15 December 2006

O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us

I seem to be having an attack of the lit’ry fever today. Bear with me.

The Finns are famously curious about how they are regarded by others in the world. Part of that curiosity seems to originate in concern about whether they are regarded by others at all. Assure them that every American knows all there is to know about Mr. Lordi and his heavy metal group’s victory in the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest (okay, just in case: http://www.lordi.fi/main.site?action=app/gallery/random&dir_id=7), and they will beam. You’ve made their day. Aurinko paistaa. Tell them that you’ve never seen Conan O’Brien’s celebrated telecasts from Finland, and you will send them into a slough of despond (it’s from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, here: http://www.classicallibrary.org/bunyan/pilgrim/2.htm.).

Americans, I would submit, are less curious about how they are perceived abroad. We are confident, rightly so, that people round the world know who we are. Though one must beware. Here in Finland, there is always the distinct possibility that the person to whom you’re speaking will know more about U.S. history, geography, and culture than you do.

How, exactly, America is regarded abroad is another matter entirely. I have been peppered with indelicate questions (“Did you vote for Bush?” “Why are there no grocery stores in your city centers?” “How can people pay for healthcare in your country?”) so frequently by the supposedly reserved Finns that I am inclined to think that our “approval ratings” aren’t what we’d like them to be. There is not much one more or less mild-mannered Fulbrighter can do about that, alas.

Let me introduce as evidence of the sorry state of American credibility abroad several conversations and email exchanges I have had with a colleague over here. Our dialogue began with a casual query on his part about my seminar on the history of Pittsburgh. I asked him if he had ever been to the city. He said no, but that he had relatives in Morgantown, West Virginia, and Ashtabula, Ohio. I know a little bit about both towns, as it happens, so I told him what I knew, and then followed up with a link to Morgantown’s dopey people-mover system, which he enjoyed. Later, he printed out the lyrics of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” (“They're really rockin Boston, In Pittsburgh, P. A.”) which was when I started to realize that he not only knew something about Pittsburgh, it was clear that he knew more than a little about American popular music.

I probed a little, and he explained that he and his brother had visited the States in 1984, searching for the roots of rock-‘n-roll. That led naturally enough to Rhythm & Blues, and to Chicago, where the two Finnish lads somehow found their way to a club so deeply buried in the city’s South Side that the performers felt they had to drive them back to the Loop, for safety’s sake, after the show.

These two Finnish pilgrims paid some serious dues. They measured their progress in Greyhound bus miles. They slept at the YMCA (cue the Village People). They dined at McDonald’s and Burger King so they could add to their collection of vintage 45s. The trail eventually led them to the Delta Blues Museum, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where they
signed the visitors’ book in the public library where the Blues Museum was (and still is, I think—Muddy Waters, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker lived there in their younger days). The apprentice (white, young) was smiling as he saw that we wrote Helsinki, Finland (adding Europe) and asked us if that was in another county! (not country, but COUNTY!)
My colleague was, of course, appalled. And it made me think that that gift “to see ourselves as others see us” might be a mixed blessing. Click on the title of this post for a link to the Delta Blues Museum.


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