Stupid American

Posted by Joel on Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

I was trying to get off the city tram yesterday during rush hour. Several other people were trying to get on at the same time. Pretty soon the doors shut and I was stuck - on my way to wherever the next stop was. The other passengers looked at me, unimpressed, as if to say, “stupid American.” As the train pulled forward I was thrown off balance and bumped the woman next to me. She angrily said something in Russian to me and the people around her seemed to agree. I definitely felt like a stupid American. I couldn’t wait to get off the train and luckily the next stop was only about half a mile up the road. On the way back I stumbled upon a little frozen fish market just off the tracks. It was cold, windy and snowing, but people were out picking through frozen sturgeon, and other fish I didn’t recognize, searching for that perfect cut. It made me feel good, the fact that people were out in the freezing cold, shopping, laughing with family and friends. It was definitely worth missing my stop.

Expecting the unexpected had become a theme in Samara, as things are not always what they seem. On or first evening in town we met a local museum director for a tour and an interview. It turns out that the museum is in an historic Russian Orthodox Church. It’s also a school and dormitory for priests in training. We ended up filming a conversation with several soon-to-be priests about their thoughts on America. They were as curious about us as we were about them. They asked what we knew about Russia… Russian literature, art, etc. I felt somewhat ignorant when the only Russian author we could come up with at the time was Tolstoy.

Yesterday we visited the University of Samara. Bob interviewed a history professor and the vice president of the school. What started out as a somewhat “formal” interview with the VP ended up being a colorful conversation of Russian and American politics over coffee, chocolates and shots of Cognac (only one… okay maybe some of us had two). We were then brought down to a lecture hall to talk with history students. Bob asked them what they thought of America. Some of the common stereotypes mentioned were a bit frightening. They wanted to know why we eat McDonalds even though we know it’s bad for us (many of them had seen the Morgan Spurlock documentary Super Size Me). They wanted to know why Americans watch so much TV and don’t read more. They wondered why Americans were so materialistic. Many of their impressions of America come through TV, movies and pop culture. Obviously these are stereotypes of Americans and don’t represent all of us, but remarkable nonetheless. They wondered what we knew about Russia, which I’m sad to say wasn’t nearly as much as they knew about us. Many of our thoughts on Russia are shaped by the Soviet era and much has changed here since then.

Our dialogue in each country begins by finding out what people think of America. After they answer our questions, the tables are turned and they ask what we know about them. This is only fair, but I’m afraid to admit, was somewhat unexpected for me… As if this would be a one sided conversation. This film is not only about the world knows about America, but what America knows about the world.

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