how the world sees america

A One-Way Ticket: Starting the Trip

The last time I was in the UK, I was a college kid on my way home from senior thesis research in Zimbabwe -- and from five days in jail. Needless to say, I was shaken up.

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Amar en route to Manchester.

In that African dictatorship I first experienced the downside to being an American, especially a curious one with a video camera asking too many questions about state propaganda. But that wasn't all. During my five days in detention, the guards who harassed me with cookie-cutter anti-American rhetoric also treated me as an object of fascination, asking questions about American obesity, the White House, and Michael Moore.

Now I’m headed back across the Atlantic, this time to explore other peoples' views of America and their stories of how my home has impacted their lives.

My first stop will be in Manchester. I’ll spend a week interviewing residents of England's third largest urban area, including young students who are part of the city's sizeable Muslim population. I'll then move on to Oxford, Lancaster and London.

My next stop after the UK will be Pakistan, which my mother's family left in 1947. Three weeks there and on to India, where my parents lived until 1976, to complete the first installment of How the World Sees America. And after that -- well, we'll see.

I'm curious about the communities where my family once lived. But this project stems mainly from my experience over the past year working with David Ignatius, Fareed Zakaria and Hal Straus at washingtonpost.com to launch and develop PostGlobal, a forum for collaborative journalism.

The PostGlobal panelists are inspiring to work with, as well as uniquely qualified to comment on global issues because of their broad exposure to international affairs. But that very exposure sets them apart. Many or most of those who live in the same countries as PostGlobal's panelists see the world primarily through the lens of their television screens and their local communities.

Their stories are the ones I’m setting out to tell. And I plan to tell them on the internet with text posts and brief videos. I plan to find these stories the old-fashioned way, with a bunch of one-way tickets and the soles of my shoes.

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The view flying in to London

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Comments (11)

David Rushworth, UK:

Hi Amar

I think it was largely a matter of perceptions. Many GI brides got a shock when they found out that a farm in Kentucky (for example) was nothing like Hollywood!
It was not so much about money: In the UK we had rationing - most things were in short supply. Things like nylon stockings, candy and cigarettes were in very short supply: unless you knew an American!
Many GIs were "adopted" by English families and helped out by donating some of their rations. Americans had a reputation for generosity which is still there today.
And, of course, many of the eligible British men were thousands of miles away. One of my uncles left for Egypt in 1940. He got home, via North Africa Sicily and Italy, in 1945. Another uncle spent the years from 1942 to 1945 in Japanese POW camps. He was "lucky" - he got home.

Regards

David R

Amar C. Bakshi:

Hi David,

That's one thing I heard a good deal about Americans in the U.S. during and after the war -- wealthier. U.S. soldiers were paid better too, or so says this fellow who pretended to be one!

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/america/2007/05/american_romance.html

Amar

David Rushworth, UK:

Amar

Thanks for your kind words.

My first experience of Americans was when I was 8 years old. There was an American boy called Ian Harrison at my primary school.
I visited his home regularly until his father moved back to the US. My lasting impressions were that his family was very hospitable and that they seemed rich (we were in the post-war austerity era and my mother was a mill worker).
His mother introduced me to scrambled eggs which, for years, I thought was an American dish.
I often wonder what became of him - he was just the right age to later serve in the Vietnam war.

David R

Amar C. Bakshi:

Hi David R,

Thanks for the note! I think you might be a new arrival here. I've been traveling since May 2007 and was in England May 15 for a month. I didn't visit Bradford unfortunately, but spent time in Whalley Range in Blackburn which sounds somewhat similar:

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/america/2007/05/blackburn_muslims_happy_afraid.html

Do check out my England posts here:
http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/america/england/
Or just through the map you can click on old sites.

I really loved hearing that bit about your growing up and would love to know more -- what your first experiences were with Americans. Do stick around.

David Rushworth, UK:

Amar

It's good to see that you are looking for the views of ordinary people, not elites or politicians.

With regard to views on the USA most people will get their opinions from the media and, for the present, the European media have an anti US bias.

But when people get to know Americans they find that they are very much like themselves, concerned mainly with bringing up their families, making ends meet, and staying safe in an uncertain and bewildering world.

And of course, whatever our views on Iraq or Afganistan, we all worry about our young men and women who are in harms way.

It's a pity that your visit will not take you to Bradford in Yorkshire, where I was born many years ago. Until I was well into my teens, I had never seen a non-white face! And now a quarter of Bradford's 500,000 population is of Pakistani or Bengladeshi origin and curry has replaced fish and chips as the favourite takeaway!

I hope that your visit to England will be enjoyable and informative. It is a pity that more people do not have the opportunity to find out what people in other countries, and of other cultures, really think.

Regards

David R

Austin Purnell, NYC:

I actually had similar experience in Harare, Zimbabwe this January, although I did not have five whole days to settle into my cell! Fortunately, they only made me delete the photo I snapped of a government building. Nevertheless, what a beautiful country.

The one thing I came away with from my travels, is the one thing I believe you are working to clarify here--that nations are people worthy of attention and respect, rather than backward threats to our hegemony. This whole series has definitely caught my attention. What a great and relevant idea. Continue to ground our hasty assumptions in reality, and continue to keep the world posted.

All the best.

Amar C. Bakshi:

JRLR,

Thanks for your kind note. I'm delighted you'll be following the journey. The multimedia style is one I've long been fascinated it. I did my thesis with both text and video, and dual majored in social sciences and video. I look forward to having you on board and would love to hear your thoughts anytime.

Regards,
Amar

Amar C. Bakshi:

Saeed,

Not sure what you mean about mimicking parrots. The idea is to meet people who are non-elites, in diverse parts of the world, sharing anecdotes, not necessarily broad theories. America's standing in the world seems to be a very serious issue, addressed through poll data and theory. It seemed humanizing it could be of use. Feel free to let me know what you think as it unfolds.

Amar

saeed :

America standing in the world is best reflected by the mimicking parrots in France, Italy and elsewhere. WP, have you run out of serious debates to finish with such children articles – get more serious?

JRLR:

Amar, I just want to say how much I enjoy the lively way you present your ongoing project.

This time, it is interesting to read how it relates to your personal and family life. There is here, also, a fine balance between the dramatic (prison term) and the amusing (obesity and Michael Moore).

Your method makes me feel enthusiastic about your project. It is very much a "multimedia" approach, new, original, with multiple appropriate, interesting links and references, all accessible so far, from what I can see... I believe your journalistic style is, par excellence, the way of the future. You seem so comfortable in it!

If you'll allow me to put it in these terms: You are a "child" of the XXIst century.

Behind, but catching up.

Jeremy, UK:

Best of luck. I will be watching with interest.

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