There are no cats in America

Another guest post by Mr. Potato.

  • It’s 1992 and I am an 8 year old sitting on the floor of my parent’s house in Wisconsin watching a cartoon about a talking mouse immigrating to the US in 1885. Towards the beginning of An American Tail, the anthropomorphic mice sing of their expectations– “There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese!” For some reason, I never forgot that song.
  • It’s March 2015, a crisp Sunday morning in Durban, South Africa, and I am at church. My attention is wandering when suddenly the words “American politics” jolts me back to the sermon. The pastor is illustrating one of his points using the US political system and specific party platforms as an example. I get it, of course. But so does everyone else because they know American politics as well. What could you say about the political system and parties of, say, Canada? South Africa?
  • It’s early 2012 and I am walking down Orchard Street, the premier shopping district in Singapore. I walk past a bookstore. I stop for a second when I see copies of Steve Jobs’s biography lining the front window display. It’s flanked to one side by a book by Barack Obama. I note the authors on display are all American.
  • It’s late 2012 and I am visiting the house of some friends of my in-laws in Penang, Malaysia. I’m a bit bored, so I start looking over a book case. The old books are mostly in English, and I recognize a good number of American authors. I remark to my wife that the same can be found in her parent’s house. “You don’t really understand how pervasive American culture is around the world, do you?”

While Singapore and South Africa are very English speaking countries, I also saw similar penetration of American culture during my 3 month stay in Tianjin, China in 2006. I’m just so surprised to find everything so Americanized, everywhere. I just had no idea how potent our culture is.

  • It’s March 2015 again and I am attending a Great Gatsby themed party in Durban, South Africa. A young newly married couple about my age – one white and one black – immediately brighten up as soon as I speak to them the first time. “Oh, you are from America! I can tell by your accent. We have always wanted to go there!” A few minutes later, I’m describing the intricacies of US immigration paperwork to them. A song from my childhood starts to play in my head as I talk.
  • It’s April 2015 and I am shopping for a soldering iron in a department store in Durban again. The solder and soldering irons are not in the same isle. I ask a shop attendant for help. “Oh, an American! I went to America once! You see, Walmart owns this store and we get trained for 2 weeks in Arkansas! Oh, I loved it there. It was so…safe. Everyone was so disciplined!” I couldn’t get him to stop talking about the US. There’s that song again….

American culture has so deeply penetrated the cultures I’ve lived in that the US has achieved a mythical status it cannot hope to really achieve. There are expectations set by Hollywood, by American writers, American innovations, and American ideals that can only cause disappointment when the rose colored glasses come off after living there a few years. I’m not saying the US is a horrible place, it’s just not nearly as amazing as a lot of non-Americans think it is. There are plenty of people who hate the US, there are far more that want to come. Perhaps some hold both ideas.

But there are subtleties here. American culture has penetrated. Past tense. I don’t fully understand the reasons, but the rate of penetration has fallen off dramatically. A quick chat with my father in law in Malaysia informs me of a rather steady-state American cultural presence inMalaysia since the late ‘70’s. Perhaps American culture completely filled the voids it could? Or America is in decline? I don’t know. I don’t see other cultures taking over the cultural space America now holds overseas. (Witness China’s unsuccessful and ham-fisted Confucius Institutes – http://www.economist.com/blogs/analects/2014/09/confucius-institutes and http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-30567743 ).

Why is US culture attractive? I will offer 3 hypothesis, without much backup because I really have no idea how to prove these:

  1. The American Dream: fundamentally materialist, appeals to something almost every human wants – more stuff and security to keep that stuff.
  2. Good PR: Hollywood makes us look good, even when we screw up.
  3. Anyone can be American: The mixed race couple at the Great Gatsby party a few paragraphs up? They were having some problems with their families accepting a new family member of a different skin color. They saw the US as a more accepting place.

America isn’t the cat-free Heaven so many people around me think it is. It just sucks less than pretty much everywhere else. And so now whenever a non-American tells me about how awesome America is, I nod, smile, and sing a particular song in my head.

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