Monday, January 11, 2010

American mythology

Stereotypes between cultures are unavoidable. Physical and ideological distance ensure that sometimes the only things we believe about others are what we hear second- or third-hand: from a visiting friend, from travel books jotted down by paid informants, from bits scrounged from the daily news and extrapolated into what we assume is a complete portrait.

The list of Filipino stereotypes is long, and the frustrations of living here sometimes lead me to unfairly consult that list – despite the fact that I’ve already been forced to amend, conditionalize and strike out items with regularity. It would be hypocritical to slam Filipinos for having their own American caricature. But that doesn’t make it much less frustrating when I hear someone who has never visited the US or known an American insist, for the fiftieth time, that Americans don’t care about family, or that America has no poor people.

The generalizations I’m listing here are not the result of singular events: they’re all stereotypes I’ve heard over and over from Filipinos, not just in my home province but everywhere I’ve traveled. There is some grain of truth to all of them, absolutely, but the certainty with which Filipinos assert them leads me to wonder where they all got their information: are these things listed in the textbooks they use in schools? (After seeing some of the books they do use, actually, I wouldn’t be surprised.) Their constancy is remarkable, and often Filipinos’ faith in them is unshakable.

1) Americans eat almost exclusively bread, especially for breakfast. Not so serious, this one. The conversation always goes like this: a Filipino will ask me whether Americans eat rice. I say “Yes, but not every day.” The Filipino nods with a knowing air and responds “Yes. Americans eat only bread.” I humorously and respectfully correct them, explaining that Americans eat many different kinds of food, and unlike Filipinos we have no single staple, no rice analogue. They nod uncertainly, then ask if Americans also eat other unique Filipino foods, like fish.

2) At the age of eighteen, Americans become independent and are immediately and irrevocably cut off from their families. This one is difficult to correct, first because there is obviously some truth to it – Americans are legally considered adults at age eighteen – and because it’s hard to undermine a notion that, superficially at least, I’m helping perpetuate. Since I left high school I’ve spent the majority of my time in Malibu, two thousand miles away from home, or nine thousand miles away in the Philippines. It’s maybe understandable for Filipinos to see that as a lack of regard for family ties. After all, many Filipinos live with their extended families for their entire lives: spending two years living among strangers must seem not only crazy, but a little bit disturbing.

Trying to explain the subtleties of American familial relationships, in balance with that somewhat-true stereotype of individual independence, is complicated. It has pointed out my own cultural shortsightedness: in America I never really thought too much about why Americans often wish to start their own lives, live in their own houses. It was just what was expected and what I assumed. But since being here I’ve realized that it’s an issue that touches on a lot of cultural quirks, among them the long-established American ideal of self-reliance and the right to privacy. Presenting all this as the real reason for Americans “abandoning” their families, rather than being the result of a sort of quasi-legalistic rule that everybody simply follows, has not been a particularly effective tactic for me, especially with the language barrier.

Probably the single most common question I’ve gotten from Filipinos regarding my Peace Corps service is some iteration of the following: “Isn’t it hard being away from your family?” Another popular one is “Aren’t you scared living on your own?”

3) Elderly Americans are by default shunted off to sad, depressing retirement homes, where nobody comes to visit them. They are ignored by their children and die slow, lonely deaths. I can’t claim that there are no problems with the way the elderly are sometimes treated in the US. But again, for many Filipinos this forced cloistering is believed to be the standard for the American aged. This one is particularly frustrating because I can provide evidence against it, and it simply doesn’t matter. When I tell Filipinos that my own grandmother died a few months ago, and that for the last years of her life one or more of her daughters was always present to care for her, they’re impressed. Why? Because my family is “the exception.” It’s okay for them to believe me, because I’m right there saying it to their faces, and they know me and trust me (I think). But they can’t extend that willingness to other Americans. They know the truth, and one exception isn’t enough to convince them otherwise.

Again, I don’t understand the shadowy pipelines that channel this erroneous information to (it sometimes seems) all Filipinos, and I wish I did. Living in a culture that is much more homogeneous than what I left in the US has been endlessly fascinating and educational. And difficult – I will never catch on to all the invisible communication that fills the air here, and I’ll always have that twinge of embarrassment when I have to admit that I don’t know how to do something that people here learn from birth. I don’t want to overstate the diversity of the United States – yes, there may be people from everywhere, doing everything, but we certainly have our own proud lockstep traditions – and I’m very, very far from being a patriot, but I think my experience here will definitely lend me a new appreciation for and interest in the country’s twisted, tangled and blended cultural threads.

1 comment:

Chantilly said...


Thoroughly enjoyed this post! Stereotypes are fascinating. Yes, we all have them to a certain extent. But why is nuance scary? Is it easier to stereotype the "other" then risk relationship with him/her? Because only in relationship do we experience complexities and "exceptions" like you mentioned right?

Thanks for provoking some thought!