Monday, June 20, 2011

Americans the beautiful: Wishful thinking, or are my fellow countrymen unfairly maligned?

By now I'm used to it. After nearly five years living abroad, I've heard pretty much every dig, every stereotype, every misconception and every half-truth about big, bad Americans.

They're fat. They're greedy capitalists. They never travel, and they don't speak a second language. They're rude, racist, loud, and they have terrible taste -- in clothing, in food, in politicians. The other night I was talking to a fellow American in Melbourne, and he had very few nice things to say about the folks we'd both left behind. I wasn't surprised. Most of my expatriate friends in Argentina are not particularly fond of the American way, and to be perfectly honest, I probably still would be living there if I didn't harbor some anti-American sentiments myself.

But hey, we all have our flaws. Four and a half years living in Buenos Aires magnified the shortcomings of Argentines to such a blinding degree that I sometimes had to look away. And after four months in Australia, I can see clearly now that Aussies are not without their own not-so-appealing quirks. A new Australian mate (to use a word that now grates rather than endears) recently pointed out that the cliché laid-back Australian is more flippant than easygoing. I agree. But more on that in a future post.

What irks me about all of the negative American stereotypes -- aside from the fact they often are upheld by people who have never set foot in the U.S. and get all of their information from the media and prime-time TV -- is that the same folks who spend so much time damning Americans, embrace their TV shows, flock to their movies, obsess over their celebrities and dream of one day making it over there. It might be the modern-day equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah, but it's nice work if you can get it in the U.S.

Which brings me to Russell Watson, the British tenor who also has tried to make it in the U.S., with some degree of success. Today I was reading an interview with him in the Sunday Herald Sun, and he was talking about being diagnosed with a brain tumor twice, in 2005 and 2007. Of course, he received the first diagnosis in -- where else? -- the U.S.A.

"It was my worst fears confirmed. I was in L.A., and it was like a scene out of ER. I went to an office where an American man in a white coat said: 'Mr. Watson, please sit down.' I felt like I was back at school in the headmaster's office. It was all very American and dramatic in the way it was presented. 'Mr. Watson, you have a brain tumor and from the images we're getting, I'd say it is a big one.' There was a sense of 'Oh.'"

"It was all very American and dramatic in the way it was presented"? Very American because it was presented so dramatically? Hospital-set TV shows tend to give us this peculiar image of stoic, stone-faced doctors handing out bad news like they're dealing with pesky customers at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Don't get emotionally attached I've heard them say over and over. But perhaps Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice and One Life to Live have got it all wrong. Maybe there's actually a lot of hand wringing, desperate looks, and occasionally, tears even. It would seem fitting to me as being told you have a brain tumor, as a family member of mine recently was, is a dramatic experience that probably deserves a dramatic presentation. Is that "American" or simply human? I'd say the most baffling part of Watson's trip down memory lane would be that "sense of 'Oh.'"

Oh. Maybe he was referring to the formality, the this-is-a-very-important-moment-please-cue-somber-music approach. In Argentina, I often was disarmed by the inappropriately casual manner of medical workers. "Tranquilo," they'd say to me when I unleashed my inner hypochondriac, assuming the worst possible diagnosis every time I went in because of some minor ache or pain or blood-test results that didn't fall into the optimal range. Of course, I never received bad news from any of my doctors in BA, so I have no idea how they adjust their tone to deliver it.

I wonder how it's done back in England. "Oh. By the way, you have a brain tumor. Would you like another cup of the tea?" I was hoping that the writer would get Watson to clarify his "It was all very American" comment, which I interpreted as being unnecessarily pejorative, as well as that sense of "Oh," but his name is Nui Te Koha. God only knows what he thinks of Americans!

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