Opinions: America without Stereotypes
Posted on June 23, 2011
By Igor Belov
Adapted from the original Russian: http://www.klops.ru/news/Avtorskaja-kolonka/42096/Pro-Ameriku-bez-stereotipov.html
Belov was hosted in Philadelphia, PA by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania
As Louis Ferdinand Celine wrote in his famous "Journey to the End of the Night,” “Traveling is useful, it makes your imagination work.” It is also true that with every new country or city visited you understand and learn something new about yourself. I am not talking about trips to the expensive Turkish resorts. Those trips might make “dear Russians’” livers work intensively, but hardly will help their imaginations. Yet even such unpretentious journeys can help discover something new, and might not only have damaging effects on one’s heath, but on one’s stereotypes as well. This is especially true when it comes to countries visits to which even today are equal to space tourism. One of those countries is “the land of the brave," the dream land, the most liberal country in the world, - America.
Actually, on my trip to the States, as a part of Russian writers delegation, I had strong intentions not only to read poetry, but to conduct “field work” for the sake of getting rid of stereotypes, obsessions and stupid myths about America, - all of which are so deeply entrenched in Russian national consciousness. And here is what I discovered.
Clearly, the major stereotype, the one that equates America with Hollywood, remained unshakable. Thank God. This is not even a stereotype, but as Vladimir Ilich Lenin would have put it, “reality given to us in the form of sensations.” You arrive in a major American city, get out of a huge yellow taxi cab, and the first thing you hear is the incessant howl of police sirens. This sound would repeat again and again with varying degree of loudness all night long, while you are dining out in a hearty Italian restaurant. And there it dawns on you – there it is, the America of Quentin Tarantino.
What is even cooler, is the fact, that ubiquitous Hollywood sceneries surrounding you are not necessarily as abstract as, for instance, fire ladders attached to the buildings, huge fans on the ceilings of hotel rooms, and windows, which you have to lift up to open. At any moment America can effortlessly transform you into a specific scene from a specific movie-masterpiece. And this makes you feel somewhat awkward. We were performing at a very pretentious and pompous National Art Club in New York, in the heart of Manhattan, near Gramercy Park. As I was wondering around extremely fine restaurants filled with stucco, curved wood, and a bunch of unknown-to-me artwork, I realized that for the first time in my life I experienced that famous deja vu – I have already been here, I was sitting on this windowsill, sipping on wine. A moment later, it dawned on me: this is where one of the core scenes of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery” was shot. In this very place Diane Keaton found herself alone, minutes after her friend, heartbroken from an unsuccessful declaration of love, left, accompanied by the most touching jazz song “Have you seen Miss Jones?” by Ben Webster and Art Tatum … And I swear, the same thing happens on every corner.
At least now I have a good reason to deny the second classic Russian misconception, the one that dictates that, "Americans do not read books, and in general, are quite primitive." Maybe it's just me being lucky, I am not sure, but in two weeks I spent in Philadelphia and New York, I met so many extremely intelligent and curious people. What impressed me most was the meeting with the Columbia University students, who took initiative to organize the "Evening of Russian Poetry and Russian Cuisine." Once our group has read a great number of poems and answered some fairly sharp questions, we were invited to a party at one of the graduate student’s house. Only half of the crowd was studying Slavic languages, and spoke pretty decent Russian, others expressed themselves only in English, which did not stop us from talking till five in the morning – covering a wide range of topics, from literature to politics, while sipping on Canadian whiskey. The best way to express our emotions after spending time with those erudite, witty and thoughtful ladies and gentlemen, would be using the words of the poet Swarovski, who said, when we finally got back to the hotel early in the morning, “You know, I feel like we just have eaten a bowl of fresh fruit.”
On the other hand, some amazingly strange things do happen to books in America. For instance, the works of Astrid Lindgren are completely unknown to the American community of readers, somehow her works just didn’t settle in the New World. Mark Twain’s books about the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are no longer included in the curriculum of many state schools, and for the most part are an anathema, due to the use of the politically incorrect word “n-----.”
I have to disappoint the adherers to the third most popular myth, that “America is the nation of fat people, victims of fast food.” Who really becomes victims of fast food in America, it’s the tourists, who are always in a hurry to make it to the thirty fifth museum in one day. Indeed, it is better to order a medium or even a small portion in an American restaurant, in any case it will be very big. The girls in America are pretty lush, including TV-stars and models. But this, in my opinion, is a normal trend – how much more can one tolerate anorexic people on the podium! World is slowly moving back to the normal beauty standards, and the trend is starting in America.
Fourth collapsed stereotype: "America - a country of triumphed feminism" Well, American women make a special case. Europeans once called Russia the only country in the world where women do not look away when looked at. Today is has changed: feminism victoriously marches throughout our country, and soon the day will come when the banal compliment would be equated to sex discrimination act, and the interpretation of the phrase "Sometimes one look is better than any words" will be left out for literary historians. Feminist ideas have managed to spoil America, but the core of the nation has remained “healthy.” That is why American girls greatly enjoy being the object of male attention, in other words, they "like to be liked", and they perceive it as a tribute, as their personal victory over this world, governed by law of jungle, where the most beautiful, strong and happy wins. Both in Philadelphia, and in New York, I often came across good-looking women, and almost every time I was able to make, what Eduard Limonov called “a straight eye-contact” which nevertheless remained nonobligatory.
As for another dangerous stereotype that has outlived itself, which taught us to consider Americans the worst enemies of our “country of dear aspen trees,” I have to say the following. Besides meeting with American intelligentsia, more ready to fight its own government rather than a foreign one, and who still refers to the police the way it used to in the 60s ( as “pigs”), I also had the opportunity to meet simple American folks. Such encounters began back in Philadelphia, where Peter Steiner, Professor of Slavic studies, took me on a classic American bar-hopping tour on South Street. South Street is the most entertaining street in Philadelphia.
And there it turns out that an average American perceives a Russian as a potential ally, or a possible rival, but a rival worthy of respect. Besides, they hold no grudges against us; we did not shoot them as we did the Poles in the Katyn forest, we didn’t starve them as we did the Ukrainians. It is true to conclude, based on Russian sad reality that we get bitten by our own government much more often and harder that by foreign ones.
The most important lesson that modern America teaches us is to see human beings in each other, not representatives of social classes, races, sexual orientations or any other characteristics that we love to discriminate on or even beat up for. May be this is what the great writer John Updike meant when he said, maybe in a slightly ironic way, that “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” Not sure that the trip to the States made me much happier, but without doubt I became much more tolerant to other people’s twists and weaknesses. And that is good enough.
[Reprinted with Permission]