how the world sees america

July 2007 Archives



July 2, 2007 4:30 PM

If America Was a Person...

By author and blogger Danny Bernardi

As an Englishman living in Italy my perspective is slightly different. Most Italians and other non-English Europeans think that because England and America speak the same language and go to war together they are one in the same.

If America was a person what kind of person might it be? If I were to meet Andrew or Anna America in a pub I would expect to meet a person louder and perhaps larger than the average Brit. Such a person might be very keen to tell you all about themselves and their achievements. Andrew or Anna America would probably also want to impress upon you that he or she was deeply committed to their family and might even let slip that they undertook good works in the community.

In other words they would always be ‘on’. Brits are ‘off’, in social situations especially, and find it troubling to reveal too much about themselves upon first meeting. They are also a bit suspicious of anyone who needs to be ‘on’. In other words … if you are successful, happy and worthy then you probably shouldn’t need to go around telling people. Most Brits would also think that Andrew or Anna may not know how to laugh at themselves. Laughing at oneself is seen as being an extremely important quality. If Andrew or Anna could not manage a little self-deprecation then the average Brit would think this, ‘a very bad show’. Understatement is widely respected in the UK.

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Captain America is "On".
For example it is widely believed that the stiff upper lip i.e. getting on with things without making a fuss won us two world wars (we often conveniently forget the major role America played in WW2) and the soccer world cup back in 1966. An Englishman could have his arm hanging off after battle and would be more concerned not to make a fuss, ‘just a small flesh wound old boy! Nothing to worry about!’ I once spent a whole night sitting next to a guy at a dinner party who told me he was a humble medic who managed a bit of surgery every now and then when nobody else could be found to do the job. ‘I’m usually the last guy they call,’ he said whilst stretching for the cheese board. Turns out he was a top brain surgeon who had saved about four lives that week!

God Bless America and all who sail to her. If America were a person he/she would probably be no better or worse than anyone else…just different. Your environment moulds you and perhaps in a young nation, such as the USA, knowing who you are is more important, but you don’t need to impress us. We already are. We look with envy at what can be achieved by someone with a little hard work and a good idea in the USA.




July 3, 2007 10:19 AM

Indians Protest U.S. Aircraft Carrier, But Some Welcome Sailors

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I arrive in Chennai, a city on the southeast coast of India, at the same time as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, drops anchor right off the coast. Though it was the arrival of the latter that made headlines across India, we both faced an angry communist greeting.

At 5:00 p.m., the Communist Party of India (CPI) staged a protest near the Chennai Port. I went straight there to check out the scene. Demonstrators decried “American imperialism.” To them, the massive carrier signified the American threat to the developing world. Operating under the pretense of friendship, these CPI members argued that America was helping India stand up while stepping on its head.

The communists here tell me that America has a long history of undermining India’s growth, from support for China and Pakistan in the Indo-China War of 1971 to the sketchy nuclear deal today. Now this war vessel comes to their shores after active duty in the Persian Gulf, supporting a war many Indians oppose.

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July 4, 2007 6:30 AM

Indian-American Fourth of July

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Me at a local food stand (to the right of the striped shirt, can you tell?).
Chennai - Until now I've been exploring what people around the world think of America. But at times like last night, drinking rum and cokes with U.S. sailors in a Chennai club, or today wondering how to commemorate America's Independence Day so far away, I confront how others see me.

I met the sailors the way I do most new faces on this trip. “Hi” I said to a 22 year-old from Oregon. He stared at me quizzically: “You don’t have that funny accent?”

“No, man, I’m a DC lifer!” I slap his back. With that, the distance between us slammed shut and we passed the rest of the night exchanging horror stories abroad. I’m American.

But before I opened my mouth, I wasn’t, at least not to him. That’s certainly reasonable: I’m a brown-skinned guy in India, after all. But at the time, I really wished he’d recognize me as an American right away.

Indians here seem to have some sixth sense for Americans. Before I speak they know I am one, or at least that I’m Western. This is unsettling, not just because I have to bargain harder, but because deep down, I do want to be recognized and trusted here right away too.

