Monday, June 7, 2010

At the American Pavilion

We watched a televised report some days ago about Expo 2010 now underway in Shanghai. The lines leading up to the American Pavilion seemed very crowded and long. They suggested even to people like us looking at the scene through TV-eyes that the Chinese population is fascinated with America. Part of this reportage was a brief interview with a Chinese lady. She was asked about her impression of America. She gave a curious answer. In so many words she said that she'd been pleasantly surprised. Americans seemed friendly and human and nice. What about her impression before she came to this exhibit? How did she view America before she came? She said that her impression had been that America is harsh and bullying.

Old memories suddenly surfaced. We too had once been drawn to these shores by American charm—which still flowed in large and fragrant waves back sixty years ago with World War II a very recent memory. We learned of the other side of this culture when, at the first or second introductory lecture about America—attending which was compulsory during a pre-embarkation period—our leader held forth for an hour about the importance of shining our shoes as if such an activity were not only neglected in Europe but totally unknown.

I recall—and this is off the subject, or is it?—an amusing story I once came across in a Japanese travel guide from the nineteenth century. The Japanese story-teller was attempting to tutor his audience about American behavior. Two men meet in America, he said. Each will reach into his pocket and urge the other to accept a cigar. An energetic exchange will follow, a lot of waving of cigars in the other person’s face. Finally the inferior of the two will yield and accept the proffered object.

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