Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Musings from abroad: Foreigners find American music

After living in France for almost a month, what strikes me most about the culture here is that it’s conscious of its own, limited place in the world. In America, we usually think of ourselves as kind of a big deal, globally: we came up with democracy, right? And we win a whole lot of gold medals at the Olympics. As it turns out, the French don’t have such an inflated collective ego: they can see themselves as just another country.

As someone who can barely speak French, I’ve been surprised to find tons of waiters, professors and friendly people on the street who will break into English as soon as they hear my accent. I can’t help but wonder if French students in the U.S. have the same experience.

Quickly looking through my host family’s CD collection, I find it’s about 75% foreign. Quickly looking through an iPod belonging to one of my American classmates, the only recognizably foreign artist that I can find is the Beatles.  

The French just seem to be remarkably more aware of us than we are of them.  

Whitman Student Margaux Cameron was recently telling me about this conversation she had with an American girl in the airport. This girl, who majors in “culture and communication,” kept going on about this horror movie she had seen advertisements for the last time she was in Paris. Eventually, it came out that the movie she was remembering was “Amelie,” which of course she had otherwise never heard of.

“Amelie” is maybe the third thing that most Americans think of when they think about France, after cheese and the Eiffel tower. This was the film deemed too famous for a French film project by one of my French professors. Now, I really don’t want to give this girl such a bad time just because she decided to study in France without knowing the first (okay, the third) thing about France. Her unawareness represents pretty accurately our country’s collective knowledge of French culture.

It may seem like I’m being unfair here. You could say that we’re a more influential country than France. You could say that my French host family doesn’t own Bruce Springsteen records because they’re globally aware: it’s because there’s more music coming out of America than France. That may be true, but I don’t think that excuse works across the board.

You could say that I’m in Paris, whereas I usually attend school in Walla Walla, WA. Of course I’m going to see a difference in global-mindedness when I jump straight from small town to icon of global culture. But again, consider that within Walla Walla, I go to Whitman College, which is (albeit extremely self-consciously and snootily) aware of the rest of the world.  

As a country, we need to stop excusing our lack of knowledge and get to work fixing it. This is extremely important because until we develop the discipline to actually familiarize ourselves with the rest of the world, we won’t be able to shake the impression that president Bush left on the rest of the world: Obama or not.

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