Wednesday, March 5, 2014

America, the Superpower of the Present Age

I sound like a Tea Partier, don't I? Ha.

My co-teacher spent seven weeks in Austin, Texas this past winter break. She participated in a Fulbright-sponsored teacher training program that brought Korean English teachers -- most, but not all, associated with Fulbright schools -- to the US for cultural immersion and educational exchange. She stayed with a Texan homestay, visited cultural landmarks in Austin, and taught classes on Korean culture to students at a low-performing high school.

I've been very eager to talk to her about her experiences in the United States, as this was her first time there, and it was for such a long time, too! Seven weeks is longer than my orientation training for Fulbright.

So, I asked her over lunch what her most enduring impression of America was. Surprisingly, she said that although seven weeks was not enough time to draw any strong conclusions, she saw enough during her time there to understand why America is the strongest nation in the world. I raised an eyebrow. She explained, "the sheer number of garbage cans on the streets was so impressive. You know, having garbage cans everywhere means that the government can afford them. Even though it's a seemingly small thing, it kind of represents how much abundance there is in America."

I commented offhand about how I would have interpreted the profusion of garbage cans as a sign that Americans produce far too much garbage. "Well," she replied, "maybe it's both."

She also spoke in slight awe of the enormous bathrooms ("Necessary for all of those fat Americans?" I asked.), the impressive museums and art galleries ("Well, compared to D.C...."), and the fact that they would turn on the air conditioning when it was 75°F outside. The wastefulness of this behavior notwithstanding, all of it pointed to abundance, and my co-teacher went on and on. Austin is only the 11th-largest city in America, but it has airports, museums, and beautiful buildings to rival Seoul and Incheon. It's as if the United States has at least eleven Seouls -- the magnitude was overwhelming.

Obviously, Seoul is inimitable and there's no comparing it with Austin or any other American city for that matter, but the point is that she came away from her experience in the US thinking that Japan, France, and even England now seemed like superpowers of the past, while America is the superpower of today.

So that was interesting.

On a different note, my co-teacher also talked about the thing that surprised her most about American schools: she and all of the other Korean participants in the program agreed that the American students they encountered in every classroom situation were on the whole far better behaved than their own country's students. They were extremely polite and extremely PC: one class hushed an ESL student when he asked my co-teacher how long she'd been studying English, but she smiled and simply asked him to guess. The Korean teachers came away with glowing reviews of American high schoolers. I had a hard time believing this, but I guess there's something in the lunches in Texas...

Also, she was extremely shocked to find the extent to which America's "melting pot" was actually more like a 3.79 million square-mile pizza with 314 million toppings on it, all squished together but never mixing. Case in point: Spanish-speaking students who had been living in the States for two years who could still only manage, "Me no speak English." She described it as students learning EFL (English as a Foreign Language) instead of ESL (English as a Second Language), since they were living in a completely Hispanic community and weren't even encountering English in their daily lives, not even at school.

We chatted about immigration and how it forms a dynamic society, the deal with the over-achieving Asian immigrant stereotype, and some of her other experiences with places she visited and the Americans she met. I've been thoroughly enjoying all of these conversations, as my casual cynicism is being given a run for its money by my co-teacher's rave review. And the best part is that I find I'm learning a lot about my country.

My country? Every time my co-teacher shared her stories about the United States with me, she would call it "your country". To be honest, that sounded strange to my ears. It's because she went to Texas and experienced Southern/Southwestern culture. I'm from California, and I've never been to Texas. Although I introduce myself as American or Taiwanese-American, I consider myself culturally Californian, not simply American (Since "American culture" can mean so many things, it tends not to mean anything at all.), and I certainly can't identify with any part of Texan culture. All I know about it are stereotypes. So the foreign experiences my co-teacher had had sounded somewhat foreign to me, too. This has gotten me thinking about how the United States of America really are united states, discrete and different but all trying their darnedest to get along.

Ah, USA... you are a bottomless well of culture and cultural issues that make every conversation about you utterly fascinating. Keep it up, home country. Keep on being the beautiful mess that currently controls the rest of the planet. I'll be back soon.

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