Published: January 2011
By Ben Neihart
Graceland and Niagara Falls, Disneyland and the Wild West—our icons, instantly recognizable, belong to the world. But if we think we know the tenor of global opinion, we may be in for a surprise.
You'll see them combing the racks of Memphis vinyl shops and making pilgrimages to the Texas plains town of Marfa, where the minimalist sculptor and painter Donald Judd established a museum on 340 acres. A third of Marfa's 12,000 annual visitors come from abroad, drawn to the extraordinary installations of Oldenburgs, Chamberlains, and, of course, Judds. But they don't come only for the big names; they come to see art, made-in-Texas style—just off spindly Highway 90, across the state's Big Bend, ingalleries as big as airplane hangars.
Lost in America's huge landscapes, in our buzzing crowds, the visitor from abroad is often quieter, more watchful than we are. In 1842, Charles Dickens traveled from Boston to Richmond, from Buffalo to St. Louis, by steamship, by railroad, by stagecoach. In his collected observations, American Notes, he admits that he was disappointed, that he "went there expecting greater things" than he found. Maybe. But the opposite sentiment resonates in his exultant descriptions of the prairies, the urban hospitality, and, especially, Niagara Falls, where Dickens is a man racked by ecstatic experience: "What voices spoke from out the thundering water; what faces, faded from the earth, looked out upon me from its gleaming depths...."
Members of my own extended family, visiting from Denmark last fall, were more blasé. They happened to be at Horseshoe Falls, on the Canadian side, when a man survived a stunt plunge down its churning 180-foot curtain. They were so nonchalant, I accused them of playing cool with me. "He just—whoosh," my brother's brother-in-law, Niels, told me, shrugging. "America." Niels, a windmill entrepreneur, wasn't faking. It's just that like most visitors, he had already seen too many American movies and TV shows in which outrageous special effects punctuate daily life. He would have been disappointed if he hadn't witnessed that gonzo dive.
The foreign attention to our culture can be bracing, can be condescending, can be hostile, but we have long been good hosts, good listeners. Though our government may speak with a megaphone, we the people prefer to show our guests that not everyone is a boisterous booster. Like our foreign visitors, we are an astonishing mix of native-born and immigrant. Some of us move every year; some of us never leave home. We can be nosy, we can be shy. But we can't help welcoming the world.
It was the Germans who first showed me New Orleans, after I'd been living there for two years. They came one by one, visiting for a month, two months, friends of friends. In a city that could embrace you in the morning and scorn you as an impostor by nightfall, it was easy to get discouraged—to think you'd never decipher the town's byzantine cultural and sensual codes. The Germans, with their endless vacations, had the time to figure things out, did the hard research, and shared the spoils. They had rigorous taste and an interest in things like jazz and interior paint jobs, things I'd never quite understood. They helped me get over my distaste for large "touristy" celebrations, Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras. Without the Germans, I would never have seen, at a dawn costume party on the grounds of a Bywater mansion, the notorious Pink Lady, a tourist of unknown provenance who, for that one day a year, wanders the Faubourg Marigny in a baby-doll dress, heels, and scalloped little-girl socks, wearing a mask from which all the features have been obliterated and riding an awful, beat-up little-girl bicycle. I might have been better off if I never had seen her—she gave me waking nightmares—but suddenly carnival-masking seemed more transformative, less frat party.
We're flattered by international interpretation and learn most about the great ambiguities of the U.S.A. by listening closely, skeptically, to an eclectic mix of singular voices. We have been so effective in exporting our culture—the sublime and the grotesque—that our choice of would-be mentors, judges, and juries is limitless. We are hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't have an opinion of us. In the Martin Amis novel Money, a Briton named John Self—one of English literature's most ferocious appetites—takes New York City by profane storm. We are as in awe of his grotesqueries as he is of our mammoth city. And thanks to Self we are newly in awe of our mammoth city. We wish we could get out of his way, yet we keep reading. Money, set in 1981, captured a moment that lingers more than 20 years later. It's an expression of shock at the physical toll that the city takes on its people—an exquisite torture that tourists never forget. Amis celebrates the horror of New York's animal realness and in so doing answers a fundamental question: Why do tourists on their first visit flock to the studio cameras of the Today show and MTV's Total Request Live? Snap my picture. Prove I was there, part of history. Prove I survived.
Of course, at times we can only fear what outsiders may think of us. Three generations of effortlessly chic Italians wrecked my composure one sunny January day at Universal Orlando. As if I were the consul general of theme parks, I kept fretting that their connoisseurs'antennae had malfunctioned and brought them a half day from Palm Beach's luxe Worth Avenue on a fool's errand. I wanted so badly for them to smile, to have fun. The son, in his early twenties, had a deep suntan and thick, shiny black hair. His mother was dressed for the desert as imagined by John Galliano, with a wide-brimmed khaki hat, stiletto jeans, jeweled T-strap leather sandals. Dad, in black long-sleeved T-shirt, worn Levi's, and silver Adidas, carried himself with the high-chinned posture of a yogilates fanatic.
