“Go to the Happy Valley races on Wednesday evening. When you’re there, observe all of the ‘wailaos’ (foreigners) and take note all of the typical things that they do; document it – take pictures, listen in on conversations, observe…then write.”
My initial thought: “Hell no.”
My British friend hadn’t finished the proposal:
“After writing about the things that you see and hear, reverse it somehow – put it into perspective. Call out the people who are saying these stereotypes and show how and why it’s wrong of them to assume and vocalize these things. ”
I thought: Why would I want to go to an event filled with people whose actions were going to be completely predictable, things that I’ve witnessed before, behaviors that I come across on an everyday basis? I stopped. I thought of this initial reaction. The images of the expected were materializing faster than my brain could filter them out.
And that’s when it happened: hypocrisy smacked me across the face, hard. As much as I wanted to plead innocent in this case of prejudgment, I had become an offender without even realizing it.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this “challenge” for the whole week and decided to do some preliminary investigation: What are the general opinions of foreigners living abroad? And in turn, how do the foreigners react to these stereotypes?
I had a conversation one night with two friends: one from Hong Kong and one from the Netherlands. What began as a conversation about the aforementioned, quickly lead into a conversation about stereotypical Americans…
Part 1: Life is a Foreign Film, and You Are All Conveniently Typecast
Friday night, October 14th, 2011
I didn’t know how the “typical American” was perceived in other countries until I was mistaken for not being one.
“Don’t worry, it’s a good thing if people think you’re Canadian,” my (Chinese born, Canadian-educated) friend reassures me of this “compliment” I had once received.
It doesn’t bother me any less than it did the first time someone else said this to me. I wanted to find out: “What makes Canadians ‘better’ than Americans?”
“I don’t know,” he thinks for a moment. “Canada is less diverse than the States, but people are nicer, more relaxed than Americans, more aware of other cultures…”
My Dutch friend joins in: “I’ve met some Americans before that are just really stupid.”
I can’t help but feel slightly offended by this statement. But I’m curious to see what she’s about to say. “How so? Give me an example.”
“Well, I’ve met American exchange students in the past who were studying abroad and they always said things like, ‘It’s not like that in our country’ or ‘It’s like this in the States.’ But when I met European exchange students, they never began their statements like that,” she explains. “Americans just think they are the center of the world and think that everything is better in “their” country.”
The two of them are on a roll. “Americans are very ethnocentric,” my other friend agrees. “They don’t care to learn about other countries and sometimes they just say ignorant things, or they just act in that “typical way.”
“Define ‘typical.’” I don’t even know why I am asking him to define this; I can already guess what’s coming.
“They’re just always so loud and usually very naïve about other cultures. It doesn’t surprise me when someone tells me that they’re American if they’re acting in that way. They can be so ignorant when it comes to countries outside of the States. And the funny thing is, they think they know so much about the world and other cultures just because they’re from the ‘melting pot.’”
“Yeah,” says the Dutch. “And when they say something stupid, it’s like, oh, no wonder – you’re obviously American.”
I’m beginning to feel indignant. “It’s not fair to blame stupidity on an entire nation – just because you’re from a certain country doesn’t mean you can or should justify it by saying, ‘Oh it’s because you’re from Country X.’ It’s a copout.”
My mind and mouth are in overdrive. “You meet plenty of ignorant people from all over the world. The idea of blaming a stupid thing that a person says on the country they are from is just as ignorant.”
The three of us continue discussing this point. Eventually, my Dutch friend makes the conclusion that “Generalizations make life easier.” We leave it at that.
The following day, I’m still a bit perturbed by the conversation from the previous night. I decide to try and dissect the topic further with an American friend who had spent an extensive time living abroad.
People had also told him that he didn’t fit the “American” mold: “They said, ‘we think you’re pretty cool for being an American,’” he recalls from a conversation he had with a group of foreign exchange students. This bothered him as well: “When people find real evidence of people that aren’t stereotypical American, they automatically assume that you couldn’t possibly be from the States. People can’t grasp that idea that if you’re not acting in certain way, then you’ve been mislabeled.”
This is a phenomenon that happens to everyone. People can become so obstinate when it comes to stereotypes. The easiest thing to do in a situation where you don’t know someone too well is to combine what you know about them and what you assume about them. Voila! You’ve formulated a broad opinion about that person. Generalizing, in this regard, does make life easier. It’s a way of making us feel comfortable when meeting strangers and giving us a point of reference. People try to adapt to situations by familiarizing themselves with things they recognize, things that they’ve encountered in the past.
Inversely, generalizing makes life more difficult – indeed, we grasp on to the things that we can relate to in otherwise dubious situations. Because of this, we resultantly limit ourselves to labeling individuals, filing them away in an index box, and casting them in all too familiar roles.
When I go to the races next week, I will fulfill this “challenge” and observe and record the goings-on of all of the stereotypical things that I see and hear. But by doing so, am I subjecting myself to another case of self-contradiction?