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Visions of America - it's all about them!

By Peter West - posted Monday, 4 June 2007


I returned a couple of weeks ago from a trip through parts of Germany, Holland and the UK and then through the USA and home. The feeling in Germany, Holland and the UK is often local pride and often patriotism. At times it verges on the global. “We do things this way here …” But there is most often awareness of some cultural differences. In contrast, Americans understand everything about any country in the world, as long as it is the US.

Ignorance of foreigners

Visitor, beware. You will get smiles and so on. But Americans don’t really understand you. Most Americans have never travelled outside continental US bar a little trip to Hawaii or Puerto Rico. Many times the weary foreign traveller will hear “Excuse me, sir” (with the fixed, patient smile) “you can’t do that here”.

Americans stick to inches and pounds while the rest of the world has long become used to kilowatts and megajoules. Aussies get “oh, Aussies!! Yeah - we saw The Crocodile Hunter” but there is little understanding of much outside the US borders, unless it affects the US.

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A foreign traveller is constantly bewildered by Americans’ lack of consciousness of anywhere outside the US and its spheres of influence. On many occasions I tried to cash travellers cheques, but the bank teller didn’t know what these were. Then I got “Have you got an account with us?” It was difficult being polite when I had my Aussie passport in my hand. When I asked to hire a car, the salesman said sure, provided I had insurance on an existing US vehicle. It’s worrying that so many people in the US have little idea of the world outside their borders.

Race

Americans are excited about, and nervous about, the issue of race. America is a country still fascinated by racial differences. And the two biggest minorities are Afro-Americans or blacks, and Hispanics. Let’s begin with the former.

Black America still scares white middle-class Americans. On one US visit some years ago I found O.J. Simpson dominated every single television channel, nearly all day. White fears and anxieties about blacks are sent underground into private jokes: it doesn’t help that most public debate is frozen by fear of being accused of racism. This means that many issues are buried, or cloaked in terms no one could possibly find offensive.

Many blacks have become used to special selection for higher education. In particular, they are included in quotas at university. However, immigrant blacks from countries like Cuba, Ghana, India and so on are pushing onto quotas. A study in the American Journal of Education has found that immigrant-origin students make up 41 per cent of black freshmen. University and school teachers find they are more amenable to direction, easier to get along with and have less “attitude” i.e. hostility to authority. Nobody is unhappy, except the US-born blacks who are once again frozen out of many avenues to social and financial success.

Next let’s look at Latinos. Latinos are often raised as Catholics and can be strongly traditional in their attitudes: support the family, work hard, respect the church. The refugees from Castro’s Cuba who have settled in Florida and other regions are notoriously like this (there are exceptions, as we will see below).

Mexico is the US’ nearest neighbour and is being discussed avidly because Mexicans still stream across the border. Creation of a Berlin-type wall to keep them out has been one of many solutions discussed. But the wall across Texas and the Gulf of Mexico would have to be a long one. Meanwhile, because those who arrive by boat are traditionally welcomed, the Haitians and Cubans who arrive in leaky boats sail in without harassment.

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An employer told me he hires Mexicans and other Latinos on the spot. They report early, work hard and support their families, so they are loyal workers. They are paid little, especially when they are illegal workers. Thus many powerful people make noises about immigrant workers but enjoy using them as cheap, dependable labour.

At about 26 per cent of the population, Latinos are the biggest minority in the US. The first sentence in Miami and many parts of California has to be “habla ingles?” (Do you speak English?) A Spanish guy I met said that in two weeks in California, he only had to speak English twice.

The Spanish reconquest of America will have vast consequences which we can barely foresee. Latinos seem to have given up on mainstream media and there are many examples of Latino radio shows and newspapers.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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