Friday, June 17, 2005

Bloody Foreigners

I read a very interesting post today, following a link on serendipity’s site.
It was concerned basically with America’s attitude towards foreigners. It was interesting, and was based mostly on the American belief that most foreign countries hate them, despite the fact that, statistically, very few Americans have ever left America, (not including border countries like Canada and Mexico).

To be honest, my experience has been a little different. Most of the people I have come into contact with have said that they’d love to visit England, the topic being brought up when they recognize my accent.

I think the belief of Americans that they are unpopular is mainly the result of the media. For example, it was definitely reported on the American news that 50% of the British population disagreed with America over the last Gulf War.

However, if you follow this through logically, it means that if half the British people were against the war, half of the British people supported the war. However, the emphasis was put on the nay-sayers, not the supporters. Why? Because conflict is news, co-operation isn’t.

They say no news is good news, but it seems to me to be a case of good news isn’t news at all.

If you think about it, when was anything ‘good’ really given any decent coverage on the news? If we look at the Iraq situation for a moment, the only thing you hear about is suicide bombings, terrorism, attacks on allied soldiers etc. You never hear about the Iraqi people who are enjoying their new freedom. Even if they do report on something good, like the thousands of Iraqis now voting in free elections, and starting their own government, police forces etc, it’s only reported if the bad guys did something to disrupt the event.

In other words, the Iraqis creating a new non-corrupt police force isn’t reported. The Iraqis who were killed in a car bombing while queuing for interviews for the same new police force is.

In other words, the American people hear everything bad being said about them. They don’t hear any of the good stuff.

Again, think about it logically, if everyone hates America, why does it have one of the highest immigrant populations in the world? If they’re so unpopular, why are so many people clamoring to live there?

The other consideration is cultural stereotypes. It appears to be human nature to base your entire opinion of a country on one or two baseless stereotypes. For example, people I talk to over here, quite often assume that in England I lived in a thatched cottage. They assume that crumpets and tea were my main diet. I was once even asked if England had supermarkets, or just marketplaces like in medieval films.

Of course, America has its own stereotypes. They can be summed up simply as “Big Macs, Guns and Drugs’.

Now I live here, and can state categorically, that that’s not all America is about.

Take the gun issue. ‘Common Knowledge’ says you can walk into any major store and buy a gun as simply as buying a pack of cigarettes. America is gun crazy and you can’t walk down the street without a drive by shooting, or people trying to sell you crack.

What people don’t realize is that when you buy a gun over here, you get put through an instant FBI background check, if you have a criminal record, you don’t get your gun. Also, while hunting and non-concealable weapons are quite readily available, handguns and handgun ammunition is more difficult to buy.

I won’t get into the gun debate right now, maybe that can be the subject of my next post. (If that interests you, please let me know in the comments section). The truth behind America’s so called ‘trigger happy gun culture’ may surprise you.

The other big problem with ‘national relations’ is that someone can meet someone from another country, and based on that person alone, the native makes up their mind about the country that person is from.

Think of this. How many people do you know who piss you off? Every day your country is being judged on people like that.

That may seem a little like generalizing, and far too sweeping a statement, but it’s true.

Take me for instance. Every time I do something that is different to an American’s personal lifestyle, they don’t think it’s a Paulius thing…they think it’s a British thing.

For example, the day before my wedding, me, my wife and some friends went out to dinner. Afterwards we stopped by Barnes and Noble for some coffee. I spotted a small pack of vanilla mints, and having never heard of them, bought a pack. When I got back to the table, I offered them around.

One of our party had never heard of them either. She said:

“Vanilla mints? Hmm, must be an English thing.”

Now this is a very tame and non-offensive example, but it shows how people think. If you’ve never heard of something, and a foreigner tells you about it, we assume that it must be part of that foreigner’s lifestyle or culture.

Of course, like the above example, it can be non-harmful. For example, I found out that in the south, it’s customary to eat spinach and black-eye peas on new years day. Apparently, the spinach represents dollar bills, and the peas represent coins. It’s the tradition to eat that in the hope of prosperity for the New Year.

