February 23, 2011

Week of Weirdos Part III: Pierre

Anti-Americanism is something that most Americans convince themselves exists outside of the safe shorelines of the Pacific and Atlantic. Since the evening news shows protests and flag burnings and all sorts of patriotic sacrilege, Americans must certainly endure a lot of hatred abroad, right? Well... not exactly. 

For all six months I spent in Europe and four months here in China, I've only experienced two instances of mild anti-Americanism -- both were in China in taxis. I said where I was from and the taxi drivers promptly said, "Bu xi huan Meiguo! I don't like America!" and they made little guns with their fingers. Certainly nothing extreme or hard to deal with.

Then I went to Vietnam and for the first time, experienced being confronted with some not-so-nice things about my country. No, it wasn't from Vietnamese people (who call it the American War), they were very friendly and hospitable. Europeans were the ones who questioned why on earth an American should feel like they should go to Vietnam or feel welcome there. 

Halfway through my trip, I was fairly accustomed to issuing reasonable rebuttals to comments, but I had no idea what was in store for me when one of my diving instructors laid in to me about US foreign policy over a bowl of Vietnamese noodles after my last dive. 

After leading me through two terrifying dives and nearly sending me crashing into a rock face in a surge zone, I was not too keen on my freshly certified dive instructor. I had passed all of the necessary skills underwater though, and he wanted to take me to lunch to celebrate. 

Pierre is an ex-IT extraordinaire from France who got fed up with his job and decided to become a dive instructor. He's a chain smoking foodie who just moved to Vietnam in October and has some very strong opinions about the US.

"Don't you feel uncomfortable being an American here? People in your country rarely travel, and you shouldn't think you're welcome to come to Vietnam of all places," he said as he scooped up some of his noodles clumsily with a fork.

"No, actually the Vietnamese people are wonderful. It's been the Europeans who have a perception that all Vietnamese must hate Americans. I've never had to defend myself so often in a country before," I responded as I gracefully took a bite with chopsticks, as any good Asia-bound expat should.

"You Americans think you can go anywhere you want and expect people to cater to you. You go to Egypt and want them to speak English. You go to Japan and expect the same thing. You go to France -- it's all the same. You don't learn language and you don't learn culture. Americans want America around the world. Look around -- look how many stores and brands are influenced by America!" Pierre said.

Fair enough, I saw his point so I applied it to his own country. France is known for some wonderful things, and any French person ought to be proud. All around the world you also see French-influenced restaurants. Same with Italian, Spanish, Indian...I could go on. I tried to tell him that for some reason, America has been more effective at globally marketing its pop culture better than other places.

I think he was a little bit taken aback by some of the things I said, so he started grasping at experiences he's had with other Americans, who managed to do an excellent job at reinforcing all of the negative stereotypes. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, Pierre asked me such gems as:

  • "Don't most Americans believe that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are buddies and that Iraq was about to nuke Israel? That's why your country thinks you went to war, right?"
  • "Wouldn't you say that at least 45% of your country really hates Obama and wants to kick him out of office?"
  • "What are the odds that Sarah Palin will win in 2012? I bet she'll become President, which would be awful for your country because then the whole world would hate you."
We covered the Tea Party, congress, healthcare, gun control "America would solve all of its problems if they did a nationwide gun ban," obesity... pretty much any sort of politically-charged cliche affiliated with the USA. 

Talk about a stressful lunch. Luckily for me, I kind of geek out with these kinds of topics, so I was able to confidently hold my own. I may have even made Pierre think twice about some of his opinions about the states. 

...cracking down the cliches one opinionated jerk at a time.

He was right about Americans not traveling much. Of all the people I met, Americans were few to be found. We really need to get out more, I promise the world isn't as terrifying as some might think. And plus, how can we start to change the minds of people like Pierre if we don't get out there and prove them wrong? We ought not to need such a grandiose cause as this to prompt us to head to the world's finest beaches in exotic locales... I mean, really, rock the stars and stripes people.

-- Weirdo Disclaimer -- 
The people we met are far more interesting than the places we visited, so I feel like I have to give them a little credit for making my travels even more memorable.  In some cases, I'll use "weirdo" in a positive and quirky way, other times I'll use it in a "dude, you are legitimately strange," sort of context. I've got full confidence you'll be able to decipher between the two. (Also, I've changed a few names).

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