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July 5, 2007 10:33 AM

Inside an Indian Call Center: "Spread the Wealth"

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Chennai - We’ve all talked to “Jennifer,” the girl who calls you up on Saturday afternoons trying to offload a Direct TV subscription, or "Alan" who answers the tech support line when your HP printer busts again. Ever wondered who these people really are and what they think of you?

Twenty minutes from the center of Chennai, down a narrow ally on the second floor of an old yellowing building, the Call Center InfoSearch buzzes and the phones never stop. Sixty English-speaking employees call Australia in the morning, England in the afternoon, and America all night.

I talked to 23-year-old Saravama Jothi, a.k.a. “Alan,” and 27-year-old Vimesh Valaalan, a.k.a. “Jim,” about their experience braving the toughest but most lucrative shift: America overnight.

Straight out of college, the two went into BPOs (Business Process Outsourcing) because they could earn more money faster than in any other industry. Their starting monthly salary was 10,000 rupees, a little under US $300. Every three months they stayed on the job, monthly pay grew by 3,000 rupees. There’s a big incentive to start young and hang out as long as you can stand it. The average call center employee is 22. And it doesn't take too long to rise through the ranks. In about seven years one of 60 callers can realistically become one of four managers.

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July 6, 2007 8:23 AM

An Indian's Long-Lost American Pen-Pal

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Kumar still remembers his pen-pals' addresses by heart.
Chennai - As a kid, you may have shared letters with distant strangers to learn about another country -- or just to procrastinate. But did you pour your heart and soul into it? From a small village in south India, Kumar Chellapan spent his teenage years living for his two American pen-pals. Then one day they stopped writing, and it broke his heart.

Why did this 15-year-old boy care so much about these American friends he knew only on paper?

Kumar was always a loner. He did poorly in school and couldn’t talk to girls. He turned to reading, writing, and fantasizing. Surprise, he’s now a journalist.

Back in 1977, at age 15, he developed a keen interest in America even though his communist teachers said the USSR was heaven. Word of mouth and newspaper scraps convinced him America was the “Great Country;” fantastic lunar landings and charismatic leaders awed him.

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July 9, 2007 2:19 PM

Calling Global Bloggers: What Do You Think of America?

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Bloggers and adventurous readers from around the world: How do you perceive America and why? Share your thoughts here.

I'm traveling to discover people's stories about their connections to America first-hand. But more stories shared in this forum will only help to understand how the world sees America. From personal anecdotes to political analysis, feel free to send in up to 500-word pieces to america@washingtonpost.com or post them on the comment thread below. I'll check them out, learn from you all, and post the best every week or so.

London blogger J. Clive Matthews, who I met while I was exploring England, has gotten us started with this piece on how Gordon Brown's England might see America. Check it out and join in.




July 10, 2007 2:14 PM

Bollywood Chaos over Hollywood Dreams

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Clash of movie star cultures: Hollywood star Richard Gere got into serious local trouble for kissing Bollywood's Shilpa Shetty in April.
Mumbai - "A Bombay [performer] wouldn't dream of world fame. But an American in Los Angeles would," says Shubra Swaroop, an aspiring independent screenwriter in India who got her master's degree at CalArts just outside LA. She's listened to the dreams of film-star-wannabees in both India and America, and chooses India to pursue her own.

At age 25 after completing a master's in literature in Bombay University, she decided to join her high school boyfriend, an aspiring filmmaker in America. She applied for creative programs in California on a hunch that she wanted to be a writer, like her poet mother. It was her first time out of the house and she expected "to feel more maladjusted than I was." But she "loved the freedom of it." The "education system in India is more stifling" but in America she found she could "create her own path; the professors asked me to use my head, not tell me what was right…The system allows you to experiment with what you want to do."

She did have to adjust: she was used to the "larger-than-life characters," stark contrasts and "loud emotions" of Indian movies. In California she adapted to a "more subtle" U.S. style. At the same time, she adopted some of the professional expectations of Los Angeles, putting her manuscripts in a "particular format, particular script, particular font, typed in a certain way." It was part of the systematic industry she saw in America. "It's definitely far more professional in Hollywood, run by corporate houses and executives…Here it's more chaotic."

