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Americans in International Fiction

One or two times, I've set stories in countries I've never visited and given characters English dialects I haven't heard in person. The results are embarrassing. No matter how pure your intentions, when you try to write about something you don't know well, falling back on stereotypes is inevitable.

So for now, I'm sticking to contemporary America. If I ever need a reminder of the dangers of writing about cultures I don't know well, I just need to tune in to an international movie, TV show, or other media and see how they portray us. Foreign writers have some very bizarre ideas about Americans.

First, the creators of Korean and Japanese fiction seem to believe that people in America go around kissing each other constantly. A kiss on the lips between strangers is, according to mangakas and drama writers aplenty, "a simple greeting." I can't count the number of times a kiss has been explained away in a story line because the initiating party "studied in America."

Speaking of studying in America, if a Japanese or Korean citizen goes to the States for a year or two, they will inevitably come back arrogant and aggressive, with no manners or sense of propriety. They'll dress like gangsters, shrug a lot, insult the elderly to their faces, and speak exclusively in English to make everyone around them feel inferior.

Even our good friends across the pond aren't much better about the way they view us. Amazon has licensed a lot of BBC shows for Prime members, so I've been watching a few lately. In an early episode of Inspector Lewis, our heroes run into an American suspect who claims to be from the Bronx, but he sounds like a Scottish Bostonian who reads too many Agatha Christie novels (note to British screenwriters: the word "vicarage" is not in our standard vocabulary). When the police ask him if he owns a handgun, he gives an inspiring speech.

"In my country, I have a constitutional right to bear arms. But I've always chosen to ignore it. Like my father, I have an enduring love of the music of Duke Ellington. Nobody can love that music and be a party to the taking of human life."

Apparently, Americans never pass up the opportunity to extol on our constitutional rights and love of jazz to foreign law enforcement, when a simple "yes" or "no" would suffice.

In a later episode, the teenage daughter of the U.S. Secretary of State pops up. The paparazzi tail her like crazy, reporting her every fashion choice and romantic rendezvous like she's Princess Di. She opines to Inspector Lewis that she had hoped it would be different in England...she could blend in with the masses and have a normal life...she could let loose and fall in love...poor rich, beautiful, famous me, etc.

But here's the thing: most American adults don't even know who the Secretary of State is, let alone who his children are. (Does John Kerry have a daughter? Just a sec...Wikipedia says yes. Two of them.) American politicians aren't like European dukes and duchesses; the tabloids don't gleefully publish pictures of their daughters sunbathing in bikinis or their sons kissing women at parties. We only care about the kissing partners and exposed bodies of pop singers and reality TV stars. Sorry, Alexandra and Vanessa Kerry.

Here are some other tidbits I've learned about America from foreign media:

  • In American high schools, all of the boys wear letterman jackets and all of the girls wear cheerleaders' uniforms.
  • There are only two cities in the entire country: New York and Los Angeles.
  • If you step out onto an American street at night, a black person will mug you.
  • In the Southwest, everyone dresses like cowboys and injuns from a 1960s Hollywood Western, sleeps in teepees, and cooks their dinners on a spittle over an open fire. They also carry lassos around, just in case.

Sure you are, buddy. Sure you are.


Anonymous (April 22, 2013, 9:19 am)

this is hilarious.

Warsin Tamadur (March 15, 2014, 4:33 pm)

You crack me up, TK! Especially the "I'm from Arizona" punchline, that was priceless!

I live in England, have a bit of experience of different cultures, and still can't escape stereotyping them, and so I settled with writing fantasy.

And as a reader of Japanese manga, I say you're spot on with the observations. I guess it's better for each culture to stick with what they know and portray properly.

(Will not be shown)

What is the first letter of "Missouri"?