagers but for some reason, we take our time “growing up” in our 20s.  For more on that, check out this article by Ann Baker Cottrell and Ruth Hill Useem:  http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art3.html

7) We are unlikely to take jobs in government or the corporate world that involve a lot of red tape/bureaucracy.  Neither do we often follow in our parent’s footsteps professionally:  http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art5.html

If you are a TCK or if you know one well and care to add to this list I’d love to hear from you.  Post a comment.  Just don’t ask me about the Jetsons.

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Bjorn Karlman