By Sally Robinson
spending a year as a middle-school English teacher in Japan.
I'm part of the JET program, which brings native English speakers
into Japan in order to provide living, breathing examples
of colloquial English and Western culture. Since many of my
students have never met a non-Japanese person before, I have
a unique opportunity to shape their opinions of Americans
by giving them the real dirt on my country - not from TV or
Hollywood, but straight from the mouth of an ordinary citizen.
Unfortunately, the Bush Administration's bullying, unilateral
foreign policy has spawned a worldwide wave of anti-Americanism
that makes representing my culture to Japanese children a
humbling and sometimes painful experience. The only way for
American citizens to gain even a modicum of respect in the
international community is to refuse to let the Bush Administration
speak for us any more.
One of the biggest problems I face in relating to my students
is that they assume all Americans have the same opinions and
act the same way. That means that I get pegged as pro-war,
pro-gun and anti-France because that's the image our country's
leadership has gone out of its way to promote. The Bush Administration
has been so brazen, and the media so biased in favor of war
in Iraq, that Japanese people are incredulous when I tell
them many Americans would give anything to be able to undo
the events of the past few months.
My students' one-dimensional view of Americans is partly
rooted in prejudice, because Japan is a closed society and
few Japanese people have the opportunity to form relationships
with foreigners. Still, even when people parrot incredibly
biased half-truths (such as, "Americans have steak and coke
for dinner every night, don't they?") or complete misinformation
(as in, "I heard most Americans don't go to high school");
even when I feel absolutely indignant at facing anti-Western
prejudice, I am still embarrassed by how much my country has
done to deserve its negative image.
Recently, my frustration with Japanese people always asking
if I own a gun prompted me to devote the last half of my 1st
year English class to discussing stereotypes of Americans.
I had the students write on the blackboard whatever came to
mind when they heard the word "America" and we went down the
list and discussed what they wrote. Some of the things they
came up with were parts of my country's recent history and
culture that I would rather forget. My students mentioned
crime, terrorism, war on Iraq, SUVs and lawsuits. Of course,
there were positive things like the Statue of Liberty, but
on the whole it was humbling to face down a class of 13-year-olds
and listen to all their indictments of my country and my culture.
However, we made some progress on separating the stereotypes
from the truth, and in the end, my students agreed that it
is dangerous to make generalizations about the attitudes of
an entire nation of people.
Since my students have proved they are willing to get past
stereotypes and trust me, an American, my country needs to
prove itself worthy of their trust. Yes, much of what Japanese
people assume about Americans is based on gross exaggeration,
but quite a bit of their criticism is well deserved. I hate
that my country's president blatantly disregards the opinions
of world leaders who disagree with him (who needs the UN,
anyway?), but most of all, I hate the fact that because I'm
an American, Bush's actions reflect on me. Our government
could help assure that Japan's future leaders have a more
open-minded and positive view of the USA by having a foreign
policy agenda that puts global well-being above oil gluttony.
If our government showed a tiny bit of concern for how its
actions affect the rest of the world, we would not be facing
such an overwhelming swell of anti-Americanism.
These necessary changes in American foreign policy will
require a lot of careful political work, but there is something
simple that we can do to improve our worldwide image while
we work on fixing our government. The clue about how to proceed
comes from the fact that people in Japan assume all Americans
have the same political beliefs and opinions. Japanese people
are assuming Americans are marching in lockstep behind President
Bush - is he not our chosen leader? (Well, that's another
Until the 2004 elections, the one way Americans can change
our image in the world is by trumpeting the fact that we do
not all believe the same things. By voicing our dissatisfaction
with US foreign policy, we prove the Bush Administration does
not speak for all Americans and make it much more difficult
for people in other countries to lump us under one negative
label. Far more importantly, we make it harder for our politicians
to take heavy-handed measures abroad, like going to war over
oil, in the name of American citizens. This country cannot
afford to have people with dissenting opinions walking on
eggshells in the name of homeland security. The world is poised
for a serious conflict over what direction global politics
should take and where America fits into that picture. Discord
at home will create harmony abroad.