Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Theatre of Fools

One of the questionable habits of "intellectual" Europeans is the bashing of Americans and their lack of general knowledge. I am ashamed to admit that in my youth I made vows to never set my foot in the United States. I was a hardcore pacifist (and still am, but a less aggressive one), and found the wars the US was involved in deplorable. I, too, tsk-tsk-ed when my dear friend Teresa (a US citizen) claimed out loud in our international politics lecture that America was the greatest country in the world. (The tone of her claim suggested that she was not only referring to the military might of a nation, but the supposed superior moral status her country enjoyed.) While working at a student residence in London, I dealth with American law students who did not know what country codes for phone calls were, or who blew the fuses of all of their electronic apparatuses before asking if there was something wrong with the electric circuit of the building. Even last year I laughed out loud when I saw a YouTube clip of a US beauty queen showing her dumbness when asked about the lack of geographical knowledge of her countrymen, or when an Australian reporter went around asking Americans about the most famous buildings in the world.

In the past year or so, tables have turned. Since it became evident that I was going to move over to the US, I have struggled to learn to put the US states and the major cities on the map. I would have to double-check when the declaration of independence was drafted, and what the events were that led to it. If you had asked me to put Indiana on the map a year ago, I would have struggled. Ask me to name the presidents on dollar bills and I wouldn't have had an answer for you until very recently. I shriek like an idiot at the sight of a racoon, and don't even know the names of the basic weeds around here. Summa summarum: I have gained a sense of sincere humility whenever I encounter Americans who mix Finland with Sweden, or who might struggle with the details of the Paris Peace Agreement. The best bit is that these Americans are just as humble as I am when it comes to acknowledging their lack of wisdoms. They might not know whether Paris is a part of Europe (I was asked this by a student from Florida about ten years ago), but they are sincere and curious, and for the most part, they have extremely detailed knowledge of the history of their own country and culture. Add the numerous Americans who have first-hand experience in university life, world affairs, science, business or media, just to name a few outlets, and intellectually speaking the average American might not be worse off than his or her European counterpart.

Having said all that, yesterday I was presented with a first-row seat to witness the emergence of a scary American subgroup: the obnoxious, rude, loud, ignorant Americans. Chris and me decided to go see Shutter Island (after all, the movie takes place at a mental institution in the 1950s - I was intrigued). Without giving the time much consideration, we went to a 10:50 showing on a Saturday night. As you might guess, in any town or city, that is the time when anyone interested in safe-guarding one's own sanity should stay at home. It is the time for the obnoxious, rude and loud.

Shutter Island is a serious (if not all that great, but not bad either) movie. It deals with mystery, the human mind and the fragility of our condition. Chris and me were accompanied to the movie theatre with dozens of teenagers and young adults whose only reason to come to the cinema that night was to discuss Lakeisha's new haircut and to shout remarks such as "I want someone to die already", "That's some f^&king ugly child" and "I bet she wants to f%&k him". Add hysterical giggles every time the camera moved into show an insane person or to a dark cell with naked asylum inmates, and you have a pretty decent idea as to how the entire two hours were spent in the cinema.

There are badly-behaved teenagers and young adults in every society, but I have to say I have never in my life encoutered anything like what I witnessed last night. These young people spoke non-stop, from start to finish of the movie, walked around in the cinema when the movie was playing, and showed no consideration whatsoever to the fellow people around them.

Chris tells me that there is a certain part of the American population whose first and foremost way to look at the world is "I am entitled". These people think that it is their God-given right as a citizen of the United States to behave as they see fit in any given situation. Me first, others second. I wonder whether it is for these people that our local Barnes & Noble bookstore stocks "South Park and Philosophy" next to Hobbes' Leviathan.

I feel bad about having the need to write this post. During my stay in the United States I have met so many wonderful people - people who have hosted me in their homes, people who have shown genuine interest in my culture and country, people whose smiles are sincere and who are eager to learn about the world and other people. I hate to bash anyone in this country, because it gets enough bashing already, and its people have given me so much. Still, I am horrified that the other side of the face of this country is so selfish and ugly. I am sad to note that I have not encountered such ugliness anywhere else.

Blouse: H&M
Trousers: Acne
Belt: second hand / Salvation Army
Shoes: second hand / Fida
Beret: second hand / flea market
Brooch: gift from Lynn


Charlotte Holmes said...

I think your observations are on target. I live in a university town where binge drinking is a big problem, as is the bad behavior that accompanies it. The sense of entitlement is sometimes stunning--the attitude is, "This is what I want, and if you don't like it, go f--k yourself." Although I believe those who think in this way are in the minority, the whole group suffers. I have to say that when I was in Finland, I found that even on TV, the awareness of the larger world was much more acute than here--we're so accustomed to being in our bubble. Countries where world wars have been fought in the city streets and farms and forests seem to have a much better awareness of the necessity to work together & not only think of one's self. This is why study abroad programs are so crucial to a student's education. I've never met a student who hasn't been changed for the better by the experience.

eunice said...

love this look! the vintage blouse and wide leg pants go perfectly together!

