HOW THEY SEE US
I am American. I must eat KFC everyday. I must be rich. I must be fat. I have met Beyonce and live in New York. These are only some of the unrealistic stereotypes ingrained in the minds of people from southeast Asia. This summer, I traveled to Thailand and taught English to secretaries working at a hospital 20 miles outside of Bangkok. Here are the highlights of what I learned about American stereotypes on the other side of the world.
Stereotype #1: America is the global protector of democracy. Given the fact that the Thai government has recently been overtaken by a military junta, many Thais expressed to me their envy for our political structure. While the American political stage has lately appeared to be up in arms, it is important to keep in mind that our indirect democracy and its included freedoms are exponentially better than the form of government which exists in many parts of Asia.
Stereotype #2: Americans have no sense of community. Thai people perceive Americans as having a much lower level of personal interaction towards those around them than Thai people do. For example, in Thailand, the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” holds true. Children refer to the parents of their peers as “mom” or “dad,” even though they are not biologically related. This is done as a sign of respect. Conversely, parents will often scold other people's’ children and treat them as their own. Thai people are aware that this is not the norm in America, but take this view one step further in assuming that Americans have a “cold” attitude towards one another.
Stereotype #3: Americans are mostly white. During the course of my trip, I was asked several times “What do Americans ‘look’ like?” This question was obviously extremely difficult to answer, as there is no default image for an American. To further exacerbate this cultural confusion, Thailand has very little diversity. Many Thais have never even seen a person of another race. Thus, the assumption is that all Americans are white. Many times, I was put in the position of having to explain that America is comprised of people from all races.
Stereotype #4: Every American is wealthy. While the GDP per capita in the USA is much higher than that of Thailand, this is largely due to the fact that the US dollar is stronger than the Thai baht, and that in context of possession of the factors of production, the United States is far in the lead. However, this reality has been blown out of proportion and convinced people in developing countries, such as Thailand, that poverty simply does not exist in the USA. The living conditions of the extremely impoverished are not identical between Thailand and the US; however, this can be largely attributed to geographical differences between the two countries. During my trip, I did my best to explain that nearly 16% of the American population falls below the poverty line.
Stereotype #5: Americans live among celebrities. While the creation of global pop culture icons is one of the greatest American assets and largest production sectors, the average American does not live next door to Kim Kardashian. However, the image we project to the rest of the world leads countries such as Thailand to believe that every American knows every pop singer personally.
Stereotype #6: American food consists mainly of hamburgers. While hamburgers are a staple of the fast food industry, American cuisine consists of much more than merely this. I tried to explain that “American food” contains gastronomic influences from many other countries, such as Italian pasta, Mexican tacos, French croissants, etc., however many of these familiar American foods are not available in Thailand. Many Thais do not even include dairy products in their diets, thus my description of American cuisine was largely lost on them.
While many of these stereotypes seem hyperbolic and bizarre, it is important to remember that we project a certain image of ourselves onto the rest of the world, and that these stereotypes, no matter how strange or seemingly irrational, likely stem from at least a minute amount of far-removed truth. For the sake of maintaining a positive image and reputation for our country, it is beneficial to know how we come off to those living on the other side of the globe.