This past year was a bizarre ride. The Cubs won the World Series, “killer” clowns allegedly roamed the land and the man who invented the Kinder Egg Surprise passed away, just to name a few. I could go on.
For me, however, the strangest part of 2016 might have been getting by on my Franglish for 10 weeks to work in Tours, France, at an event management company. And, more specifically, the most surreal part had to be working at the Tours American Festival.
Imagine Elvis impersonators and trucks, country music and Twinkies — everything that apparently spells American culture to a foreign nation. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I showed up at work on the first day, but it wasn’t really that. When I think of the United States, I think of a lot of things, but not necessarily swing dancing and rodeos.
It was strange to walk through the booths and find small, eccentric elements of a larger picture of my home, like stumbling on a baffling puzzle that was partially put together with none of the missing pieces present. When these pieces came together, they didn’t make a map of the states, but rather an odd caricature of the old West with some of the aesthetics of the 1950s (which, now that I’ve written that sentence, I feel needs to be the basis of a horror film).
The main upsides for me were that A) I got to enjoy some cupcakes there, which was great because they’re not the most common dessert to find in France, and B) my conspicuous American accent became an attractive oddity to the people I spoke with rather than a reason to walk away quickly.
However, there was a strange discomfort in existing in that space and seeing my own culture through another country’s lens. There was no context for anything that was on display, including the cringier parts of our history and cultural artifacts that had been included. There were women walking around in attire that recalled 1950s housewives, complete with aprons (hmm…), teepees next to parked covered wagons (yikes) and T-shirts with the Confederate flag on them (yikes again).
Not for the first time, I considered the incredibly complex concept of cultural appropriation, or, to grossly oversimplify it, the use or adoption of one culture’s elements (fashion, slang, customs, etc.) by another culture. Was this that? Was American culture being appropriated? I couldn’t help but think that were this a Syrian Festival or a Chinese Fair put on by French natives in the way that this American festival was being produced, picking and choosing bits and pieces of their aesthetic and music and history to partake in, there might have been issues (to put it lightly). In this case though, I couldn’t see any kind of backlash coming from it, and perhaps rightly so.
To be completely honest, I was slightly uncomfortable with the incongruous portrayal of America that I was seeing. It left out some of the best and the worst aspects of the country, from our weird school systems to our ability to make a club or organization for almost anything to our worrisome race relations.
However, I didn’t feel particularly upset with what I was experiencing. The fact of the matter, since it was the United States in question, is that American culture is already one of, if not the most, dominant cultures in the world. Our media is spread worldwide, and American tastes are often catered to or treated as the default. While there are plentiful issues with imposing American culture and ideals on a global scale, it’s already happened. It’s out there and if others want to respectfully play in the sandbox that is our culture, I would say, “Here’s a shovel — I’m making a sandcastle.”
In short, while I would have liked to have been sure that the people around me understood the context and history of what they were engaging with, I really didn’t mind others participating in it. American culture in particular isn’t one that can solely be behind glass; at this point in globalization, it’s in its nature to be shared as others see fit. We can’t own what we’ve given away.
That said, I do have some suggestions for the next American Festival. There needs to be a rule that everyone smile uncomfortably or give a nod of acknowledgement to everyone they pass — bonus points if you show teeth when you smile. When the vendors sell something, they have to ask how the customer is doing, even if they don’t care or don’t know them. Every kiosk needs a drive-thru lane. All drinks need to have free refills and ice cubes. (Even coffee. It is law.)
Including these small changes might add up to something closer to what America really looks like. That’s my America, at least.
Sarah Leeson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.