Before we were married, before we were even engaged, my husband gave me a wonderful gift. He bought me a trip to Spain. The purpose was two-fold; I would be presented to his family for inspection and offered my first introduction to his country. I was treated to two glorious weeks in a country with real castles, breath-taking cathedrals and hundreds of years worth of history that seemed to linger on every street and in the tiniest nook and cranny. I took pictures of Roman ruins in Mérida; Goya paintings, that I’d previously seen crammed into four inch squares in art books, at the Prado museum in Madrid; and the 13th century Moorish palace of La Alhambra with its intricate tile and scroll work in Granada.
When I came back to the U.S., I showed off my pictures to a co-worker. She stopped in the middle of my huge stack of glossy prints and asked, “Where are all the pictures of donkeys and stuff?“
“Donkeys?” I asked, bewildered.
You know, pictures of peasants and those carts pulled by donkeys,” she replied. “I’ve been looking for pictures of peasant scenes. I paint in my spare time and I’d like to have, you know, some village scenes.”
I was stunned. We both sat at the beige, plastic breakroom table and stared at each other. I looked into her pale, watery eyes, wide with curiosity. Then it occurred to me that maybe she thought I said Amish instead of Spanish. I wasn’t sure how to mention that these were pictures of Spain and not pictures of the Amish, the devout religious sect of Pennsylvania who shunned most forms of modern technology. I glanced down at the pictures of stone streets and ancient buildings and decided that there was no mistaking these scenes with that of the pristine farmland of Pennsylvania.
I’m almost certain I opened and closed my mouth a couple of times, trying to think of something to say. I didn’t know what to say. She was a perfectly nice woman and I didn’t want to offend her by suggesting that she didn’t have any clue about Spain.
I considered her request for a moment longer. Had I seen any donkeys in Spain? I’d seen horses hooked up in front of decorated carriages in Sevilla that the tourists took to see the city. I’d seen ancient men sporting berets huddled over a café table playing dominos with sparkling glasses of deep red Rioja wine at their elbows. I’d even seen two nuns arm-in-arm on the streets of Sevilla in long black habits and snow white wimples. But I didn’t remember seeing any donkeys. Suddenly, I was reminded of a farmer I’d seen checking the progress of his olive grove from the back of a small motorcycle. I rejected the thought because I felt it wasn’t what she was looking for from me.
Finally, I decided to just tell her. “I didn’t see any donkeys. In fact, I didn’t see any peasants either.” I suggested there might be some village scenes she could copy from art books at the library. She seemed disappointed with the answer I had given her.
I, too, was disappointed. Cathedrals, Roman ruins and spectacular views of tiny white towns clinging to the scenery of southern Spain seemed to fly in the face of what she imagined Spain to be like.
Surely, there are donkeys in Spain. Somewhere in Spain donkeys work or play or produce baby donkeys, but I didn’t see a single one. Much later my husband did explain to me that there are the burro taxis in a couple of tourist towns. Here reluctant, disobedient donkeys, suffering under the weighty burden of foreigners, ferry tourists up and down the street while the locals take bets on which unfortunate tourist will fall off the ass and land on their own ass. Secretly, I suspect that any self respecting donkeys in Spain spend their days in comfortable barns. They might hang their long faces over stall doors and dream about licking the remnants of café con leche out of tiny cups or the leftovers of garlic-driven feasts from platters abandoned by diners for the cool, shuttered rooms and the afternoon siesta.
My co-worker just had her own vision of Spain and it wasn’t the real one, the one filled with bank machines, high-speed trains, suicidal driving and high-tech modern businesses. More than likely she came by her ideas honestly – from an old movie, where senoritas in frilly dresses pine for doomed matadors and everyone speaks with a hokey, Hollywood Mexican accent. I wondered if my pictures – my vision – of Spain ruined it for her.
See, introducing contradictory information to an American with an already deep seeded belief isn’t easy, especially when it involves a vision of another people or another culture. Unfortunately, most Americans know very little about their own country and know even less about the rest of the world. We tolerate different foods, what we would consider unusual customs and world music, but only in tiny, bite-sized bits. The funny thing is this doesn’t seem to bother too many Americans. Chances are if you go anywhere in the world and ask anyone on the street about the U.S. or Americans, they can usually come up with a list of things they have seen or heard. Their ideas might not always be correct, but they’ll know something. They might mention movies they’ve seen or give you their rendition of a popular song or name some sort of product they’ve seen advertised, and the odds are pretty good they even know who the current president of the U.S. is. Even citizens of the axis-of-evil countries can tell you who the current U.S. president is.
But Americans are different from the rest of the world. Try this. Go up to any person in Anywhere, U.S.A. and ask the first person you meet on the street if they can name a current movie star in India or sing the lyrics of the latest popular song in South Africa or name the presidents of ten foreign countries. We just can’t do it. This might be why Americans have such a difficult time distinguishing the difference between a Sikh and an Arab. This is also the reason why world music stations are far and few between in the U.S., and why most Americans have never heard of Khaled, Malkit Singh, Estrella Morente Cesaria Evora or Natacha Atlas even though they have thousands or millions of fans worldwide.
I realize by that last statement that I’ve just opened myself up to all sorts of emails telling me that you, yes you, know all about these musicians and that you consider yourself a worldly person. All I have to say to that is good for you, Smartypants. But that doesn’t change the fact that most Americans simply don’t care. Americans love to be loved. We love to be admired, copied and especially envied, especially if we didn’t have to do a thing to earn that love, admiration or envy.
You might be wondering what this has to do with you. Well, if you’re an American, this type of thinking says something about you. It tells the rest of the world a great deal about who we are as a people, about our education system and, believe it or not, about our policies toward the rest of the world. Somewhere along the line you will be called to take a child or that ungracious American standing next to you by the hand and educate and point out that a larger world exists and thrives. Because you never know if that American sitting next to you on some foreign tour will be the one to ask, “Yeah, that’s nice but where are all the donkeys?”.