Monday, September 23, 2013

Meet a new country, same as your old country

The more time I spend in Jordan, the more I am struck by the things here that really are not different from what I was used to in the United States.

This is not a revelation, I would imagine, to anyone who has traveled abroad for an extended period before. Globalization means that as an American, almost everywhere you go has a McDonalds and a Starbucks. In Jordan, American style restaurants dot every corner near the university district. Advertisements for Ford and Pepsi abound. Two and Half Men and How I Met Your Mother, subtitled in Arabic, are broadcast on the TV alongside Turkish dramas. English is the country's unofficial second language, and almost everyone in Amman can read the alphabet and at least say a few words. On Sunday nights, many of us American students go to Buffalo Wings and Rings, watch American football on the TV, and drink beer. If the beer was cheaper ($7 US a pint!) you would probably think you were in the US.

CIEE students watching NFL football on a Sunday night in Amman.
It isn't just American influence that is pervasive in Jordan. A Korean television dance show called Helm as-Shabab (Loosely translated: the youth's dream) is popular on television as well. Samsung tablets and phones are heavily advertised and used. In Petra, I saw a lot of Chinese tourists, signs in Chinese, and even some Chinese imitation restaurants. Perhaps one of the most remarkable moments from my time in Jordan was at a birthday party held for one of my host family's grandsons. The party was held at Burger King, and the kids played games and danced to music. The birthday boy's favorite song? Gangnam Style. I pondered the implications of sitting in an American restaurant in Jordan listening to Korean pop music. The world is flat, and it's getting flatter all the time.

I enjoy and benefit from this in some ways. But the problem I have with it is that it presents to Jordanians (and indeed, the world) and extremely distorted picture of what life in the US is actually like. If I lived here my whole life and knew only what I saw on TV about life in the United States, I would be under the impression that America consisted primarily of New York City and California, and that Americans spent all their time drinking in bars, dealing with crazy in-laws, and hitting on random women. My host mother's daughter in law, upon finding out that my parents used to work as police officers in the US, asked me if they had "criminals trying to kill them all the time". I thought this was hilarious, but of course if you had learned about crime in the US primarily from American police dramas, you'd probably never know that most American police go their entire career without firing their weapon outside the practice range (of course, most Americans probably don't know that either).

It also has a tendency, I think, to end any sort of curiosity about life in the United States. I've been here two weeks, and noticeably absent have been any questions from anyone about what life is like in the United States. I had a lot of questions about Jordan before I came here, and still do. But most people here believe that they know all about America - and why wouldn't they? America is in their food and on their TV. For Jordanians and others, the distorted half picture of America presented by globalization becomes the full picture and kills any curiosity about the rest of the vast and diverse place that is the United States. When so much stuff in your life is American in origin, there's no need or desire to learn more about the US.

But of course the truth is that America is a place with many different people, places, and cultures. There's immense natural beauty and fascinating history that doesn't get shared across our borders:

Joseph Canyon in Northeastern Oregon, where Chief Joseph's band of Indians once lived, is poorly represented in Jordan.

A picture of me guiding a paddle boat from last summer. I shared a number of pictures from my summer boating with my host family's grandson.

Part of a mural in the Library of Congress celebrating America's historical relationship with Islam. I never paid heed to it when I worked there, but my Egyptian Arabic professor at Mac happily posted this to Facebook when he visited Washington DC.
When I feel like America is so poorly represented abroad, my instinct is to grab various Jordanians and drag them back to the states. I want to take them to an Eastern Oregon rodeo and a greasy spoon diner in St. Paul and a on a river trip in Montana. But in light of the fact that's impossible, I suppose I'll have to make myself the best possible representation of America's great diversity, and communicate that diversity across to others.

On that note, I now know enough Arabic to give a cab driver basic directions to my house (go right, go left, etc.). Clearly, I'm doing a bang up job.

Update (9/23): As another example of what I'm talking about: A reader sent me a link to this awesome TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian author, who addresses what she calls "the danger of the single story". A transcript for those with slow internet is here.


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