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July 11, 2007 4:36 PM

An American Girl's Love Life in Mumbai

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Sabrina with a group of Indian women.
Sabrina B. calls herself "a middle class, average American girl." But in India, she's been treated like a "god." Within months of getting here, she starred in a TV sitcom, "jumped five years ahead" in her career and hooked up with a suave Indian actor.

After a Georgia State study abroad program in India, she "fell head over heels in love" with the country. People cared for her meticulously because she was a visitor and the extra attention "had a very romantic effect on me." So she left college midway through to see if Mumbai was as good a place to live in as it was to visit.

Things started out great. She rose up the ladder at The Times of India to quickly become a full-time features writer -- her dream job -- in under a year. "It was something I could never get so fast in the U.S." she says. Being American didn't hurt. And on top of this she was solicited by Bollywood to act in ads and on TV for thousands of rupees a day, since white women are in high demand as actresses. Socially, she found herself frequently the main attraction at parties, although sometimes crowds would make her recite Hindi curse words.

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July 13, 2007 9:27 AM

Inside an Indian Madrassa: Peacefully Awaiting America's Fall

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Malegaon, Maharashtra - Mufti Mohammed Ismail, the leading cleric of Malegaon, a 75% Muslim town known for its many madrassas, tells me the religious schools here try hard to avoid discussion of America and global politics, but "there's a restlessness among students" who raise difficult questions. When teachers themselves believe "America has a systematic conspiracy to eradicate Islam" how can they explain "America's cruel and violent actions around the world" to curious students without inspiring hatred? The answer, I'm told, is in history and religion: "power is not permanent," "the cruel reap what they sow" and so "America will die its own death." In short, be patient.

Madrassa Tajweed-Ul-Quran lies three miles down East Iqbaal Road outside Malegaon, which itself is two hundred miles from Mumbai, the nearest city. The madrassa houses 150 students ages 7 to 15 for ten months a year. All of their possessions including sleeping mats fit in three-square-foot tin boxes.

Every morning the students wake up at 7:00am and spend the next four hours memorizing the Quran's 6,666 verses, which they usually achieve by age 12. After lunch, they spend four hours on general education: math, English, science. There is no TV, Internet, radio or newspapers. So after school they use their free time to play on a green patch of land between the mosque and the madrassa before nightfall. The small complex is surrounded on all sides by grasslands littered with hobbling horses whose feet have been tied to keep them from running off.

After eight years of study, the students will go on to be teachers at madrassas, perhaps this same one, imams at mosques, or candidates for higher degrees in theological studies at centers in India or Arab countries like Saudi Arabia. That's usually when the study of world politics might begin, I'm told.

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July 16, 2007 12:19 PM

American Literature Can Inspire Secularism

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Malegaon, Maharashtra - In 2004, American Embassy representatives visited Malegaon to scope out its Muslim population and donated US$9000 worth of books to Professor Mustufa Khan’s secular university. But they gave nothing to the many madrassas they toured. This was a grave mistake, Khan tells me after prayers at Jamia Mohammadia Mansoora Madrassa.

The sprightly English professor speaks as though he’s reading aloud from a book in his mind, describing how American literature opened a world to him fifty years ago. Mark Twain passed through Malegaon’s main road over a century ago as he toured India, broke. Khan, among the few in the town to learn English, was curious and read Huckleberry Finn. He was transfixed by Huck’s “chicanery,” liberation and sense of equality. He went on to write a PhD dissertation on Twain and become an English professor, and still dreams of visiting the U.S.

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July 18, 2007 12:33 PM

Kerala's Communists Balk at U.S. Stores -- and U.S. Jobs

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A highway or a river? On the road in Kerala, India during ferocious monsoons.
Trivandrum, Kerala - It's raining so hard the highway looks like a river and the windshield wipers can't move fast enough to clear the glass. But Reji Shokla, my fearless driver, races on past a woman swimming to her house, a grove of battered coconut trees, a Western Union billboard and a poster of Che Guevarra. Was that a cow with blue horns mooing at me? Welcome to Kerala.