In line for Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges, we spotted the Italians again. They were five now. The grandfather, in long navy shorts and a crisp white shirt, his lovely wife hitched tight against him, swayed in time to the antic cartoon music. As my two friends and I stepped onto the revolving loading platform, slipping into the plastic ponchos we'd brought along, the costumed staff directed us aboard the Italians' raft. They nodded to us from behind their sunglasses. Before I knew it, we were strapped in among them, eight of us perched over a roaring waterfall while Olive Oyl squealed in the distance. The physics of the ride is simple: the raft dips and spins, freestyle, past audio-animatronic props, through caves guarded by water-spitting octopus tentacles, and, at random intervals, one personlands beneath a waterfall and, in seconds, in less than a second, is drenched. The grandmother didn't flinch as hundreds of gallons spilled over her. She had dressed for the heat in nothing but a white linen dress, so now, as we continued to spin, she sat there, an X-ray. I was afraid to laugh. Then, as the grandmother slowly looked down at herself, she began to quake with laughter. Suddenly, our entire raft was shaking, and soon half of us were soaked, some Americans, some Italians. Like that indomitable American sailor, Popeye himself, who'd cheered millions during the Great Depression, the Italian grandmother had been chosen by fate to entertain this small crowd with an unwitting pratfall. "Popeye's life has been a sad one," said E. C. Segar, his creator. "Tragedy and comedy are so closely related that it is only a step from one to the other." Visitors don't come to America to experience tragedy; for most of them, Popeye is as close as they get. But even if we are sometimes embarrassed by the youthfulness, the lightness of our most overwhelmingly popular cultural offerings, we know that we can't prescribe battlefields, operas, and high art to our visitors any more easily than we can prescribe them to ourselves. We, too, often prefer shopping to Shostakovich.
Foreign fans lavish our Popeyes, our Mickeys, our Hilton sisters, our Beyoncés—all of our gorgeous cartoons—with so much genuine affection that it can make our own attention look halfhearted. Europeans love our Kill Bill outlaw culture for reasons we don't fully understand. We like the way their cinema, their theory, their fashions wear our Wild West influence, tailored so perfectly, so lovingly, they only make us look better. The Japanese take our hip-hop, our sports culture, our punk rock and morph it all into luscious Nintendo Next New Things. Certainly a foreign visitor can remind us of what we love—and don't love—about the places we call home.
Two winters ago, I was offered a fellowship to write screenplays for a year, and I contemplated a move from New York to Los Angeles. Wallowing in indecision, I made a weekend trip to test-drive West Coast life, but all I really did was shop.
On my final afternoon, I returned for the third time in three days to the airy Beverly Hills Barneys. This visit, I noticed a commotion on the staircase the moment I walked in the door. Two Japanese kids in their late teens, in Lakers jerseys, Sean John jeans, and huge John Varvatos Converse sneakers, were followed by a slim salesgirl and then, a few paces back, a Japanese parental unit carrying a dozen shopping bags and several twined, bundled boxes. The kids were attempting to rap a particularly difficult Missy Elliott song.
I went about my own shopping; before I knew it hours had passed, and I was carrying my own oversized fashion haul: imitation-vintage jeans, imitation-vintage T-shirts, a brown suede cowboy shirt, a baby blue Fred Perry tennis jacket, a pleated white Helmut Lang shirt. A fringed brown leather "man bag" with turquoise snaps. A pair of gray John Varvatos desert boots. An L.A. starter wardrobe, I told myself.
I plopped down in the shoe department, surrounded by my treasures, and for another hour, as the sun drooped outside, I didn't move. Finally, I noticed flickers of activityin my peripheral vision, and I snapped out of my dazed slump. I sat up straight and turned to my right to see that the two Japanese kids, the rappers I'd noticed on the stairs, were silentlyintent, mixing and matching my unpurchased clothing. "Hey," I said weakly. "I might want that."
The smaller of the boys smiled, holding up the blue tennis jacket, and said, "Not this." From a pile of items I didn't recognize, he produced a second tennis jacket, identical brand, but in bright yellow. "This," he said. "It matches you." Just as convincingly, he eliminated the suede, the turquoise, and the pretend vintage from my stack. He allowed me to take the desert boots. "Cool," he said, holding them up for his friend to admire. Then he handed me a black leather overnight bag, emblazoned with an Italian soccer insignia, and said, "Now you can go home."
I took his advice.