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Pet Sins September 2006

Perceptions of America abroad - one American's encounter with stereotypes

On my overseas trips, I've noticed that people seem to hold extreme stereotypes of America. Either we're seen as a 'terrorist nation bent on world domination' or 'a model country which is ahead of the rest of the world in every single respect'. The first stereotype is so 2-dimensional that I find it incredible that people accept it. True, US foreign policy might not always have been favorable for all parties involved, but the government has also provided much aid around the world. Somehow the good doesn't get talked about as much in world media.

The second stereotype sounds flattering, but I don't like it any more than the first and it isn't any more true. And what's worse, is that while most Americans don't believe the first, they buy into the second, giving fuel to the stereotype of the arrogant, ugly, American. The US has the best universities in the world. But our kids are not the first on international math tests. (See WSJ article As math skills slip, U.S. schools seek answers from Asia) The United States spends more on health care than any other country in the world, but ranks 38th in health care performance. (See World Health Organization report) The US has many good things going for it, but we are not 'the best' if there's even such a thing. Different countries excel in different ways.

In some countries the assumption that America is always number one is so strong that they credit us with qualities we don't have. An Asian newspaper hailed America as the 'most sexually liberated country in the world'. Now I really don't know about that. In my opinion, Brazilians are much less prudish about sex than Americans are. Of course, compared to Afghanistan, our casual attitude towards premarital sex and multiple partners seems very 'liberated', but even a traditional Asian culture like the Mosuo has no taboo against premarital sex and multiple partners, In fact, the Mosuo maintain stable families without the use of formal marriage.(See Land Of The Walking Marriage - Mosuo people of China) So I really have cause to doubt we're the 'most sexually liberated country/culture in the world'.

I just wish that people see the United States as a 'normal' country comprised of regular people like themselves, and not demonize America as a supervillain or deify her as a superhero.