At the southernmost tip of India, this diverse state is grappling with change -- and resisting, as well as it can. Citizens have mounted campaigns against liberalization, globalization and Westernization, while benefiting from them as well. I've talked to a lot of different people over the past few days, and what I hear is: change brings good and bad; but when bad comes, America is most often the face of it.

First the good: Kerala has the highest literacy rate (for men and women), life expectancy and standard of living in India. It has a religiously mixed population of roughly 55% Hindu, 25% Muslim and 20% Christian, and is relatively peaceful (though there is evidence of mounting extremism in the north). The economy is driven largely by remittances from overseas, which account for about one fifth of the state's income. Kerala educates workers who go abroad as nurses and technicians and send cash home.

Now the bad: Kerala has relatively high unemployment (20%), domestic abuse, alcoholism, and suicide. Tourism creates a somewhat unstable economy that, for example, was badly shaken by September 11, 2001 and by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Farmers are losing their livelihoods to competition. Remitted money is often spent on huge houses for lucky individuals with relatives abroad rather than on infrastructure development for the community.

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July 20, 2007 10:32 AM

A Professor Praises Terrorism

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Calicut, Kerala - “I was very happy, excited, on September 11th. Someone called me to switch on BBC and I saw the aircraft crashing into the World Trade Center and I saw it crumbling down -- down like the United States and I was laughing… Osama Bin Laden gave Americans back what they had done to the world. It was a wonderful thing! What else can a helpless people do? There should be more of it [terrorism] in U.S. Why not?”

P. Koya is one of the 13 Supreme Council members of the National Democratic Front (NDF), an Islamic organization based in Calicut, Kerala. He is also one of the founding members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was banned by the BJP government in 2001 for supporting terror and was accused of involvement in the 2003 train bombings in Mumbai.

But Koya doesn’t look radical. He sits in a small wood-paned office behind a desk stacked with Western magazines like Time and The Economist. He looks like Richard Pryor with a bushy mustache, wearing a checked brown button-down shirt. And he addresses me casually, as though we’d met many times before.

He was once an English professor and speaks English authoritatively, adjusting his thin metal-framed glasses after finishing each point -- reminding me of my college professors. And he loves to talk about books: Arundhati Roy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Charles Dickens. Chomsky, Sartre, Camus, Pilger.

But why this violent hatred? I ask him.

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July 23, 2007 9:05 AM

"Coca-Colanization" or "Just Bitter Water" in Kerala Plant

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Vilayedi Venugopal, the leader of the Anti-Coca-Cola Agitation Committee, has been protesting against the Coke plant in Plachimada, Kerala for the past five years, even though its been shut since 2004. He lives 12km away, but comes regularly to sit in a thatched hut just outside the sprawling complex, which he calls “the exploitative arm of American Empire.” But do the villagers living right next to the plant also link Coke to America?

Plachimada glows green with rice patties. These soggy fields form the backbone of the local economy and are sustained by a vital supply of ground and rainwater. In 2002, two years after Coca-Cola opened its factory, relative drought hit the area. Fields and wells reportedly started drying up, and the water that remained “started tasting bitter,” local farmer Shakti Vel tells me. Coke denies responsibility, but locals took to the streets.

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July 24, 2007 9:19 AM

America's (Over?) Educated Consumers

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Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu -- What’s the thread count of your pillowcase? If you’re American, Shanthi Srinivasan, the CEO & Managing Director of Premier Fine Linens, thinks you’re more likely to know than any other consumer in the world. Flattered? Don’t be.

Working to break into the U.S. market, Shanthi realized just how brand-obsessed and labeling-oriented American consumers are. Unlike Europeans, she says, who are content with standard 300 thread count bed fabrics, Americans demand higher and higher thread counts because U.S. companies have taught them this equals higher quality. To a point this is true, she says, but when Americans order 1000 thread count fabrics, it becomes comical "because they are so heavy...they become uncomfortable."

