A lot happens in this chapter. Tomas finally gives a tour, we see Death again, Vito makes another appearance, Tomas has another water vision–but what I’d really like to focus on today is the scene where Tomas sees Americans for the first time, after having been away from America for a few months. Here’s how Tomas describes it in the book:
I heard it long before I saw them. Loud, cacophonous talking that sounded more like a flock of seagulls than people communicating. Katka and I turned at the same time to see a group of twenty making its way up the hill, all of them dressed in bright colors and stupid hats, all in stars and stripes. It was the first time I’d ever looked at a group of Americans and seen them as other people might. Were we all that obnoxious?
I put this scene in for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I wanted Tomas to note how much he had changed in the time he’d been in Slovakia. Contrasting himself with other Americans is a good way to do that. Of course, this begs the question–are American tourists the same as Americans? And in a book that has a major theme speaking against racism and prejudice, is it fair to have the main character attribute a group of people’s behavior to their nationality?
Obviously I think it is–I left that part in the book. 🙂 But I left it in very deliberately. For one thing, it reflects a feeling I often had when I was living in Germany. I was there for two years–long enough to start to feel quite different from the other Americans I’d meet now and then. At the same time, I never felt like a German, either. When you’re living in a different country for a long period of time, you start to end up in a sort of limbo-state, where you don’t fit in anywhere. (I remember hearing that Arnold Schwarzenegger has that problem these days. His accent in English is obviously foreign, for example, but in Austrian, his accent is too American. He literally has nowhere he can go where he can just blend in. Not that he’d be able to do that anyway, being Ah-nold and all, but you get the point.)
My instinct when I was in Germany was to try and do what Tomas does here–distance myself in many ways from my countrymen. They were too loud. Too rude. Too _______. I think I’d meet an American sometimes and be surprised by something about them, and then my knee-jerk reaction was to say “That’s how all Americans are.”
This is ridiculous, of course–and I don’t believe it now. Saying all ______ are _______ is a good sign that you’re being prejudiced. It’s much more accurate to take people on a case by case basis. Though of course, stereotypes do become stereotypes for a reason. Is it safe to say many Americans are brash, loud, and boorish when they’re in another country? I’d say–unfortunately–yes. Just like many Japanese tourists take far more pictures when they’re in tourist mode than Americans do, for example.
Some of these differences are due to contrasts in cultures. Slovaks are–on the whole–much blunter than Americans, for example. They say what they mean. If they think you look fat, they’ll tell you outright. This isn’t being rude by Slovak standards, but it is rude by American ones. So when a Slovak tells me I’ve put on weight and should go on a diet, should I be offended? When Americans are brash and loud–in comparison to European standards–should they be yelled at to quiet down?
I don’t have any answers about this. People often cite the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. But I think this misses the point–especially in cross-cultural instances. In those cases, it would be better to say “Do unto others as they would have others do unto them.” In other words, approach and treat people not how you think they should be treated, but how they think they should be treated. If everyone was a little more open to seeing the world from another person’s point of view–and acting accordingly–I think we’d all be a lot better off.
If you don’t dismiss a cultural as “different” and therefore “worse,” you’re much likelier to learn things about other people, have a great time in different countries and cultures, and be a better person.
That’s the me-as-a-grownup talking. The sixteen year old me? He’d totally have done what Tomas did in this chapter. Dismissed an entire group of people with a single label. “American.” Therefore brash, loud and obnoxious. It doesn’t help that they confirm this, through the grandmother in the scene who’s so insistent on getting a good deal. (I saw this play out at Trencin Castle, by the way. True story.)
I could go on, but I’m out of time. Bottom line: I thought about taking this scene out during the revision process, but after contemplating it, I decided it was even more important that it stay. Tomas experiences prejudice, but he’s prejudiced himself in turn. It’s not a one way street, and it’s easy to have it crop up in your viewpoint when you least expect it.