Yesterday I was talking to my mom on Skype. Only, the problem was, I was mostly talking to myself.
For one thing, I was the only one hearing myself half of the time. There I am, saying something of great interest, I’m sure, and I see that vacant look that signals that she isn’t listening to me. Then, “Oh, okay, now you’re back. What did you say?” So I rewind and launch again, only to suddenly see the ceiling, the cabinets, and the rest of the apartment as the phone is carried around in search of a better signal. This a common occurrence, and I wonder about all of the information we have misconstrued by filling in blanks along the way.
And the other thing – I really just need to turn the picture of myself off. Those of you who use Skype know that you can see a smaller picture of yourself in the corner as you are viewing your caller. I can’t help it – I find myself unwittingly drawn to my picture, and there I am, adjusting my head tilt, considering which angle is best, trying out different facial expressions…I’ve never looked at myself so much in my life. Good grief.
It’s really an apt metaphor, in a way. Being in a foreign country causes you to look at yourself (your culture, your country) in a way you just don’t at home. You see all the stereotypes people hold about your country, and you also see why. It’s not always a fun reality, but highly insightful. I find myself trying to adjust the angle sometimes to make it look better, and sometimes it does need to be broadened to show different sides, but sometimes I just have to agree we are a fallen race and a fallen culture like the rest of the world.
When we English Language Fellows were in Kyiv for our orientation and led a large discussion group, one of the first questions we had to field was about Donald Trump. With the campaigns in high gear, you can be sure that the strong statements being thrown around find their way under and across the ocean to bewildered folks abroad.
When I came to Cherkasy, one of my colleagues wanted to ask me questions based on the reality TV he was watching online: shows on people’s storage units, hoarders who live among mounds of junk, obsessions with cutting coupons, news pieces showing people fighting in stores on Black Friday. Every time he brought up one of these shows, I could see with terrible clarity how petty, how materialistic we look to those in foreign countries who can’t imagine having enough to need extra storage space, or having time and energy to waste on the trivialities of a life of plenty. I would assure him that we are not all that way, that in fact I have never even been “Black Friday” shopping, that the reason you can see all these shows is because there is every kind of person in the U.S. and the media seeks them out. I told him that you could find people who ate paper if you really wanted to, and then make a show about them. But that doesn’t erase the fact that there are factors existing in our culture which foster such behavior.
Of course there is good as well. People here dream of visiting the U.S., even moving there, and some of their perceptions about the goodness of American life are true. I am well aware of how much we take for granted when I am in other countries, especially those without the same prosperity and stability that we enjoy. I also become more aware of the standards we expect, the values we demand society to uphold. We hold honesty as such a high value that we can generally trust what is on the packaging. We expect equal treatment enough that we don’t need to slip the nurses at the hospital money to get better treatment. We may complain about our society, and for good reasons, but it does work amazingly well.
As a foreigner, you are constantly the image, the face on the screen, representing your society. You are just one unique person who may feel highly individual, but abroad, you are everybody. We Fellows are told over and over that we are cultural ambassadors, and this is especially important when those around you have never met someone from your country before. Every time I walk into the McDonald’s by my apartment (usually on Fridays, to celebrate another week in Cherkasy), I find myself scoping it out to see if anyone I know is there. I feel totally self-conscious because I don’t want to give the image that Americans always eat fast food, or just want to eat their own food when they travel, and these are signals I could send. I realize that yes, there are Americans who eat at McDonald’s, and I suppose I represent them. But when students who have seen me there ask me about it, I also want to tell them it is not where I eat regularly at home, and that there are also many Americans who never eat fast food. Because you have to be aware of what may be misconstrued by others when they are filling in the blanks.