Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Million-Dollar Expat Question: "What Do People in Your Host Country Think of America?"

Yesterday while working on a People magazine story for the first time in nearly 14 and a half years, I reconnected with a former colleague, a blast from my faraway past. In filling her in on what I've been up to for the second half of the time since I left People, I stumbled upon a great irony of my life abroad.

So many of the people back in New York, the greatest city on earth, are impressed by my "exciting" life on the other side of the world. Some of them even hope to live one that's similarly peripatetic their next time around. Meanwhile, so many of the locals in pretty much every country I've stepped foot into since 2006 dream of traveling to New York City some day (or returning, if they've been there already). It's the national obsession of countless countries.

Being a New Yorker on the other side of the world (like being black in the Muslim Middle East), puts you in a special category, one that appears to buffer you from much of the anti-American sentiment (or some might say resentment) that often clouds foreigners' opinions of people from the United States. (Thank you, Bushes Jr. and Sr.) The second most common question I've been asked abroad (after "Is it true what they say about black men?"): "Why would you leave New York City?" (Note: I'm using "America"/"Americans" synonymously with the United States and its people, not in reference to the two continents that span numerous countries.)

To many citizens of the world outside the U.S., New Yorkers aren't really Americans, not the grossly overweight ones without passports that populate their wildly inaccurate and unfair mental images of a populace that's thoroughly obsessed with money, God and guns. Interestingly, I've yet to hear a negative peep about Americans in my nearly five weeks in South Africa, perhaps because everyone here is too busy going on and on about New York City.

It's the highest profile city in the United States and perhaps the world. No wonder it's on the tip of everyone's tongue. More than any other city in the country, New York is the melting pot that the United States has always been purported to be. You can go to a number of its neighborhoods -- from Spanish Harlem to Soho to Chinatown to Little Italy -- and momentarily forget what country you're in.

When I try to explain to people abroad that there are plenty of thin, well-traveled Americans outside of the Big Apple, they sometimes look at me as if I've suddenly begun speaking some other unintelligible language. Every country gets assigned its stereotypes (if you're from the U.S., Australians are charming rogues with hot accents; if you're from Bali, they're tacky tourists), and sadly, the people who appear on U.S. TV series like The Jerry Springer Show, Trisha and Cheaters (all of which air in Cape Town and therefore have free reign to perpetuate more bad impressions) have saddled the United States with its own.

New Yorkers are more glamorous, more worldly, cooler, Americans geographically but not necessarily in spirit. Americans are the folks who live in all those other cities from sea to shining sea. Yet, in another ironic twist, to those same foreigners, America is New York City and vice versa.

The other day my brother Alexi sent me a link from Project Xpat, an exploration by NPR of Americans living abroad, in which they were asking expats to answer the 10-word question "What do people in your host country think of America" with a 10-word answer. Mine: "You mean New York and America aren't the same place?" Any New Yorker who has lived abroad will know exactly what I'm saying.

Even more so than Hollywood, which to outsiders seems to stand for an American ideal rather than a reality, New York City represents what it must feel like to be living in America, not what it must feel like to be American, and there's a big distinction. I've always gotten the impression abroad that "we the people" (of America) are less highly regarded than America the beautiful (the place), which typically conjures images of New York City. Usually they're from the upper middle-class Manhattan of '90s and '00s TV comedies such as FriendsSeinfeldWill & Grace, Mad About You and Sex and the City, all of which live on in syndication abroad.

But aside from the sexual politics of SATC, which, frankly, you could find in pretty much any big city, they don't even come close to reflecting what it's like to be a New Yorker. For the most part (with the exception of SATC), they were filmed in L.A. and therefore geared more toward fantasy. That backdrop of grit and danger that everyone identified with New York City in the '70s (see Taxi Driver, millions of miles away from the East Coast sequences of Blue Jasmine, the Manhattan scenes on Revenge and Glee, or even the whitewashed Brooklyn of Girls) has been painted over with a glossy comedic sheen. Nobody is looking at the New York City of Law & Order and going, "That's America!"

I'm not saying that L&O is America, or even the real NYC, but if Friends or Will & Grace or SATC or, more recently, How I Met Your Mother had been my NYC reality, if I could have lived in those beautiful, gigantic apartments while doing minimal work to earn enough money to afford them, I doubt that I ever would have left.
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