Ranna said...

My friend spent an year as an exchange student in Iowa and I was really surprised when she told me, that there it was really common to talk in cinemas. It wasn't only in the late night showings, it was every time she went to see a movie.
The locals thought of the movie theater as a place to hang out with your buddies. Like an option to a coffee house or a pizza place. She didn't get even her own friends to shut up during a film. And they were nice people.

I guess all I'm saying that it might be possible that people just think differently. Maybe the teenagers don't realize that talking and shouting in cinemas can be considered any more rude than having a conversation in the local pizza place. Maybe they think of it as a social environment, where you're supposed to act like that.
..It doesn't make it any less annoying, though.

Oranges And Apples said...

Great post. When i was s tudent used to come across US students all the time that would come out with the most ridiculous things. And what kind of scared me was that they were the highly educated, privileged ones with wnough interest in other countries all the to study abroad! But I've tried hard in recent years to put this lack of knowledge into perspective. I'm also pretty sketchy on US states (Honestly, I know the east and west coast ones only). I used to think that wasn't a big deal, because US states are sub-national, like the German Laender and the French regions, and what mattered was that you knew your nation states. But I don't think most Europeans appreciate just how big the US is, and that states are really equivalent to European countries. I used to be shocked and horrified when I heard that 50% (or whatever it is) of Americans don't have a passport, but it's hardly the same as not leaving your country in Europe.

Eline said...

I think Americans are just very patriotic and the educational system is pariallyt to blame. They don't really study in-depth the geography of the world, do they? I did in Europe though and by myself I easily learned all the states in the US (not exactly but still). But I do have a less detailed knowledge of my own country. Anyway, part of the supposed lack of general knowledge is probably their educational system. Euopeans and others who claim Americans are stupid lack a certain knowledge themselves obviously :)

Also HI I came across your blog via Andrea and love your posts!

T said...

I'm ashamed to admit that I kind of miss watching movies in the suburbs, cause there are some movies that actually do benefit from inane commentary. And sometimes the jokes blurted out loud are funnier than the ones onscreen. Or perhaps I should watch better movies.

But that's true what Chris says. Many Americans seem to point to the First Amendment as not a defense of their right to say stupid things, but rather an encouragement of it. I think our Founding Fathers would be a bit outraged to learn what their Bill of Rights is being used for these days.

I'm eagerly awaiting the day when you admit -- however grudgingly -- that America could be the greatest country in the world. It'll happen, mark my words!

Clare said...

First, this is SUCH a superb outfit. I love the wide-legged pants, the gorgeous blouse. Everything is lovely!

Also, I really appreciate your thoughts. The "ugly American" thing is something I've always really disliked about my country. I feel like it's a part of my culture that I just don't relate to, or appreciate, and I hate that it's still so prominent. Sorry you had to deal with it. :)

mirattes said...

pants are fabulous as well as all view ;)

What Would a Nerd Wear said...

aw, i hate obnoxious people, especially in movie theatres!
that polka-dot blouse is lovely though--and perfection with the high-waisted pants!

Jane W. said...

Wow. I had so looked forward to your blog after reading about it at a Cat of Impossible Color. No, the United States is not perfect. But your post might have been better suited to a journal.

Anonymous said...

Well, in a way I agree with you on that sometimes people think that they ar entitled to everything, like when I hold the door open at the gym for someone and they don't even say thank you, or the way children treat their teachers with no respect whatsoever, I am a bilingual teacher and I notice the different behaviour from the bilingual students (who are calmer and more respectful to their teachers...that is until they become "americanized") and the way american-born students treat their teachers, almost like they were their babysitters instead of being respectful. I don't agree with you on the lack of knowledge of people though, just because you haven't met yet a person that answers all you questions doesn't mean that all people are like that. Now, the cinema episode, I've been to a movie where the people where just walking around and being rude and talking etc, but this happenned when I went to a ghetto teather and believe me I did not go back to that one, since then I go to another teather and I had never encountered such a problem, everyone was quiet and respectful, yes you can still see some right cell phone lights every now and then, but not all the time. I don't think that it's okay to generalize that all people are like that, give it more time, there are negative things everywhere. So sorry that you had such bad experience, but generalizing with such a short time being here and based on just a few people that you've met and ecountered is not fair.

Anonymous said...

Having moved from the US to Europe, I observe students constantly talking with each other and chatting on cell phones... during class lectures, with no regard for the professor or other students who are there to listen. The cinema is equally bad, one wonders why they don't go to a bar or cafe.

This disregard extends to the streets. People stand by while someone is being harassed or assaulted on a bus or at the train station and do absolutely nothing. On the other hand, public transportation is readily available, unlike the US.

Because my skin is not white, "educated" Europeans ask me "where are you really from" when I say I'm American. Outside of cosmopolitan cities like London and Paris, Europe is more provincial than the multicultural US.

Vasiliisa said...

