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Multi-Sited Ethnography Project:

Reactions to Americans

By Michelle Cox

    In my journey sailing around the world in three months' time and visiting ten new countries I haven’t experienced before, I learned of many stereotypes of Americans of which I had been unaware.  Every country’s people had very different, but sometimes similar, reactions to we Americans due to pre-conceived notions and rumors of our government and economy or even sometimes previous tourists to visit the country.  In some of the countries we visited, all Americans are perceived as wealthy with enormous amounts of disposable income just waiting to be spent in their country.  Seeing how six-hundred and fifty of us walked off the gorgeous, brand new ocean liner, the MV Explorer, with our designer clothes and backpacks jammed to the max and our digital cameras and video cameras in hand, I could see how we could be mistaken to be wealthier than many of us actually are. 

            For the most part, we were welcomed with open arms and smiles, which at times were hard to differentiate whether the people were glad to see us, or if it was actually our wallets they were interested in.  I would like to think that for the most part, people in many of the countries were genuinely pleased we were there to learn about their country and culture and not just to spend our money.  However, I cannot say that goes for all ten of the countries on our itinerary.  On the other hand, I can understand why developing countries would be glad to see us, because it is tourists who help boost their economy on a large scale and ultimately makes their life a little easier; which isn’t such a bad deal if we can help out in the world.

            In contrast to holding stereotypes of Americans as wealthy, I also noticed in my encounters and interactions with people of other cultures that many of them are simply fascinated with the American culture and what we are all about.  In some instances even, an American is nothing but a face on a poster or in a magazine and not really something they will encounter in their everyday life.  I can only imagine that seeing a person of a human race never seen before would probably be like seeing an alien to an American.  How can you blame a culture for not being exposed to other cultures, like those in Burma who are practically cut off from the world by their forceful military regime?  Although, in other cultures such as Turkey and Vietnam, the fascination with Americans clearly hadn’t sprouted from lack of exposure so much as past experiences.  The Turks wanted nothing but to be my friends and to make me feel at home and to learn more about our lives back at home.  Or in Vietnam, in another case, the fascination seemed to stem more from past experience from the American War in the 1960s.  Reactions in Vietnam differed very much from people being very friendly and helpful, to people who gave us funny or even dirty looks. I even got some looks of disgust or awe, as if to say “I can’t believe you have the audacity to show your face here with such history as yours in our country.”  Or maybe that’s just my paranoia kicking in.  I can’t help but wonder if the same interest and/or hospitality is shown when tourists from Australia or Africa, for example, visit particular countries.

Click on these links to read my fuller discussions of each of these countries:

Site 1: Vietnam "American in Vietnam"
Site 2: Burma "Family Fun in Burma"
Site 3: Turkey "Tats in turkey"

My Analysis

            As shown in my ethnographies from Vietnam, Myanmar, and Turkey I experienced very different encounters and received very different reactions from each group of people in these countries.  It appears to me that people of different cultures have a lot of respect for Americans and believe us to be very trustworthy.  Although, in Vietnam the reaction wasn’t necessarily a positive reaction so much as it made me feel uncomfortable.  In understanding the fact that in the eyes of some Vietnamese, Americans are seen as “former” enemies, the reaction from the two men is completely valid.  That is just a cultural difference an American must accept in visiting Vietnam.        

            However, not all Vietnamese have the same bitter response as those of the older generation who lived through the American War.  In Elizabeth Vann’s article "The Limits of Authenticity in Vietnamese Consumer Markets," she explains how many Western styles are observed and counterfeited and sold for a much less expensive price than in the United States because they lack the superior quality of the authentic product.  The Vietnamese do not see this as an illegal act, as it is merely out of admiration of the styles.  To the Vietnamese, though, the authentic products are not affordable.  Therefore, the only option to hold these brand name styles is through buying the counterfeit products.  Consequently, production of these "mimic goods" helps the economy, especially when westerners, such as us, visit the country and purchase the mimic products at a lower price.        

            In Burma, it seems that in interacting with American tourists the Burmese hope to seek help for improving their economy or even their military government situation.  After speaking with other students after our visit to Burma, I learned that the Burmese aren’t legally allowed to discuss the government with foreigners.  Yet, many of the Burmese went against these regulations and spoke to the students of the situation in hopes the word would be spread and help could be sent to help the country when the Iraq war is resolved.  In this case,  apparently the Burmese hold great respect for Americans and our government as they feel President Bush is making the correct moves towards helping other country’s obtain the freedom they’ve awaited.

 My experience with the family made me realize what wonderful, kind people the Burmese are and they do deserve to be a free country instead of living in constant fear.  Whether or not this was the sole purpose of the family inviting us into their home, they were genuine and are just like you and I.  Awatsaya Panam’s article “Migrant Domestic Workers: From Burma to Thailand” she discusses how researchers were sent to the Burmese workers to discuss their work situation and the government regulations with them in hopes to help their situation.  At times, the workers showed discomfort in discussing such issues with the researchers as they felt there was an ulterior motive that could put them in danger of the military government.  Although the Burmese family and I did not discuss government issues, after reading the article I was surprised that the family was comfortable and trustworthy enough to let us in their home, despite knowing that if any government official found out, they could be severely questioned.

My experience in Turkey, completely different from the other two countries, showed how much respect and appreciation for the American culture the Turks have.  Turks already have a great sense of hospitality and I’m sure they take care of any and all foreigners as they did for my friends and me. Although, when Emre and his boss mentioned how the two best days in the shop was first, the day we spent in the shop and second, the day eleven American soldiers spent the day, it seemed odd that these days only included Americans.  After spending the day talking about what life is like in America, the men seemed even more intrigued.  Yael Navarro-Yasin’s article “Who is ‘Turkish?’” discusses the Westernizing of Turkey and how it is now much less common to see women in veils and robes as it was in the recent past.  The obvious Muslim population is becoming much less obvious as time passes.  The country seems anxious to become more modern and westernized modeling after American and European styles and ways of life. 

In Conclusion

I suppose the reason I really don’t understand where the fascination with American culture stems from is because when we encounter foreigners in our country, it is not a norm to show them hospitality or to talk and learn more about them, or to react at all.  This could be because America is made up of immigrants from all over the world and it is not uncommon to find a foreigner in our country.  However, it seems that many cultures of the world think Americans have a perfect life whereas in many instances they can only dream of living the luxurious life they imagine we live in the States.  At the same rate, though, I cannot understand why many of the countries are so anxious to rid their traditional ways and styles.  I believe those styles and traditions are what make the world such a diverse and beautiful place.  If there is no culture and no tradition, then what is left to live by?  I do hope that the admiration for Americans comes from our lifestyle and freedom and not because of pre-determined stereotypes of wealth.  After all, money does not make the man.

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