Of course, I got the world’s funniest look when I said the British tradition is for the youngest member of the family to enter the house first, carrying a piece of coal. That was weird…the spinach thing, however, was completely normal.

Coming into contact with most cultural differences is just a learning experience. Considering the UK gets so much American TV, we think our cultures are very similar, which they are, but there are some amazing differences you don’t come across until you live here.

However, you really do represent your country 24/7 when you’re an immigrant, and it’s a sad fact that if you act rude, aggressive or you’ve just had a bad day and are being a bit of an asshole…when anyone you meet leaves the conversation, they don’t walk away thinking ‘that guy is an asshole’, they walk away thinking ‘British people are assholes!”

If people know you, they think they know your country.

Even the post I read today, the one that got me started on this topic, pointed out that ‘Americans think everyone hates them.’ This simply isn’t true. Some Americans think everyone hates them. Some Americans think everyone loves them.

When you’re talking about a country with a huge population, you can pretty much say that every single opinion you can have about a country is held by someone.

I can’t stress this enough. Since I moved here a year ago, I’ve seen several people’s reactions to me.

To most, I’m a novelty. They love the accent, and they want to know more about England, why I moved, what my impressions of America are.

To some, I’m just another guy.

To a small minority, I’m just another stinking immigrant, here to steal their women and jobs. Luckily, that is a very small minority.

I’ve had everything from. “Yeah, America rules, it’s way better than England…that’s why you moved here, right?” to an incredulous “You lived in England and moved to South Carolina?!? Why???”

Believe it or not, two people, living in the same country, can have diametrically opposed opinions.

My opinion about other countries is the same as my opinion about different races. Don’t base it on the stereotypes…get to know the people.

You just can’t learn about a country from the media, cultural stereotypes and their leaders. Bush isn’t the most popular world leader right now, but can you judge an entire country on him? After all, not everyone in England likes Tony Blair either. Some people in America like Bush, but a lot also think he’s a brain-dead hick.

No, the only true way you can learn about a country is to spend some time there and get to know some of the people. Even then, unless you can arrange an in-depth interview with every person in the country, you can never truly know the country.

We tend to judge countries on the most extreme people in it. Americans think there are only two types of people in England, Pinstriped, bowler hatted, umbrella carrying posh people…or football hooligans.

In England, we see Americans as either the ultra-trendy super-cosmopolitan New Yorkers, or Cletus the slack jawed yokel. There appears to be no in between.

That’s just not possible. Unless everyone in the country is an ultra-trendy, super-cosmopolitan, slack jawed, shotgun toting brain-dead Hill Billy.

I think it’s an in-born, instinctual thing to automatically create an ‘Us versus Them’ mindset when talking about other cultures. I think every human being is born with some form of in-born xenophobia. It’s where all forms of competition come from. “You are different to us, let’s see who is better.”

The only real ‘truth’ I can think of that is the same in all cultures, is that most people who live there are just like you. They get up in the morning, go to their job, and try to earn a living.

Without coming across as idealistic, or a little too twee, I hope that one day, everyone can realize that.

I’ll end with a quote from Terry Pratchett’s “Monstrous Regiment” (and before I get attacked by the fanboys, I may paraphrase a little).

“The enemy aren’t psychopathic monsters, lad, they’re just like you. Probably joined up for a set of new clothes and three squares a day. If you met them in the pub, you might find you have a lot in common, like the same stuff and get on quite well. On the battlefield, however, you have to stick a sword in them, because if you don’t kill them, they’ll kill you…all because they’re just wearing the wrong bloody uniform.”

Us versus Them. That’s what it all boils down to.

Let’s face it, pick any of the major battles in history, when the swords or bullets are flying. Everyone on that field is in mortal terror, expecting death to come at any moment. If at that exact moment, the option to just pack it all in, go down the pub and watch the game on TV was offered…how many people do you think would choose to keep shooting at each other?
We’re all more alike than you think.

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