The Great Pacific Culture Patch July 26, 2012

Today, scientists estimate the swirling mass of waste known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is roughly the size of Texas.–Daily Telegraph 26 July 2012

“Do you have any pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge?” one of my Micronesian students asked the other day.  Well, it just so happened that did.  Opening my laptop and calling up iPhoto, I went on a hunt.  Now, my iPhoto files are more disorganized than the commission charged with resurfacing the roads here on the island of Weno–so a-sifting we went.

No, that’s Christmas, 2009…..No, that’s the Milwaukee Polka Festival….No, that’s the “Pictures Never to be Placed on Facebook” file…No, that’s New York City from last January…..”WAIT!!!! We want to see New York!!!”

So we detour away from the Golden Gate to take a look at bunch of photos of New York I took last winter….Yes, that’s snow….Yes, it was cold…I was in New York to see a former student who was performing on Broadway and had invited me to see his show.  It also just so happens that this past-student has a large role on the TV show Glee, which by all accounts is fairly popular in the States.  Clicking through pictures from the trip, I get to some shots of the former student and me…..”WAIT!!!!! That’s [insert character’s name that I don’t recall] from Glee!!!!!!!  Why are you with him???? Do you know him???? I love him!!!!!! Glee is the best show!!!!!!” Before my eyes they suddenly all morphed into teenage girls from 1964 watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan for the first time.

Wait a second. Glee?  “Yeah we love Glee.” Indeed they do.  In fact some of them already have all of next season’s episodes on disk.  You can pick it up in the Cash and Carry in town.  They also have bootlegs of all of this summer’s American blockbusters, many of which are still in the theater. “Mr. Chris, have you seen the new Batman movie? Do you want to? I can get you a copy.”

But it’s not just television shows and movies that you can bootlegs of.  How about New York Yankees gear?  Abercrombie and Fitch?  I can’t tell you how many Tony Soprano, Michael Jackson, and Fifty Cent t-shirts I’ve seen.  You like snacks?  We got Doritos, Cheetos, and Pringles.  Music? If I hear, “Call Me Maybe” one more time, I’l wind up in the Chuukese equivalent of Bellevue.  Sports? “Mr. Chris, do you like Tebow? Kobe? Lebron?”

All this debris of American society has washed up on the shores of this tiny Pacific island–and I’m sure it’s found its way onto many others as well.  What is most disturbing is that this cultural tsunami is not comprised of the best we have to offer. Stores are filled with Spam and Budweiser and Hershey bars.  Clothes shops have rack upon rack, aisle upon aisle packed with heavy metal or marijuana t-shirts.  Why read Mark Twain?–People magazine will do.  No one knows Angels in America, but everyone knows Jersey Shore.

I realize that back in the U.S. it’s not much different.  I’m sure if I asked a random sample of Americans, “For what work will playwright Tony Kushner be best remembered?”,  I’d be met with more puzzled looks than actual answers.  I get that.  But what’s hitting me so hard is that it is this image of “Idiot America” we’re exporting, in the form of merchandise, junk food, print media, and movies and TV to the world–to these people whom I’ve come to care about.  They form their image of who we are based on the Neilsen ratings.  What about the volunteer doctors? What about the teachers?  What about the Ex-Peace Corps guy who’s getting bicycles for the kids on island? Sure, they’re here, but I have a student who can’t wait to go to Guam–It’s just like the States. They have McDonald’s.

I shuddered when a student told me she thought the U.S. was a dangerous place filled with tough guys because she saw C.S.I. Miami. I winced when my co-worker told me she felt prepared to travel to America for college because she had see a lot of movies. I cringed when my graduating Micronesian students processed down the aisle to a Chuukese version of “Hotel California.” I almost cried when the boy who had never travelled beyond the reef asked me if living in San Francisco was like The Princess Diaries. 

Now I can be as critical of and cynical about our country as anyone, and I have often voiced displeasure at the policies and practices of the United States. But I am an American; I have to believe that, as a people, we are something more that cop shows and teenage chick flicks.

We’ve already created a swirling wasteland of our plastic refuse carried by currents to the great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific.  Now we’re creating a new landfill in the South Pacific made up of all our cultural detritus that we just toss aside without any regard as to its impact.

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