Wednesday, March 3, 2010

American culture trickles into Bhutan

One thing before I begin. Talked to the owner of the Pelkhil School yesterday. First thing he asked: "Are you bored?" Are you serious? I think anyone who was bored visiting a foreign country must either be really boring or have something wrong with them.

So, while waiting for passport photos, Jon and I engage in conversation with another man at the shop who has been to America several times in order to visit friends. He'd visited L.A., Chicago, Houston, and San Francisco. We talked about the usual things, the weather, the economy, and the black people. Yes, the black people. "I don't like those black people. I don't like the way they talk. They do a lot of crime. I don't like the pants hanging low. I don't like the drugs." (The last statement said as his compatriot rolled up a doma quid and stuck it in his mouth.)

We talked with him a bit before we had to go, said all the usual things, you know, all black people aren't alike, poverty and crime are often a vicious cycle, societal problems aren't restricted to a particular race, etc. The man wasn't hateful or vicious; he just had a dislike for a culture (rap culture) that was far different from his own and was misplacing that distaste onto people of a race that that culture largely consists of.

As Jon said, his perceptions were skewed by a sample bias (haven't seen a single black tourist in Bhutan, while there are lots of white ones and they're generally well-mannered, rich, and a big boon to the local economy (black/white is such a natural dichotomy, like day/night or love/hate; our terms influence our thoughts)). I also think his views are skewed by a media bias. It doesn't sell records being a black man who dresses like a middle/upper-class American (unless you're Jon Legend and your voice is absolutely amazing) because then you're not controversial, you're not getting the free news media advertising, you're not fueling that crucial teen-to-late-twenties market that's looking to rebel and be something, anything that their parents aren't. And there's a thousand other reasons why putting forth a stereotypical thug, gangsta, black-is-dangerous, black-is-real image is better for the bottom line. Hell, it's practically a brand.

So really, how could you expect someone whose only perceptions of black people is through bits and pieces of American media possibly have a positive image of black people, especially in a country that has never really had to deal with racial tension and thus is completely not interested in racial politics and the like?

So it really shouldn't be a judgment about people; it should really be more of a cause for restructuring our system of media capitalism in such a way that it doesn't reward disseminating images which (on a society-wide basis, though not necessarily in any particular instance) unjustly disenfranchise a portion of the population.

Anyway, second discussion with a Bhutanese man about America. Jon and I talked with a concierge at our hotel first about California, then about Hotel California, then about music, landing on the topic of Michael Jackson, who's pretty famous here as well as in India and apparently everywhere in the world. And then of course that led to three discussions: (1) why Michael Jackson no longer looked black (which we didn't know why either) (2) Jackson's trial as well as innocence/idolhood (3) his death, which led into a discussion of "who would be the next Michael Jackson" which our concierge friend put right out there as being Criss Angel.

Yes, this man.

I think now you can draw your own conclusions as to how America is representing itself abroad.

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