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16 September 2002

Okay, this marks the second time my blog has come rising from the ashes much like... like... well, it's like something from the annals of folklore, though I'm drawing a blank on the name just at the moment. Wait, I remember now. Rising from the ashes like some kind of Cinderella, who stirs to consciousness at the hearthside after a coke-fueled, 48-hour bender in the back of the pumpkin limo with Prince Charming and a phalanx of bi-curious bodyguards.

Anyway, I've tried the miscellaneous essays approach; I've tried narrative fiction, and neither of those could really hold my attention for longer than a few weeks. (Which is not to say that nothing good came of the blog's earlier incarnations; I'm still proud of IXOYS: The 'X' is for 'Xenomorph', for example, and some of the animated spot art that I made for the blog is even theft-worthy, if I may be so immodest.)

But I realized, after so quickly losing steam on the "mutant baby" storyline, that I really needed some interactivity to keep me motivated -- so this time I'm gonna try to hitch a ride on the great Blogosphere express.

I guess I'll start with a newspaper column by Aussie blogger Tim Blair, who quotes one Janet McCalman ''about the 'great danger to the world' presented by Americans who 'don't... travel overseas unprotected by tourist buses.'"

McCalman also got in digs at Americans who watch television news sources other than PBS (I'll give her that; The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, by virtue of its analysis-heavy format, is the one to watch) and who read lowbrow newspapers, but it's the comment about the tourist buses that got to me. Here, McCalman sketches a picture of stoopid American tourists whose exposure to foreign ways is limited to quick photo-op drive-bys of Potemkin villages, and contrasts this with the experience of enlightened world travelers who go off the beaten path and get to know the real local culture. It's the superficiality of their contact with foreign cultures that makes Americans such a ''great danger'' to the world -- sitting smugly in their air-conditioned buses, they don't realize that the wogs are people, too, people who luv their children and yearn for universal brotherhood.

I'm forced to wonder whether McCalman has ever gotten off the tour bus, walked through the flies and muck, and chatted up the locals in their own language. And I'm guessing that, in fact, she has never experienced the gut-punching moment of disenchantment that takes so many second-language learners by surprise -- that moment when the hands-across-the-water idealism falls away and you realize, Sweet Jebus, these people are insane!

It happened for me in Moscow, early in my seven-month sojourn as an English teacher in Russia. I'd discovered that men who like men -- golubye, ''blue ones,'' they were called -- congregated in the public toilets around the perimeter of the Kremlin, turning them into ''Russian tearooms'' of a kind unimagined by Manhattan socialites. So, I picked up this guy, we went for a walk under the midnight winter sky, I'm talking to him in Russian about life in America, and then he sez to me: Ty prinimaesh' negra za cheloveka?

''Do I take a black to be a person,'' I thought, and then realized I must've misunderstood his question, because surely he wasn't disputing that black people are human beings...

Ty ikh schitaesh' lyud'mi? he paraphrased, in response to my quizzical look, and I realized I'd understood him correctly the first time, that he really believed negry were just a bit closer to gorillas than to white people, that he and I had been accultured differently, that Rodgers and Hammerstein had it bass-ackwards when they wrote ''You've got to be carefully taught'' -- contempt for the Other is pervasive throughout humanity, it's the ''All men are created equal'' meme that must be carefully taught, and many non-American cultures don't teach it. And for the first time in my life, I indulged in a moment of unembarrassed cultural superiority. ''Folks born and raised in America,'' I thought, consciously including Americanized Russian immigrants in that group, ''are just a bit better, as people, than folks born and raised in Russia.''

Come to think of it, the point I'm trying to make has already been authoritatively delivered by -- who else? -- Chef of South Park. On a transoceanic bus trip to China for an international dodgeball tournament, the Gang of Four starts giving a hard time to an Asian-American classmate. Chef intervenes: ''Childrun, it's very wrong to make fun of other Americans because they're black or white or yellow or red. You can make fun of foreigners, though, because... they're foreigners!''

posted by Throbert | 9/16/2002 02:33:00 PM |
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