The other night, I managed to catch up with some Italian friends for the last couple songs of a night out singing karaoke. When I got there, they wanted to sing an American song so that I could sing along with them. They started scrolling through some American songs—I think they picked one by the Black-Eyed Peas—and they were surprised when I said I didn’t know it. “But how can you not know it? You’re American!” was the remark that captured the sentiment of the group. I was a little embarrassed and I pretended it was just that one song, but I doubt they believed my act. The truth is, this group of Italian twenty-somethings knew way more about recent American pop music than I did.
In addition to music, I also found out that American television and movies are very popular abroad. On our long bus ride back from the Inner Mongolia trip, one of the conversation topics that came up was American television and cinema. Shows like the OC, CSI, Calfornication, Sex and the City, The Sopranos and Twilight were all well-known by my classmates. So were the Simpsons. I laughed when they said that they think of Americans as rich, beautiful people who live on either of the coasts (of course, they also stereotype American tourists as being fat and loud). They wanted to visit California, because on television it looked like such a great place to be. I assured them that everything they see on TV is true.
America has also successfully exported fast food culture to much of the world. Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are probably the two most famous American brands on the planet. Fast food is a controversial topic when talking to many people, and with good reason. Critics say that fast food is crowding out local cuisine (when you visit the Pantheon in Rome and see a McDonald’s sitting in front of it, it’s hard to disagree). Exporting American fast food also gives the French an excuse (real or imagined) for why their waistlines are expanding.
American fast food is increasingly present here in China also. Three brands—McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut are on more and more street corners and can also be found inside many shopping centers. The other day when I was out wandering, I saw all three side by side (with a Nike store next to them). Of the three, KFC has had the most success. It changed the recipe of its fried chicken here, making it spicier to better suit the Chinese palate. Pizza Hut is popular for its salad bar. (Side note: If you ever want a fiery response from an Italian, just ask her what she thinks of Pizza Hut. Hint: it’s not her favorite). Subway is creeping in and Starbucks can be found in many places too. I sat in a Charlie Brown Café to write this article and heard Avril Lavigne’s Complicated being piped in over the PA system. It was a small thing that reminded me of home and it made me wonder how to get my own music into a café in China.
Basketball has travelled around the world too, particularly the NBA. I met someone from Barcelona the other day who knew where Portland, Oregon was. Joaquín, it turns out, is a big basketball fan and since Rudy Fernandez (from Spain) plays for the Blazers, he knows about Portland (Most of the time, when you mention Portland, you get a blank stare. People understand when you say it’s near Seattle, thanks to the Twilight movies—sorry PDX). Joaquín complained about Rudy´s role with the Blazers and was following the holdout situation closely. David Stern, the NBA commissioner, would be pleased to know that his league was the topic of discussion between two people who had met each other half way around the world.
What might the long-term effects of America’s cultural exports be? Critics claim that they dilute the “native” culture of these societies. Some countries, like France, try hard to maintain their own culture and restrict the amount of English that is used in the media. In China, under pressure from activists, Starbucks pulled its café out of the Forbidden City. Apparently, that location was just too close to the heart of Chinese culture (with all of the commercialization that you see at every Chinese tourist destination, how did activists even notice it was there?).
While we don’t always export the best that America has to offer (e.g., Paris Hilton is famous around the world), our cultural exports do give people abroad to see more of America than just its foreign policy and military ventures. Tom Friedman, of the New York Times, calls this using “soft” power. Soft power is the use of American ideas to promote US interests, in contrast with the use of “hard” (military) power. The theory is that soft power is valuable because it influences how citizens of other countries view the US. In other words, exporting US culture is good for US interests because if people in other countries like us (or are more like us), they will be more likely to support our foreign policy. Some dismiss the use of soft power as a utopian fantasy, but over the long term, using both hard and soft power is likely to produce the best results.
Therefore, if you are interested in improving America’s foreign relations, you might make sure you stay brushed up on American pop culture. If nothing else, it will at least help you to not feel out of place when singing karaoke with some Italian friends.