Sunday, 14 April 2013

You Can't Say 'Yeah, But It's Different'

There's a big old stereotype that America knows a lot about America but doesn't necessarily know a lot about the rest of the world.

Various comedians have had a great time going over this, it pops up in jokes, entertainment media, arguments, debates, the whole shebang.

As with many stereotype it may have a grain of truth for some people and be completely inaccurate with regards to others.

When I was 19 I spent 3 months living, working and travelling in California with a friend.
We were asked various questions by the people we met, some a bit baffling, others perfectly reasonable.
I had the experience of my cousin who had done two terms of high school in the US to prepare me for the weirdest things I may be asked, or in his case told.
A student at the school he was attending insisted that the national language of Australia was French and refused to believe him when he (the Australian) said that it wasn't.

When I took a video of my workplace one of my coworkers did a rendition of  Denis Leary's 'Because we've got the bombs!' bit that I a) didn't recognise until several years later when I saw the original and b) thought was the way that a certain percentage of the world saw Americans and a way that a certain percentage of Americans saw themselves.

While I was there I borrowed a couple of Australian movies out from the library because I was feeling a bit homesick and then got indignant when I realised that the versions released in the US had been altered.
In The Castle they changed the reply to 'what's this love?' from 'rissoles' to 'meat loaf'. Probably because they decided that the US audience wouldn't know what rissoles were.
Well yes but that's how you learn, you hear something you've never heard of before and you look it up.
Assuming people will get so annoyed by strange and unfamiliar things that they'll just tune out seems kind of insulting to me.
You wouldn't believe the stuff I know now because I read or watched something produced in another country and had to look up what it was or work it out from context.
Also anyone who doesn't like things that are different or unfamiliar would have turned the movie off 5 minutes in because The Castle is considered a cult film for a reason, it represents a particular kind of person at a particular point in time.

The change that really cheesed me off, however, was made to the movie The Dish.
In the original - and one true! - Australian version, the people operating the satellite dish at Parkes lose the signal from Apollo 11 and were panicking trying to work out how to find the vessel again before they are asked to report in. A local girl who was just coming around to bring them some sandwiches says 'Why don't you just point the dish at the moon? That's where they're heading, isn't it?' and it's a lovely 'oh yeah, common sense, ha ha' moment.
In the version I saw in the US, they reshot the scene so Patrick Warburton, the American character came up with the solution because apparently they decided US audiences wouldn't be able to deal with the idea that an American was present but wasn't the one who saved the day.

This was all 'experiences and anecdotes that support the stereotype*'.
Not all my experiences and the stories I heard supported the stereotype but enough did that it remained the subconscious default that applied to X% of people.

But then as life bobbled along and I accumulated more experiences I started to hit more 'wait a minute' moments.

The ones where you saw people somehow manage to plaster the stereotype and its attendant assumptions all over well-read, well-travelled Americans even after hearing them talk about the places they had been and the things they were passionate about and had looked into for their own curiosity.
The stereotype was so strong that even evidence jumping up and down in front of them wasn't powerful enough to overcome it.

And then you noticed the big old hypocritical moments.
The ones where you would see fellow Australians asked questions about foreign countries and realise that their answer is 'yeah, we don't know that shit, we're Australians, the rest of the world is so far away that who can be bothered to- uh I mean LOOK OUT FOR DROP BEARS, ALL OUR WILDLIFE IS POISONOUS, WHEEE!'

And then you notice it everywhere.

Every country has some people who don't bother to learn about other countries.
Every country has some people who think all other countries are doing it wrong.
Every country has people who are very vocal about these two points of view.

It's just that statistically there are more Americans, and y'know what, they have the bombs, so them not being 100% up to date on the facts is a lot more nerve-wracking in certain situations.

People living in countries jammed right up against each other, geographically speaking, should know a lot about each other but you just have to listen to some of the jokes and stereotypes that different Europeans countries hold about their neighbours to know that this is often not the case.

As a species we're getting better, we are actually learning more and we're more connected and we have more opportunities to get the facts and not rely on old material or stories we heard from a cousin of an uncle's friend etc etc.

We just have to be aware of these stereotypes and the part we each play in keeping them alive because they are lodged pretty deep in there and they inform your attitudes and actions more than you might think.

No country is perfect.
No country is completely terrible.
All countries have points of achievement or beauty or interest in their history.
All individuals within that country deserve to be seen for themselves.
Being proud of your country is fine.
Being a douche about it isn't.
Getting all defensive if somebody points out your country isn't perfect usually isn't that useful.
Sometimes people will react to you based on how other people from your country has treated them. This isn't any more fair than the original shitty behaviour that they experienced.

Basically, be interested in the world, don't stamp 'case closed' on what you know about people and places, and don't be a dick.

*And rather cheesed me off. Wind it back, America, sometimes other people work shit out, tcha!

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