Thursday, 14 April 2011

My United States of America

When I was growing up, there were two distinct ways to prove your status as a cool kid in class. One was having MTV at home, and the other one was wearing Levi's jeans. (I had neither.) MTV at the time showed music videos rather than Teen Mom. I specifically remember going to my friend Anna's house after school to do our homework together and to watch MTV, and we'd both hope to see Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal. It was the coolest music video EVER. Anna also wore Levi's. She loved The Bangles and Bon Jovi. I, in contrast, wore my sister's hand-me-downs and liked Kim Wilde. (Anna, at that point, hadn't fully figured out that I was very un-cool. That time would come later.)

The few kids in my class who took vacations abroad occasionally came back with a suitcase full of Levi's 501s. You could buy Levi's in Finland, too, but if my memory serves me right, a pair cost up to 500 Finnish marks. That was a lot of money back then. If you knew that someone was going to the US, you'd just hope that you were in the right crowd and that you could persuade the child in question to bring you a pair of Levi's that would perhaps fit. Even if they didn't, you'd wear them anyway. It was all about that little red tag. Needless to say, my friends never went to the US and I led a very Levi'sless existence. That didn't stop me from admiring the kids who had got their hands on American gold. In America, I thought, everyone wore Levi's. Everyone had MTV. Everything was fancy, big and impressive. The people all looked like Brenda and Brandon of Beverly Hills, 90210. America had Madonna and Bruce Springsteen. I thought that Born in the USA was a song about how wonderful America was.

Gradually, my idea of the United States crumbled. I became aware of world politics and realized that America had done nothing to prevent genocide in Rwanda. American popular music had started to change dramatically, and I gravitated toward British music instead. Eventually MTV stopped airing Beavis and Butt-head. Regional MTVs took over the American original. Nothing was quite the same. The Levi's jeans just looked ill-fitting. I became disillusioned. Even Anna turned her back on the US and moved to Argentina.

I had a very negative impression of the US in my late teens and 20s. A lot of it had to do with my studies in the field of international relations. I took to the streets in Budapest (and later, in London) to protest against the war on Iraq. The Americans, in my opinion, had chosen a stupid president to represent their nation. That decision, in my eyes, must have been made by equally stupid people. I swore I'd never set my foot in the US.

In the end I did, in August 2003. I remember getting off the plane in Chicago, and I was stunned. As much as I had grown to dislike America over the years, I was still under the vague impression that things looked a certain way there. To my shock, the O'Hare airport was stuffy and dirty. The people were rude and every other person was horribly overweight. The toilets smelled. Everything looked old and worn. I spent a month traveling in different cities around the US: Chicago, Kansas City, St Louis, Cleveland, New York City and Washington D.C. (I have a picture of myself in front of the White House, making insulting gestures at George W. Bush). Overall, I met a lot of wonderful people and saw a lot of beautiful things. But nothing had fully prepared me to face the pot-holed roads, the buildings that desperately needed fixing, the homeless people, the consumerist mania and the income- and race-based segregation, in pretty much every single place I visited. It was only then that I fully realized that the greatest country in the world was also internally troubled and divided. The United States of America was just like any other country. It seemed to me that it had just done a lot of extra foot-work to look a certain way to the outsiders, to the ones who had no access to its realities.

Since I moved to the US almost two years ago I have learned a lot, but there is still so much for me to learn. I have become increasingly curious about this country's history, and have spent the past couple of weeks learning about the American Civil War (that wonderful Ken Burns documentary series has been playing on PBS). It has occurred to me that in the past I saw America as a foreign country only. The US acted very visibly and aggressively in the complicated framework of states, but I had no idea what its internal workings were. To a foreigner, it almost seemed as if it had no internal workings at all. It seemed as if its outside was all that there was. These days, every day I learn something new about those internal workings. Every day I try to understand the current political discussion, only to realize that I have to go way back to get a glimpse of the process that got us where we are now. I have come to understand that America has a fascinating, deeply divided, rich and multi-layered internal history. It is a crying shame that foreigners in general don't know much about it. As much as Europeans in particular bash Americans for their lack of general knowledge, the history of the United States is largely hidden from those outside its borders. A huge part of me feels ashamed of that silly, glorified image I had of the US as a child, but I am equally embarrased of my ignorant, hate-filled rantings later on in life.

But let's get back to where I started this post. I eventually got my first ever pair of Levi's when I was 14. They were my sister's old, faded-black 501s. When I grew out of them, I made them into cut-offs. I wore those cut-offs to my first ever music festival when I was 16. I saw Aerosmith.

I thrifted these Levi's jeans at Salvation Army recently. In the memory of the good old days, I made them into cut-offs. The pink hoodie is also thrifted. The boots are by John Fluevog and Lynn made the bracelet. I think the tights might be from Urban Outfitters.


Anonymous said...

