A few months ago, I sat on the patio of Cagliari, Sardinia’s Antico Caffé dal 1855, under the looming limestone façade of the 19th century Bastione di Saint Remy, sharing a ginseng coffee with Ivo Pirisi. An Itialian biologist, photographer, and inveterate foodie with a deep love for Sardinia’s unique culinary traditions — rooted in him by his youth, which he spent in the farming village of Escolca — Pirisi recently opened Tasting Sardinia, a tourism outfit immersing visitors in the island’s agricultural traditions. As a sometimes food writer with a deep interest in Sardinia’s intense head-to-hoof eating traditions, I’d dragged Pirisi out to mercilessly pick his brain.
Despite the fact that the reason for our chat revolved entirely around an isolated culinary tradition, Pirisi and I were instead constantly talking in the shorthand about American pop-cultural references. With a nod to The Godfather here, a throw-out to Bobby Flay there, we navigated the gaps between my experience and his reality in a common jargon derived almost entirely from my culture.
Suddenly Pirisi paused, then asked me a question. To paraphrase: “Do you realize how much we know about your culture?” he said. “Do you realize how deeply we grow up with your culture alongside our own?”
I really do.
The years I have spent indulging in the supreme privilege of traveling to some of the most remote regions of the world has taught me just how inescapable and ingrained Americana truly is.
Americana everywhere, from Kyrgyzstan to Tibet
In 2012, trundling along mountain passes and nomadic jailoo pastures between Bishkek and Osh in Kyrgyzstan, the silence occasionally broke to the crackle of Carley Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” drifting out of storefront radios. In 2013, driving to see the cave paintings of Laas Geel in northern Somalia, I ruined my local travel companion’s year when I told him that, not only had I never seen Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix or Michael Jackson perform live, but that they were also all dead. In 2014, some of the only English I heard while in the remote Khampa Tibetan village of Lhagang was a young girl running in circles, singing Ke$ha’s refrain from Pitbull’s “Timber.”
American culture is world culture. That pisses off lovers of authenticity, who feel our ubiquity is corrosive. But I’ve never put a whole lot of stock in this gripe, given how artificial the idea of authenticity is in a world made of organic contamination and giddy cross-cultural consumption. That day in Sardinia, I don’t think Pirisi pointed out our global in ire. Rather, I think he wanted me to acknowledge the great privilege we enjoy as Americans: No matter where we go, we are always understood.
Traveling to some of the most remote regions of the world has taught me just how inescapable and ingrained Americana truly is
Traveling as an American, you may not always speak the language of your destination, but you will always have a set of reference points, allowing you to speak in clipped codes of movie titles and musical refrains. Even if what is understood is a vague caricature of America, everyone you encounter, for better or for worse, will have a toehold into and an acceptance of your culture.
Flip that picture and imagine encountering a Tajik woman sporting a unibrow or a Wodaabe man flouting his masculine beauty in America. Imagine the profound isolation that individual might experience, wishing to communicate through cultural idioms that feel automatic and core, yet are unable to do so given the total ignorance of his or her background abroad. Briefly appreciate that as Americans, you will never have to experience this degree of foreignness, even in the most foreign land.
We don’t have to feel guilty about our privilege. It is not eternal or exclusive to us. Although it has taken a while, globalization is increasingly fulfilling its implicit promise to export other cultures back to America, creating a multi-polar world of immediate — if shallow — cross-border reference points and understanding. Think of Bollywood or K-Pop to fell out the growing caricatured but common toeholds into other cultures that are working their way into the American lexicon.
We ought to be aware of the ubiquity of our culture, and the ease it affords us in making ourselves known and understood around the globe. We cannot let it make us lazy, allowing us to shirk the duty incumbent on any traveler to gain some understanding of the idioms and reference points of the culture in which he or she is moving. The best way to avoid complacency on that matter, before the shrinking world forces us to learn other cultures as well as our own, is to answer Pirisi’s question by openly admitting our privilege now and then, and reflecting upon it.