Hi, long time no "see"! Just catching up with blogs. First, BIG congrats on tying the knot! And I must say you look absolutely great, obviously marriage suits you and perhaps even the US suits you, as annoying as it may be at times :)

I think larger nations tend to be more self-sufficient than others. You notice that even within in Europe, when comparing Finland to France or Spain, for example. In way that's understandable. In a small country with an uncommon language we just grow up to see the world quite differently. Also like oranges and apples said, not leaving your country or never learning another language just isn't the same thing for an American.

Then there's people who are just plain ignorant and arrogant but I guess there's some of those everywhere :p

Anonymous said...

Consider the possibility that you were in a different American culture in that movie theater - a culture in which talking in movies is the norm, rather than one which is resisting some rule about talking in movies. There are certainly places in the US where that exists and is not rude.

Lord knows there are ugly Americans. But this might not be the example.


Charlotte said...

Franca, your realization that US states are more like European countries is very true. Pennsylvania, where I live, is the size of England, and it's not even a very large state area-wise. Though TV has been a great homogenizing factor over the past several decades, there are still regional differences that can be pronounced, and can sometimes be startling even to Americans. But I've never lived anywhere in the US where talking in cinemas was OK--it's just that boors sometimes do it. And if there are more boors than not in the audience, the likelihood is that they won't be shushed.

Rad_in_Broolyn said...

This is terrible behavior. I am sorry that you movie experience was ruined (that happened to me during Precious).
I wonder sometimes why [some] Americans are so happy with their unfortunate behavior? I think it's a weird offshoot of democracy and lots of open space. Like folks who wanted to leave their homes to the U.S. to do what they please and have lots of space, and this has infused the culture somehow. I think there is something about "freedom of expression and speech" (that I've heard my students use) as a means to defend stupidity. As a result, appeals to reasonable behavior are ignored or decried as oppression. Seriously. Plus, we have so many more people compared to other industrial peer countries, that the sheer numbers of idiots is overwhelming.

Rad_in_Broolyn said...

(oh, and I love love love the polka dot blouse)

The Waves said...

Thank you, everyone, for your thought-provoking comments! There were a couple of comments that made me think that perhaps I was too open in describing my observations, and I fear someone's feelings might have been hurt.

I would like to clarify that this was not my first time in an American cinema - I go to the movies here all the time, but this was the first time I have encountered such problems with the people. As far as I understood my own writing, I did not generalize that Americans are all like the people I met at the cinema: I specifically wanted to say that most Americans I have met have been nothing but wonderful, intelligent and polite, which is why the cinema experience was so shocking.

This blog of mine is a journal of sorts, albeit a public one, and I record my thoughts here, and there are times when those thoughts might not be only positive. This particular evening in the cinema really upset me, and it upset the way I am growing to see this country and its people. No country or culture is perfect, but not talking about the problems is not the right route for me. There are "ugly" people everywhere, people with bad manners, and my own countrymen are no exception, especially when they visit international sports events in foreign countries.

A fair amount of my blog posts is going to talk about my settling down in the United States. It is important for me to write about such things, and I think that it might be interesting reading for others as well. This stuff includes the good, the bad and the ugly. I might write a blog post about this one of these days, but this blog is never going to be an opinion-free style diary. I try to be nice whenever I have negative things to say, and if I failed to do it here, I sincerely apologize.

Thanks again, for all of your comments!

Anonymous said...

you are right waves, I did not start reading your blog because it fit what the rest did to try to fit other people's likes, although I did not agree with you on this post and found it a little negative I respect that you stand up for your own opinion. =)

Michele said...

I think it's great that you're so open with your thoughts--really living in another country is always such a mixed bag and I've really enjoyed your observations, positive or not. That happened to me once in the cinema when I made the grave mistake of seeing a silly film at a shopping mall in the middle of the day--it was shocking! That said, there are places like my hometown Cinema and Drafthouse, where shouting at the screen is not only acceptable but expected (but of course beer and nachos are involved, so that's another story).

But I think Chris is very right that this is part of a wider trend. It's indicative of some very extreme individualism, not unconnected to American exceptionalism. There are some positive sides to individualism, of course, like the wonderfully creative expression that Americans seem to excel at, but self-serving, thoughtless behavior and a sense of entitlement is sadly the other side.

Janne was the same when it came to the prospect of visiting the US (so don't feel bad--he married an American too haha!). At first he was actually ashamed by how much he liked the country.

Well, good luck at the movies. At least it's all good blogging material. :) :)

oliwka said...

Another very original outfit. You have an amaizing style!

Kisses from Poland,

tigerteacher said...

Just writing to say that I enjoyed reading your post and all of the responses. All views were thought provoking and interesting and challenging. For what it's worth, I hate when people talk in the movies but I have heard it done more than once. I saw an Austin Powers movie sitting in front of a woman who loudly repeated "Yeah, Baby!" each and every time Austin said it - man, that got old fast!

Tara said...

I believe your observations and comments were spot-on. I am a high school teacher in Florida and I deal with this sense of entitlement every day. It is incredibly disturbing as I think it is more widespread than anyone wants to admit or acknowledge. These are the future (I hesitate to say leaders) of the country.