Friday, September 30, 2005

This blog does not represent the official policy of the United States

Yesterday's Slate features an article by Fred Kaplan on public diplomacy. He writes about the ongoing Mideast trip of Karen Hughes, the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, and questions how effective she can be. Among a lot of interesting points, he raises this question:

It's hard to say what kinds of programs—which cultural messengers or emblems of freedom—might effectively counter the hatred and suspicions of today's foes.

It's an interesting thought. I've spent much of my young career representing the United States to people from different cultures, and I have to say that even in the absence of "hatred and suspicion," it's hard to know what will reach your audience and influence their perspective on Americans. How could I teach "America" to teenagers from Albania or refugees from El Salvador? And when I was working with those people, I had the added benefit of being in the United States. They had some personal experience of America and Americans outside of their ESL classes. For many students in my classes that begin in the coming weeks, and for many Serbians at large, I'm it. This is a daunting prospect, to be sure. I speak very little Serbian, and all I know of the country's culture and history, I've learned in two months of reading and one week of living here. Nevertheless, I feel that my current attempt at cultural diplomacy promises to have an extremely positive effect, if on a small scale. Let's take this afternoon's American Corner meeting for example. Meaghan and I showed up around 5:00 to discuss October programming with the librarians. The four of us decided to implement a number of programs for children and adults, and next week Meaghan is planning to visit all the local elementary schools to do publicity. So, to answer Mr. Kaplan's question, here's how we are representing ourselves as "cultural messengers":
  • Open to free discussion of ourselves and our culture - in discussion groups; also answering questions from the librarians, e.g. "Do regular Americans dress in Prada and Gucci?" (One of them watches Sex and the City.)
  • Understanding the importance of reaching the younger generation - in story times
  • Knowledgeable in some of the fun, traditional, less-globalized aspects of American culture - in our presentations on postseason baseball and Halloween
  • Young, creative, and eager to work collaboratively with our Serbian hosts - my Serbian counterpart at the university continues to make fun of me for the extraordinarily optimistic and upbeat tone of my pre-departure emails

I agree with Mr. Kaplan that Karen Hughes's trip is a bit ridiculous. What can she be to Turks and Saudis but another official voice whose words may or may not translate into actions? I would argue, however, that the U.S. has important cultural diplomacy to do - and that you don't have to be Vladimir Posner, Mr. Kaplan's impossible paragon of bicultural fluency, to do it.

In addition, as Bill Maher put it, "They hate us because we don't know why they hate us." When one of the American Corner librarians asked Meaghan about the general American view of Serbs, she had to admit that most of us have forgotten about the Balkans since the wars of the 1990s. She went on to say, however, that one part of our job as Americans abroad is to bring home a more educated perspective on our host country. Cultural diplomacy, after all, works two ways; since America is the loudest voice in the room, it's all the more important for us to learn to listen.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

New world man

The other day, for a few hours, we had cable internet but no running water.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The story so far ...

... just like the inside front cover of a comic book, for those of you who may have missed our latest installment. This spring, I applied for and won an English Language Fellowship from the U.S. State Department to teach English language and American culture at the University of Kragujevac, Serbia. Meaghan and I arrived here in "K" last Tuesday and moved into our three-room apartment (plus kitchen) in the backyard of a law professor's house, about ten minutes' walk from the city center. We have spent the last week meeting people and learning our way around. When I tell them about my plans, most people in the States ask me, "Why would you want to go there?" The short answer is that I had little choice; the English Language Fellows program typically offers placement to Fellows on a "take it or leave it" basis, and they offered me Kragujevac. A better answer, though, is that there is useful work to be done. Following the NATO bombing campaign of 1999, a lot of people have an understandably harsh view of the US and of "Americans." That's one of the reasons that the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs decided to send Kragujevac a free English teacher for the year. They've also turned the fourth floor of the National Library into an "American Corner," a library and cultural center that has been built and staffed partially by the US Government. Naturally, under the terms of my fellowship, I am expected to be significantly involved in planning and running programs at the American Corner. When we arrived there to introduce ourselves on Thursday afternoon, they were initially surprised that I wasn't a 60-year-old professor with a PhD. I guess the "English Language Fellow" title confused them. As it turned out, they were glad to have a young person who could talk about music and movies instead of politics and other "boring" things. When it came to specifics, though, they didn't really know what to do with us. They served us Coca-Cola (the drink of Americans, naturally) and asked us, "What would you like to do here?" It seems that their events up to now have been limited to weekly movie screenings, plus one or two general Q&A sessions with random visiting Americans. Since then, Meaghan and I have been brainstorming, drawing on my teaching expertise and her bookstore brilliance, and we've come up with a dozen different things. For October alone, we've discussed events based on Halloween and the World Series, topics that might not ever have occurred to Serbian librarians. They can really use someone who knows American culture. In fact, my job in general, as I see it, is to be the American. Most people here have only seen Americans before in movies, on TV, and piloting the planes that bombed them from thousands of feet above. In the corner cafe and the grocery store as well as the University and the American Corner, I represent a face of America other than the military and Britney Spears. While most Serbs' first thoughts of the US might be those things , I hope that the people I meet will think of me instead, and think kinder thoughts.