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Identity in the Global Community

Identity in the Global Community

Lorrie Lykins | i4cp

October 21, 2009

I picked up a French language cassette tape – yes, I said cassette tape – at the public library a few months ago in preparation for a recent trip abroad. (The prices of most of the “Learn Conversational French in a Week!” CDs at the local bookstore prompted me to go with economic prudence and start out with a freebie – hence the library visit.)

Although the selection at the library was limited, I assumed that my only option – an introduction to touristy French language basics produced in 1974 – would be fine. How much could have changed in 30+ years, right? Wrong.

Two minutes into listening to the tape, I found myself reflecting on the common lament of some of my frequently traveling friends: “People really don’t like us. Why do they (anyone not from the U.S.) dislike us so much?”

The1974 tape turned out to be a tiny cultural time capsule of sorts, offering some insight and suggesting – to me, at least – that maybe we have been cultivating the “ugly American” image for quite some time. The tape starts with an introduction by someone who sounds suspiciously like the man who narrated the old Scholastic filmstrips of my black-and-white elementary school memories. His deep, booming voice is confident, assertive and self-possessed.

The conversational lessons began innocuously (albeit dated) enough: “Do you have a cigarette?” and “Do you have an air-conditioned room?”

But I started to feel a tad uncomfortable when phrases like “I want a better room,” “I want a larger room,” “Bring me my bill,” and “I want to speak to the manager” were introduced with a marked absence of niceties such as “if you please,” “excuse me,” or “thank you.”

And the phrases were delivered in a terse, rapid-fire manner by Mr. Filmstrip in a tone that bordered on haughty, even disdainful. And I visualized the words I heard on the tape like this: “Bigger,” “Better,” “I WANT!”

Oh, no, I thought. Have we always come off sounding this obnoxious, this rude, this – well – ugly? Is this how we Americans sound to the rest of the world?

The effect was reminiscent of a similar realization I experienced in high school and was accompanied by the same creeping feeling of unease that evolved into disbelief. It happened as I sat in my ninth-grade American History class reading accounts of atrocities visited on Native Americans that began in the 16th century. This was not at all what I had learned in elementary or even junior high school about the harmonious origins of Thanksgiving.

This didn’t sound anything like what the Americans I knew or the American I believed myself to be could possibly be capable of. And yet, there it was in my textbook. I remember feeling ashamed and rattled for weeks after having that first fairly unedited glimpse of our history and collective American identity and imagining how we might be perceived by others.

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