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Monday, May 16, 2011

Cultural Laundry: Perceptions of Americans

"In the 1980s, U.S. cable television became available from Haiti to Trinidad. Antigua went in a matter of months from having two local, government-controlled stations, both of which specialized in U.S. programming, to twelve U.S. stations and the two local stations with U.S .programming. Cable News Network [CNN] from Atlanta, Georgia became the dominant news source throughout the region… Caribbeans began eagerly telling Americans the weather in places that neither had ever been. 'Yeah, mon, it hot hot in Phoenix today.'"
-Mark Kurlansky, A Continent of Islands

Towards the beginning Pre-Service Training (PST) in the Peace Corps, the teacher for our Grenadian Culture course, Michael Jessamy, posed a question: “What is the biggest export of the United States?” Everyone scratched their heads and scrambled for answers.
"Junk food?"
"Financial Services?"
Michael smiled, "Really and truly," he said, "it's culture.” The room went quiet. “Everywhere you go in the world, you find people saturated in American music, television, movies, internet sites, etc. It’s everywhere.” Jessamy’s class was supposed to be on Grenadian culture, but he knew that we had to begin with a crucial point in anthropology (and the humanities in general): know thyself first. That is, know your own culture before trying to interpret another’s- otherwise you'll get them confused.

This point has been put to me in so many ways over the years that it’s hard to choose which examples to bring up. One example is from the great Margaret Mead. While working at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, I would walk past an old video of Margaret several times a day. My office was right next to her Hall of Pacific Peoples on the 3rd floor, so all of us simply absorbed the whole thing by osmosis. In one poignant scene, the archaeologist Dave Thomas- who succeeded Dr. Mead as head curator- relates some advice she once gave him, in typical Margaret fashion: “What we don’t need is for you to go out into some viable culture and plug it up with your own cultural hang-ups!”

So the struggle, I imagined, was in my own brain- in the cultural constructs, beliefs, and behaviors I learned as an American. Little did I know, however, that in order to catch even of glimpse of another cultural perspective, I’d also have to wade through layer after layer of my own culture’s influences on that perspective. See, since America’s business is broadcast the world over, people are influenced by the good, the bad, and the ugly- our dirty laundry is on full display. Because of this, all kinds of misunderstandings arise. Some things (rap music, ipods, clothing styles, pizza) become acculturated into the local culture. Other things, however, are shunned. People see Jersey Shore and Dr. Phil and think that’s what Americans are actually like! They see violence and drugs on CNN and they think the US is an evil, wicked country (“the devil’s playground”). They see critiques of our educational system and they think schools in the US are terrible. People have actually told me, “Of course your children are so bad, you don’t beat them enough in school!”

It’s quite an education to experience all of this. I hadn't realized just how egotistical Americans might appear to some people. In fact, a very real perception seems to be that Americans think they know everything, yet know nothing at all. I mean, here we are, coming to Grenada and trying to promote positive change, yet from their viewpoint our own house is clearly not in order. It is, of course, debatable whether this varied image of the US can or should be corrected, but Peace Corps Volunteers are doing our best.