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.