Our opening scene takes place in Rome, early morning, late summer, in the breakfast room of a moderately priced albergo (hotel) catering to the tourist trade, a stone’s throw from the Pantheon.
The waiters, Filipino natives, hover in their white waistcoats as the hotel guests, families from the United Kingdom, France, Greece and Spain mostly, graze over the croissants and sweets and pitchers of juice, maintaining a polite indifference to one another in their respective zones of privacy. Everything is a hum of efficiency and competence, executed in the hushed tones appropriate to the hour.
Then the doors of the elevator slide open, and there he is.
He’s a very large man, not fat, necessarily, but brawny and big-boned. He has evidently tried to pull himself together, though without much success. His hair sprays off in all directions, defeating his every attempt to smooth it into shape with his beefy hand.
His shirttails are busy untucking themselves from his pants, which are hitched two inches too high. His socks are white, and they droop.
He approaches one of the waiters and vigorously shakes his hand.
“I heard there was a free complimentary buffet breakfast down here,” he says, redundantly. And of course he says it in English, with no thought to the possibility that he might, when in Rome, be speaking a foreign language.
“I’m from Minneapolis,” he goes on. “My wife and I just got in. A long flight. I told her I’d grab her a blueberry muffin. Haven’t slept in a day. We’re from Minneapolis.”
The waiter points him to the buffet.
“Where are the blueberry muffins?” he booms, craning his neck and scanning the breakfast breads and bowls of fruit. “She’s really hungry. We just flew in. From Minneapolis.”
And so he prattles on, expressing astonishment, though no resentment, that there are no blueberry muffins — “How can you have breakfast without blueberry muffins?” he wonders aloud — and then expresses surprise at the absence of bagels and veggie cream cheese. He mentions that he’s flown all night, from Minneapolis, where he’s from; his wife too.
All eyes have turned to him by now.
Trying to disguise his dissatisfaction, he heaps two plastic plates with booty and cradles them in his arms. Offering a final update, he announces, loudly, that he will take the food upstairs to his wife, who has flown, sleepless, all night. From Minneapolis.
“Have a nice day,” he calls out as the elevator door slides shut, just in time to avoid hearing the snickers from the other guests. One of the children looks up from her buttered toast.
“Americaine!” she says. “D’oh!” She’s doing a Homer Simpson, and the breakfast room rings out in laughter.
Since I watched it unfold last summer, a week hasn’t gone by that I haven’t thought of this globalized tableau, sometimes amused, sometimes horrified.
Everyone from the United States lives with the phrase “the ugly American,” taken from a best-selling book and popular movie from the early 1960s, but when I recall the muffin-seeker from Minneapolis I wonder whether the ugly American hasn’t been replaced by another caricature: not sinister but hapless, not rude but loud, unsophisticated, kind of goofy, a buffoon.
We’ve exchanged one stereotype for another — or for several, just as powerful, just as mistaken.
“I know the stereotypes of the United States out there,” President Obama told a 2009 gathering of university students in Istanbul. “And I know that many of them are informed not by direct exchange or dialogue, but by television shows and movies and misinformation.”
This essay and the two profiles of real Americans are an effort to correct some of the misimpressions. The world is often misled, as President Obama said, into seeing the United States through the icons its pop culture has produced — this means Homer Simpson — but the icons and stereotypes can best be rebutted by exposing them to that universal disinfectant, real life.
One unavoidable fact is that, like most effective stereotypes, the portrait of Homer Simpson does contain a kernel of truth. Let’s acknowledge that our gabby Minneapolitan in Rome did bear a punch-drunk resemblance to Marge Simpson’s husband. If he’s anything like his fellow countrymen, however, the breakfasters would have missed a lot about him by settling for the stereotype.
What they didn’t see — to take a few examples — were the hours he likely devotes to the Lion’s Club back home (Americans spent more than 7.7 billion man-hours on volunteer service in 2014), or the Sunday school class he teaches at church each week (more than half of all Americans regularly attend a house of worship), or the money he gives to keep the local soup kitchen in operation (Americans donated more than $335 billion to charity in 2014 — that’s 335 billion in dough, not D’oh).
Or ponder the reality of Baywatch. It’s arguably the most popular television show in history, notable mainly for demonstrating the large variety of romantic entanglements that can befall mesomorphs as they bounce around in tiny swimsuits.
There’s a glimmer of truth in the caricature; anyone who visits an American beach can testify to the enviable vigor and ardor of ocean lifeguards. But beyond the glimmer (and the glamour) is the much more admirable reality of the job itself, which values dramatic escapades much less than their prevention.
Ocean lifeguarding requires tedious hours of hard training in a surprising range of skills, from rowing to rock climbing, with the end in view, always, of preserving human life. The bouncing is optional.
For many Americans, it’s not about the money.
To the students in Istanbul, President Obama lamented how often pop culture depicts Americans as “selfish and crass.” Throw in a good deal of bedhopping, and you’ve got an accurate description of America’s iconic professionals, the TV attorneys on Boston Legal or the TV doctors on Grey’s Anatomy.
But it bears no resemblance to the life led by Richard Beilin, who decided to forgo high-priced corporate work to become a small-town lawyer in Morristown, New Jersey, or by M. Natalie Achong, M.D., a native of Queens and Brooklyn, who works in hospitals that specialize in serving the poor while rearing two children of her own.
“I feel there’s a higher calling in working and imparting the best medicine to those who maybe can’t afford the ‘good’ doctors,” she says. “It’s not just about making money.”
Most Americans would agree — doctors or lawyers, fiddlers or lifeguards, whether native-born or citizens of more recent vintage.
Katheryn Conde, whose parents arrived from El Salvador shortly before she was born, enriches a life already filled with two jobs and schoolwork by committing herself to community service. She confesses puzzlement at the iconic American teens she’s seen flouncing across the fantasy Manhattan of TV’s Gossip Girl, like the vampiric Blair Waldorf or the predatory Serena van der Woodsen.
“In those shows it seems like all the girls are focused on the social part of their lives,” says Katheryn, who has other things to do. There’s counseling at the sleepaway camp, volunteering to tutor classmates and organizing toy drives for poor children. Blair and Serena, phone your therapists.
Just about everywhere in America, you’ll find a surprise like Katheryn — a surprise, anyway, to those who were expecting Serena and Blair, and who have taken the measure of U.S. culture by the pop icons it has produced, sometimes for good but more often for ill. Through the icons, the world sees a quite different sort of American: vain and oversexed, miserly and self-obsessed, prone to violence, a bit nutty.
That imaginary country is ripe for debunking.
The Americans described in this essay are portraits drawn from life, not caricatures inflated from conjecture and misjudgment and distorted anecdote. What they present is less sensational, more prosaic and, in the end, more moving and more human.
America is a nation of real people, at once large-hearted, hard-working, painstaking, imaginative, stirred by fellow feeling, and on the whole quite admirable — even if, once in a while, we go looking, too loudly, for blueberry muffins in all the wrong places.
This essay — and the profiles of real Americans that it links to — are excerpted from Pop Culture versus Real America, published by the Bureau of International Information Programs.
The essay’s author, Andrew Ferguson, is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard magazine and a columnist for Bloomberg News. His books include Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America.