Travel books find their way to my desk regularly. If only there were time to savor them all. Attractive Unattractive Americans: How the world sees America, by Norwegian Rene Zografos has been with me for only a few months but I’ll be seeing America differently for years.
Rene spent seven years traveling the world asking what there is to like and to dislike about America. He visited every continent, documenting very negative and very positive opinions then wrapped the statements into a slim book. The results are telling. Is there any one surprising conclusion? No, there are many.
Anecdotes are bundled together, both Rene’s and others. I can only imagine how much work went into transcribing and editing this into a volume. That said it is not without flaws. It is a self-published work and while Rene is an accomplished journalist in Norway, I wish he’d worked with an editor who could have helped shape the read better. The material is too good to be lost in meandering structure. Like a great indie film, once you’re in the theater, enjoy the zingers but stay for the ending.
Chapters are finished with statements from different countries and relative facts like: “Did you know the number of American passport holders is increasing intensely? In 2000 about 48 million Americans had passports, but in 2013 the number was more than 110 million.”1.
How members of each country perceive Americans is often more telling about their cultural situation than the U.S. In the chapter, Moods from the Sahara, for example there’s a discussion about the three types of Americans, 1. The quiet one, 2. the outgoing one, 3. the crazy one and why. The tour operator generally sees Americans as becoming more confident after a few days on a trip and then treat their guides as friends while starting to spend a lot of money. Without knowing how other nationalities measure up in comparison it’s hard to think this is anything more than human nature than particularly American (and I may be too American to know better!)
There’s a lot of humor in these pages as well. The chapter, The Jailhouse Blues, talks about some of the weird laws on the books in America. I have no doubt they exist but its a reflection of America’s political system where election fundraising depends on ambition. It’s more sexy to get things done, sponsor and push through legislation – rather than enforcing, and raising funds to enforce, laws already on the books, let alone get rid of irrelevant ones. Kudos to Rene for illuminating how much antiquated rhetoric pads the system. It’s entertaining (or could be terrifying) if a policeman or woman arrested you because:
- You are a woman in Tuscon illegally wearing pants
- In Illinois you go fishing in pajamas
- You are apprehended for falling asleep in a cheese factory in South Dakota
The book dives in deeper after that. Rene was in New York shortly after 9/11 to pay his respects. It was a dividing line and in the chapter, The America I Knew, he mourns for a country that has shifted.
“The America I knew was a place for outsiders in the world who dared to be different, where the Jew, the Muslim and the Christian sat together to have a cup of coffee and a talk. The America I knew would accept each every (sic) person exactly as they were. The America I knew has changed.”
What he sees since is a “continuous increase of blind religious hate…and an aggression toward everything that seems to be different to what they are used to…”3.
His perspective is supported in a chapter by an Australian traveler, Christine, and also by entrepreneur and American expat, Mark Manson, who feels that the country is like a drunken brother he loves and doesn’t.
Rene finishes Attractive Unattractive Americans with Carpe Diem. His passion for America shines through. But he also sees a huge challenge in the national obsession with gadgets and with fear that is leading to an abiding, emotional numbness. It has blanketed America with disaffection, ambivalence, and disconnection. “There has been a change modern America, a change that is keeping many people away from daily social life and employment…and it’s absolutely necessary for keeping a mentally-healthy America.”4. He calls for honesty, for more than lip service and risk taking to choose the direction your inner voice tells you to and follow the road of the life you want to live.”
Rene’s perspective is echoed in the work of London-based designer, Yanko Tsvetkov in his book, The Atlas of Prejudice. Across the world, “We need more idealism. Not the naive, distracted kind; we have plenty of it on Facebook, Twitter, or any other place where slacktivism reigns supreme. We need the kind of idealism that is informed and able to reach beyond the day after tomorrow.
But most of all, we need to learn how to laugh at ourselves, and to give up the habit of frowning all the time.”
I’ll, seriously (wink) keep working on that while seeing America through others’ eyes.
The book, The Atlas of Prejudice, the complete stereotype map collection is available in many languages as well as English. References from Attractive Unattractive Americans: 1. p.42, 2. p. 139, 3.146, 4.223
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