Who knew that a pair of cutoffs could be so storied? When you were traveling around the US was it with a certain eye on international relations or architecture? I often will have foreign students in class and they share with me their mental image of the US prior to coming here. I am astounded at the stories--cowboys and Indians? streets paved with gold? They tell me that their pictures come from American media, an escapist art form if there ever was one. A truly interesting post. (Oh, and I like the new header)

Shey said...

hahahaha Waves I love this posts, I'm sure some will be offended, as I read the first part I was like like "on no she isn't" hehe. I think there is a certain dislike to US in many countries also, for example in Mexico growing up in a very small time many times I was the target of jokes and mean comments for being "the Amrican", there was and still is a dislike towards this country and it's consummerism, racial divided people, politics, you name it. When I came to the U.S. I was "the Mexican" because people here would never consider me American even though I am by birth, people always aks me where I'm from. So anyways, I learned to defend U.S. from my friends or bite my tongue and then come here and feel rejected. I still love the U.S. because of the ooportunities this country has provided me although there is a list I could easily pull out about the things I dislike about it, the same goes for Mexico. Anyways I love your post, you've got some serious courage to write down your opinions and I love your blog because of that, it's always very refreshing. I think if I had been your friend in school I'd think you were very cool, I think so now. =)

Teeny said...

This is so very interesting to me Waves. I laughed when I read Shey's first line....I'm from another country so I'm not going to be offended, but American patriotism is well known, so yes, you are a brave lady. As a kid, I also had the 90210 belief; nowadays I am in awe of the size of the States and that there are so many different landscapes, idiosyncracies pertaining to different populations; those ideas are still magical to me. What isn't magical is the incredibly fast moving, mass production of food, - this though is also symptomatic of what has been happening in other large Western(ised) countries. I would love to visit still. unattainable to me as a child too. They were something only seen at the movies.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Waves! Really interesting!!! oxox, CR

Anonymous said...

Loved this post and your honesty. As Shey said, this is partly why I come here, you express your opinions as they are regardless of how others might react or perceive you. My growing up was along very similar lines, and I also live in the US now.

The Waves said...

Terri, I was visiting a friend and we took the time to travel around. It was sort of an improvised roadtrip. And yes, it is weird how most foreigners' ideas of America come directly from the media. The US, in many foreigners' eyes, is the country of Dallas, reality tv, serial killers and the CSI people who catch them.

Shey, Teeny and anonymous: you know, I didn't even think that my post might potentially offend anyone... I think it is pretty well known here that a lot of Europeans are very critical of the US, and I consider myself very, very lucky to have been allowed the experience to transform from an aggressive US-basher to someone who sees the diversity and the complexity of this country. The best thing for me has been to realise that the US really is just like any other country, with its pluses and minuses, with its advantages and problems. I do know that a lot of patriotic Americans like to only see the advantages, but I think patriotic people are like that everywhere. But thanks guys, for your kind words! I do try to always write as honestly as I possibly can. And here's to hoping that no one misunderstood my message and sends me hate mail. So far, so good! :)

wardrobeexperience said...

i really love this post... thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

You know Waves, the thing that it didn't even occur to you that some one might feel offended because of your frank opinions, tells probably more about the culture you're coming from than about yourself.

I'm a Finn too and noticed the exact same thing while visiting US some weeks ago. When I thought that I was just being honest, open, even curious about some things back there, to my surprise I was being considered too questioning and criticising towards American culture and society.

Finns tend to seem quite often far too blunt and rude to many other cultures, where communication is far more subtle, rigid and has certain rules and forms. I've seen that in my job even when dealing with Italians, French, Belgians and Russians. They have more courtesy in their everyday way of speaking compared to Finns, and that's why we quite often give a very rude impression of ourselves to them, because our way of communication is pretty straight to the point, frank and very honest.

But anyway - my point was, that I really enjoyed reading this posting. I like your spacing, use of of words and framing in writing. It's very easy to read, fluent and somehow very refreshing.

You're a good writer, keep up the good work!

Alisa said...

I'm hooked! Totally enjoyed hearing of your experience. I, myself, moved here two years ago, and I had a totally different vision of the US before. I mean, where are all those skyscrapers they showed on TV? :D My husband is half-Finnish and he's very passionate about Finnish culture and history as he is about his homeland, USA.

t.e. said...

Very interesting post. I had pretty much the same experience growing up - I'm Finnish and have lived in the US for 4 years.

I agree with Anonymous of 4/24 that Finns can come across as blunt to the point of rudeness here in the US. My American husband frequently reminds me that I while I can say whatever I like to him, other Americans are often startled by my various statements. The flip side of that is the way Finnish people label Americans as hypocrites and fakers for their how-are-you's and their rigorous political correctness. There's obviously a middle ground between being rude and being insincere, and I think our position between the two countries allows us to observe (and hopefully avoid) both extremes of behavior.

At this point, living in America often makes me feel very Finnish, but were I to move back to Finland, I can tell I would feel very American and wrong-footed there. I already have the American reflex to be affronted when people mindlessly criticize the US, as you remark many Europeans do.