Thursday, May 03, 2007

Reality in TV?

I’m very comfortable with the fact that my country is imperfect. I may even be the one to point out its deficiencies. I feel a responsibility to do what I can to make the United States a better place, but I’m not embarrassed that we have our faults. While it’s not my favorite conversation topic with people from Europe these days, I am capable of having a factual discussion on problems in my country.

For some reason, however, I get quite irritated when people tell me about what I do in my culture, especially if they’re wrong. When the discussion starts with “you know how you guys do blank,” or “in the States, blankety blank happens,” there is a very good chance that I am going to have to spend the rest of the discussion defending myself and pointing out that all Americans (many times myself included) don’t do blankety blank. First of all, my country is big. Even within California, there are social differences between the north, south, east, and west. San Francisco, for example, has a much different feel, food, and culture than Fresno. I even feel a little bit uncomfortable making a cultural generalization about the people from Fresno because Fresno’s culture is not my culture. But I know, just from passing through, that it’s different than San Francisco’s culture.

So if you visited your brother while he was studying abroad in Virginia, or if you watch American TV shows, you still might not have as good of an understanding of my culture as you think.

I got into a discussion last night with a guy who told me that U.S. worker salaries are much higher than salaries in the EU. He thought it was really great because everything is also so much cheaper in the States. There’s a high quality of life and everyone’s rich, he told me. I’m not an economist, and income of Americans vs. EU nationals is not a topic that I’ve ever been particularly passionate about, but he was totally wrong. I wondered where in God’s name he got that idea. In Finland, I haven’t seen a lot of poverty or gangs, which were important parts of my culture back in the States. I know people who do not have healthcare, or who don’t have an income back home. I don’t have experience all over the European Union, but in Finland there’s food, shelter, and medical care for everyone. I would say there’s a whole lot more wealth here.

My conversation partner gave me an example of a salary in my country that is higher than a European salary. “OK,” he told me. “If you go to school for law, you can make $200,000 per year, right after graduating.”

I tried to explain that lawyers aren’t exactly average Americans. And, if you’re one of the 27% of the people who graduate from university, only then are you eligible to apply to spend another three years (and tens of thousands of dollars) going to law school. It’s competitive and not many people can make it through law school. “OK, I have another example: doctors,” he was very matter of fact. “They make a lot of money in the States.” I was nearly exasperated. I couldn’t believe I was participating in a) such a boring conversation topic, and b) a conversation that required me to defend our state of poverty. We're not that poor, but we're certainly not all doctors and lawyers. I think it was his complete confidence added to his complete ignorance that kept me going. The number of Americans who are doctors and lawyers in my country is practically insignificant, when compared to the Wal-Mart checkers, fast food workers, and engineers, etc.

Where did this young man get his information, you ask? He got it from the television, my friends. That is what he told me. This is not the first time this has come up. There are many people that feel that Sex and the City is a documentary on American culture, not a fictional and logistically impossible story that was created to make money. Hollywood was not created to depict American culture and values in Europe.

In my culture, I was taught that television is not real. Some of the major differences between what you may find on the average television show and real American life are:

  1. We age (unlike Bart Simpson).
  2. We’re not all rich. We have a distribution of wealth, just like European countries. We have poverty, homelessness, as well as wealthy people.
  3. We work an awful lot (unlike the characters in Lost and Friends). If we don’t work, it’s quite hard to find food and shelter. Work is not always dramatic fun (like in West Wing), though I usually like my work (I may be a minority).
  4. We’re not 99% white. There is ethnic diversity in the States that is not portrayed on TV.
  5. We’re not necessarily stupid (unlike our Reality TV counterparts), though I occasionally have my “not so swift” days.
  6. We have pimples, wrinkles and other physical imperfections. You know how we’re one of the most overweight countries? Well, it’s true, and it’s not portrayed on TV.
  7. We’re not almost all 25 to 40 years old. We have a distribution of ages.
  8. The portion of the day spent in high-speed car chases, shooting each other, and having sex, is actually quite small compared to that of our TV/movie counterparts.
  9. Most importantly, the U.S. is a real country. TV is fictional; it’s an industry that makes money in a capitalist society because people enjoy watching it, not because it resembles something that is possible in the real world.

It’s just too ironic that I have to convince people that I’m not stupid by demonstrating that television is not real. If you feel like it’s a good idea to share with me how stupid, fat, rich, or spoiled my culture is, please get your information from somewhere besides the television.


Leasa Weimer said...

Ok, I'm speechless and don't know what to say to your articulate rant about people I come across more than I would like to. I was cheering for you as I read this entry and I almost nearly stood up and disturbed the entire computer lab with a "You GO GIRL!" as I read your reasons why our life is not like life on the TV screen. Excellent entry!

And, I would like to say, just for the record, and to defend one of my dear Dr. friends... If you're a good Dr. maybe you make 200k out of school...but you carry over 100K in school loans. Once you factor in interest and a payment plan that is reasonable, your 200K suddenly shrinks.

Anonymous said...

Hear! Hear! I faced this ALL THE TIME when I lived in Africa in 2001, also!!!And people wanted ME to defend Bush (For those of you who don't know me... NOT gonna happen...) but a very REAL issue we Americans deal with every day we're outside of America.

Laura said...

This was great Laura. I hate when people assume that what they see on TV is what it really is like here in the US, and they haven't even visited to see for themselves. What they see on TV, especially reality TV, is unique, otherwise it wouldn't be entertaining. If our lives were really like a soap opera, or if we were are raised like those rich kids in "My Super Sweet Sixteen" or Laguna Beach, why would we even watch those shows? It would be boring. And there is no way my life is anything like Sex and the City - I could never buy $500 designer shoes or purses on a regular basis!