I was an American ambassador for about 90 minutes last week. I was interviewed by some students in Moscow, Russia, studying English, from my own living room couch. They asked me questions about America and Americans over a magical Skype conversation - which while it was spotty and the sound kept cutting out, didn’t fail to impress me that I could chat with young men and women in Russia like I was Jane Jetson.
The power was heady, let me tell you. My answers to their questions were the Official American Answers. They took notes. I turned into a peacock.
It’s not easy to answer questions about your own country. It’s hard to appear smart. I kept wanting to answer “Compared to what?” They asked what our holidays were like, what San Francisco was like, what traditions we have, and how hard is it to get into an American university.
I even tripped up on the question “What pop stars are popular there?” My husband, who was sitting just off camera, whispered “The Beatles! The Rolling Stones! Tell them we’re going to see Van Morrison this weekend!” I shushed him and tried to think of someone more contemporary. Lady Gaga was all I could come up with.
It’s weird how hard it is to summarize your own country and culture. Things happen here that we take for granted, and we often don’t even realize they’re happening until a foreigner points it out to us.
Our Russian friend Alex came to visit the US for the first time last summer. We tried to show him the best our country has to offer; or at least the best that Northern California has to offer. OK, we showed him the best that the Muni-bus-route area had to offer. The Golden Gate Bridge, the sunset on the ocean, the seals on Pier 39 were all impressive. But it was the everyday American non-events that spoke the loudest to Alex.
It wasn’t until Alex pointed it out to me that I noticed that we Americans take care of our handicapped. He noticed the wheelchair ramps everywhere and the Braille on the elevator buttons, something I see every day, but never thought much about. Who wouldn’t have the courtesy to make sure that blind people aren’t wandering around on the wrong floor of a building, or people in wheelchairs aren’t bouncing down stairs? A bunch of other countries, that’s who. Since Alex left, I’ve noticed other things - a chirping noise when the walk signal comes on at busy intersections, more than a perfunctory number of handicapped parking places, and I just found out there is a deaf-owned pizzeria in town.
But perhaps the most American behavior Alex noted was our niceness. One busy day, I stopped off at the bank, where I had a nice conversation with the teller about what I was planning to do this weekend and the weather in general. Later we drove to the Crooked Street, where there was a street cop directing traffic around the clumped up people taking pictures, and I rolled down my window so he and I could trade puns about the tourists, and the weather in general. Then we went to lunch, where our waitress dished on her stepson, her night classes, my cute blouse, and the weather in general, and wrote the biggest purplest HAVE A NICE DAY! on the back of our bill. Later someone gave Alex the secret code to the public restroom at Fisherman’s Wharf.
“Are people here always like this?” Alex asked me.
“Like . . . smiling - nice, just . . . nice,” he said. “Do you know all these people?”
It then occurred to me that while this is the norm here and it’s what we expect, this is not the way people act toward perfect strangers in other countries. I’ve been to a few countries in Europe and the United Kingdom and they’re perfectly nice, but not as nice as we are. We may not smile all the time like the Dalai Lama, but we smile at people more. In the US, if a store clerk doesn’t smile at you when you approach the register, you can figure she’s having a bad day. It’s not rare but it’s still weird. If a waiter comes to your table and isn’t smiling, it’s weird. In some countries a smiling waiter would be drunk.
I should have mentioned the niceness to the Russian students in my interview. But it may have sounded like an advertisement to vacation in the Midwest. Come to America! Where the streets are paved in smiles and small talk!
The best I could do was do my Gaga impersonation. Smiling, of course.
Labels: american culture, americans, handicapped, Lady Gaga, russian