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When the World Knows More About the U.S. Than You

March 10, 2019

This morning, just before noon, I was standing in front of a grad-level human resource management class, gesturing shakily at a PowerPoint presentation and talking about American culture. Forty Moroccan students blinked at me from their desks. It was bewildering.

I wasn't quite sure how I had stumbled here, to the quaint campus of the Faculty of Education Sciences in Rabat; it almost felt like an accident. A Moroccan friend of mine was teaching the course, and at first, I had just agreed to a tour of the school. The class, though, he said, was at the same time; I agreed to sit in. Later, more begrudgingly, I said I would speak to the students about American culture.

That was the full prompt he gave me. Talk, he said, about American culture.

"What does that mean?" I had asked. Customs, values, was his vague reply. Differences with Moroccan culture. "Anything you'd like."

As an American, I really should be an expert in (air-quotes) American culture, but as I sat down to design some informative slides on the topic, I felt stranded. I could not conjure up bullet point lists on a country of 300 million. So I made a slide or two about individualism and decided I'd wing the rest.

This was a good idea. Because what I've gradually realized, through my time here, is that the world knows a shocking amount about American culture, relative to what Americans know about the world. This isn't actually surprising—the United States reigns in mass media—but I'm still caught off guard when kids here nod in familiarity when you talk about cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, and have opinions about whether or not the Patriots have cheated their way to NFL domination.

I began the presentation by asking what the class thought about the United States. What they knew. Stereotypes, films, foods. I wasn't sure what to expect.

The first answer? "Racism," said a woman, almost shyly, near the back of the class. I asked her to elaborate, and she explained. Discrimination against people because they weren't white or were Muslim. I wrote this on the board.

I keep thinking back to this moment. There are so many Americans who would bristle at the very idea that racism exists in the United States. It was bizarre, and refreshing, to have more informed conversations about the United States outside of our country. And it made the presentation difficult, to say the least; I worried I was repeating what the class already knew.

The solution to this problem, I've realized, is to aim for dialogue instead of lectures. I stood and asked about the class's perceptions about Moroccan cultural differences—Rif identity, for instance, or the Amazigh language. They asked me more about the U.S.: Why Trump? What do Americans know about Morocco?

My answers: I really don't know and—hardly anything, which is shameful. To Americans who travel: Be warned. The world knows more about you than you'd ever imagine, and they are well-armed with questions.


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