Sunday, October 15, 2006

I take a pop-quiz in Social Studies

I've noticed that some of the people here are very keen to talk to an American. We either confuse or fascinate them, maybe both. Spending some time in the pubs of Merry Olde England, I have found some people want to talk about what is going on in the world, and what the American mind is thinking about things.

I always assure them that there is no collective American mind. Like any other group of 300 million people, our thoughts on all subjects are varied and complicated. We are not the Borg. This does not sate them.

A common question is: What do Americans think of Tony Blair? That's one I feel safe answering. We really don't think of Tony Blair. I then try to explain how the "average" American cannot name even all of the states in our own union, let alone form an opinion about a foreign leader with whom we are not at war.

A common observation is: I didn't think Americans smoked. Well, statistically, more don't than do, but I think they are referring to all the cities who have banned the practice in certain areas. That's apparently big news over here. I tell them about the Surgeon General's warning on an American pack of cigarettes, how small it is and how politely phrased. Here, a little more than a third of the front of the pack is a huge box which reads (in the case of my current pack) "Smoking kills." The back of the pack gives an entire half to a similar box, in this case reading "Your doctor or pharmacist can help you quit smoking." These boxes dwarf the branding of the item, which could never happen in America. I was told that in Thailand and other places, instead of verbal warnings they'll put an autopsy picture with an open chest exposing the lungs, or just a picture of carbonized lungs on the pack instead. So we're way behind in that area. I also try to remind them that stereotypes about all the people in a given country are not always accurate, illustrating my point with an anecdote about how last week a French woman fake-coughed at me until I finished my cigarette.

I was asked about the relative strength of the individual state versus the strength of the federal government. I explained that the states can pass all sorts of crazy laws to govern this or that, unless that issue is already addressed by the federal government. But that with the exception of a couple of hotbed issues like gay marriage or capital punishment, the "average" American's most meaningful interaction with his or her state is likely to involve income tax, a tollway, or the Department of Motor Vehicles.

I have also had to explain to nearly everyone who has discovered that I live in Chicago that the whole "Windy City" thing has nothing at all to do with actual wind.

But I kinda dislike having these conversations, despite how well-meaning and genuinely interested the other party is, because at best I'm just giving them new generalizations to use. And I don't speak for all Americans. And I'm not an eighth-grade Civics teacher. What I am is a guy who gets an embarrassingly high percentage of his information from Jon Stewart. And who isn't too crazy about the America he sees taking shape around him these days.

I have been told that acknowledging the complicated nature of an issue, and admitting that there isn't one right answer that holds true for all of my compatriots isn't the kind of answer they were looking for. Not American enough. They really expect us to be certain about everything.

Last weekend, when I mentioned the novel I'm working on, I was accused of being pessimistic about it. I thought about that for a minute (because it isn't necessarily an "out-there" assertion when speaking of me) before saying:

"It isn't pessimism. It's just that I haven't written it. I'm sure I'll talk it up once it's finished, but you just don't brag about something you haven't done."

My accuser, a highly attractive Norwegian woman, grew thoughtful.

"That's not a very American thing to say," she finally muttered.

Maybe not. But I never claimed to be the ideal American.

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