Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Travel Observations: Stop Dominating the World, America

I'm vacationing in Europe right now, traveling from the Czech Republic to Vienna to Bratislava to Budapest. One of my cultural observations--besides little things like finding that there seem to be no gyms in Prague--is just how overwhelming American media and culture is. Go into a local bookstore in a small tourist town in the south of the Czech Republic, and see bestsellers from Sophie Kinsella and Jodi Picoult, Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, Josua Ferris' And Then We Came to the End, and a really awesome cover for Freakonomics that featured hip-hop kids, pimps and just all-around flashy people. The American cover is orange. If Americans are the idiots and the Czechs the big readers (according to a book I saw on Czechs for foreigners), then how come they get the dumb-downed, misleading cover?

Prominent books are usually by Americans or Brits, including lots of classics by Austen and Hemingway, followed by big names like Stephen King. Czech authors--unless they are Milan Kundera or Kafka--are in the back. But I think it's really awesome that the Czech's first president, Vaclav Havel, is not only a prominent statesman and was active in the Velvet Revolution, helping to overthrow communism, but is also a playwright and author, and is just as well known for his writings as his political contributions. I can't imagine any writer actually getting the respect and the backing to be a full-fledged working politician in the states.

But back to the media. As soon as I landed in the Prague airport, I heard James Blunt in a novelty shop. In fact, every radio station overheard in buses, restaurants, and shops has played American music. Oh, maybe one unfamiliar song might have been some Eurotrash hit, but Rihanna seems just as popular here as she does in North America (and I haven't even heard Umbrella yet). Even lite-fm Canadian staples like Bryan Adams gets some play. In Cesky Krumlov, where I am now, I heard Britney Spears' "Pieces of Me" and Cher's "Strong Enough", mediocre hits for both artists. Middle aged people in the Czech Republic look the same as they do in the states, as does old people. Preteen girls show off too much skin for my taste, wearing lower-cut shirts than even American girls dare to. Maybe the American media should stop their hand-wringing--other countries are much worse.

What's different, but only as an afterthought, is that the clothes aren't flashy or filled with labels. Girls wear less makeup. Occasionally you see some unmistakable Europeans, since they have real fringe-y, close-cropped bangs which are incredibly unflattering on everyone, funky mullets or other odd, stringy hairstyles. Their is much less talk or visual cues about dieting and nutrition. There's Coca-Cola light, not diet, and that's the only light flavor, although there are fruit juices and fruit sodas galore. Labels are in several different European languages, usually Czech, Hungarian, French, and various Slavic ones.

"Look at the labels," my friend instructed me to do in a clothing boutique. I pulled out a button-down: "H&M. Made in Indonesia".

We keep hearing how we're living in an age of globalization, how the world is flat. If anything, Americans are the last to know this, because we dominate the conversation. How does it feel to grow up listening to music that is written, produced, and performed by artists from across the world, meant specifically for those listeners, in their language, espousing their values? How does it feel to see their presidential election drama mentioned on the front page of the paper, with editorials from their papers inserted into yours, even if only for the tourists and the expats' sake? How does it feel to know that the majority of the movies and television you watch come from a smog-filled city thousands of miles away, and are dubbed for your viewing pleasure?

I cannot help but think that I would feel resentful that my country, and my people, get none of the attention. We hear all the time of the American dream, how each little Bobby and Susie wants to grow up to be a baseball star, a Hollywood actress. But what about all the non-American Bobbys and Susies? They are informed by the same Indiana Jones, the same Carrie Bradshaw. How come they don't get their chance to shine in the sun? Even in their own country it seems that they either lack the ambition or the means to become famous, and that's just not fair.


Emily said...

Oh, this is depressing. I hated it when I was in parts of Italy that were so incredibly touristy that everyone catered to Americans. I just spent thousands of dollars and flew 10 hours to experience THIS place, not feel like I was home again.

But I wonder if it is that we push our music and literature onto other countries, or do some of them just prefer what we have to offer? Either way, we travel to experience other culture and it would be nice if it were easier to do that.

John said...

When you think about it, it's a damn good thing for America that we have succeeded in shoving our culture down every other country's throat. Our intellectual properties are pretty much the only commodities we still produce in America! If we could no longer export music, movies, clothes and other entertainment items, we wouldn't have much left to export at all.

As to the phenomenon of catering to tourists by providing tons of American products/services, it's a sad fact that there are few things tourists love more than experiencing the exact same things that they could do or see at home for a fraction of the price. Eating at a McDonald's in Paris is "thrilling" and "worldly" without stepping outside of the Comfort Zone and going to an authentic Parisian cafe.
(of course, I'm all talk. I've never even ventured out beyond our lovely national borders... yet.)

Culture shock aside, it sounds like you're having a very good time. Can't wait to hear more!

Dan said...

I definitely feel your concern, Steph - in this ever-shrinking planet you are going to see less and less places that retain original, home-grown culture. It sometimes seems that the only thing unique about these western-European cities is their architecture and town layouts- everything else seems copies, whether its food or fashion.
Nonetheless, I should point out that you are visiting some of the capital cities of Europe, which do tend to be the first places to receive outside culture. That's the way it has always been. If you were to go out into the countryside you'd probably find a lot more uniquely "czech" culture.

mikhailbakunin said...

Jim Webb was an author before he became a senator (of course, he was also Secretary of the Navy under Reagan). And Al Franken is probably best known as a writer; he may be the next senator from Minnesota.

I'm sure there are lots of other examples.

Why is it so hard to believe that Americans would elect a writer president? We elected an ACTOR, for god's sake.

MediaMaven said...

Because writers tend to be thought of as intellectuals and sometimes critics, thereby alienating a segment of the population.

Al Franken is probably best known as a comedian. Although his books are popular, he is usually referred to as a performer and writer for Saturday Night Live. Reagan was a B-list actor and was not known (as far as I am aware) for being particularly revolutionary or controversial with his politics.

mikhailbakunin said...

Come on, Steph. I'm so sick of hearing that Americans are knee-jerk anti-intellectual. Our political culture is far too complex and amorphous to be captured by such a simple narrative. But, even if Americans WERE generally hostile to intellectuals, a skillful politician could always reinvent himself (or herself).

The point is that being a social critic doesn't mean forgoing a career in American politics. Highly controversial figures - like Franken - can easily be elected to Congress. And they usually end up being far less controversial when they're actually acting on behalf of their constituents.

Eight years ago, few political analysts would've believed that a figure as controversial as Hillary Clinton could come so close to winning the Democratic primary.

MediaMaven said...

A controversial person might become less so once elected to office because they feel they have an obligation to their constituents to behave in a manner befitting their interests and/or they feel political pressure to act a certain way.

I still think—and I know a recent book argues the case—that parts of America are hostile to intellectuals and “intellectual pursuits”. We both know people that are, and comments like “This article is too smart for me” fall into that thinking.

My mom told me she thinks that Europeans follow American politics more closely than Americans usually do. I don’t know how accurate that statement is, but while this election is making people pay attention more, I still think there is a sizeable portion of the population that just doesn’t care and they won’t.

I don’t think it’s downright impossible that a public intellectual (let’s say a writer) would become a high-ranking politician in the US. I just think it’s unlikely—for a variety of factors. We might clamor for Jon Stewart to run someday, but I doubt he actually would want to.

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