Shanthi first came on board her great-grandfather's yarn spinning company, tucked into a hilly region just outside industrial Coimbatore in southern India, when the U.S. textile industry still imported large quantities of unfinished yarn. In the past decade, American textiles have nearly vanished, so Coimbatore has moved into production of finished textiles. Shanthi focused on tapping this growing American market for imported fabrics, and was surprised at just how knowledgeable her new consumers were.

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July 25, 2007 12:25 PM

Independent Woman and Good Indian Girl Too?

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Sukanya Rajarathimam, president of her local Panchayat.
Vellimallipattinam, Tamil Nadu -- Can you be too free? I just met two women -- a sixty-two-year-old politician and a twenty-two-year-old musician -- who are inspired by the freedom American women enjoy but are wary of becoming too much like them. They look to professional American women as role models of empowerment, but are concerned about the decay of the American family and of American morality.

“Women in America aren’t controlled by men like they are in India,” says Sukanya Rajarathimam, the president of her local panchayat (village government). She’s lived in a 5,000-person village outside Coimbatore almost her whole life. She earned a master's degree in geography and wanted to be a teacher, but upon marrying a farmer at 21, she gave up her career and became a full-time mom. She says she was happy to do so, but then again never really had a choice.

“America saved me from arranged marriage,” the young musician from Cochin tells me. Let’s call her Swati. She demands I withhold her identity for fear of being disowned by her family. Hers is an upper-middle class conservative family grooming her for marriage. But through good grades and a bit of luck, she got a scholarship to study in the U.S. and this experienced “opened up my life,” she says. If she hadn’t gone, “I’d have studied accounting or something and become a wife.” But in America she discovered her passion for music, “which never would have happened here.” She was also able to experiment with love before marriage with, heaven forbid, interracial boyfriends.

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July 27, 2007 5:48 AM

My Press Visa to Pakistan Has Arrived!

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Me, bearded.
New Delhi - I was supposed to fly home yesterday to Washington DC to recoup for a few weeks before pushing off to Syria or Indonesia. But just five hours before my flight, I got an unexpected call from the Pakistani Embassy. My press visa has come through. Four months after applying for it, I’m now allowed to spend one week in Pakistan. Not a lifetime, but better than nothing.

Life in this business does seem to turn on the tiniest intervals of time. So I’ve canceled my flight home, and in its place booked a flight to Lahore for next week.

I admit, my emotions are mixed. Yesterday I felt tired, ready for a break, ready to see my rabbits -- Bonbon and Kimchi -- and my family after an over-stimulating two months. Part of me is afraid of going to Pakistan. From the media reports I read at home, it looks a bit like a lawless land. Old images of a besieged U.S. embassy and a decapitated Daniel Pearl fill my thoughts. My mother isn't pleased. I reassure her and myself: I’m brown and I haven’t shaved in about a month. This surely helps.

Mentors in India like Surjit Bhalla, Ali Asani, and MJ Akbar assure me I have nothing to fear in Pakistan, as long as I stay away from tribal areas. “It’s a beautiful country, strikingly like India,” says Surjit. “American media paint a dire picture of Pakistan but it’s not so bad at all.” Next week I’ll be there, and we’ll see…




July 31, 2007 9:09 AM

Hate America; Hate Amar Too?

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"Bush Fire: Is India Falling Into a Foreign Policy Trap?"
New Delhi - “This is Amar Bakshi from The Washington Post,” I introduce myself.

“Daniel Pearl was Mossad. You must be CIA,” comes the response. Then I’m told to go upstairs.

It’s an eerie telecom greeting from Pala Koya, a self-proclaimed enemy of America who heads a hardcore Islamist outfit in Calicut, Kerala. But on the top floor I meet an old man who offers me masala chai. We drink and exchange pleasantries before he gleefully prophesies America’s demise.

Lately, I’ve spoken to a number of people who condone the killing of average Americans and say they celebrate 9-11 anniversaries with sweets. It’s disturbing talk, especially when they're so forthcoming with it to my face, as an American visiting them on their turf. But I’m not sure they mean it…

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