There was a time when I was fed the myth that almost all Americans are ignorant and blissfully unaware of the world outside America. This myth was particularly strong before I came to the States, and continued to occasionally make appearances after I came to the States, in some gatherings of desis. Sure, there remain plenty of Americans who don’t know that Sri Lanka is a country, do not know the difference between the world’s forth most widely spoken language (Hindi) and a person claiming faith to the world’s third largest religion (Hindu), or that the US is not the world’s largest country (in terms of population or land area).
But I also learnt that this ignorance is not unique to Americans, and seems to be a rather strong human trait. Many of my own friends or acquaintances in the States are Indian. Almost all of them have advanced degrees and high paying jobs in tech or science industries. And many of these people roll their eyes in horror and depreciation when some average American still doesn’t know where Iraq is. But many of them are just as guilty of similar ignorance. Here’s a smattering of questions some desis I know were clueless about.
What is thanksgiving celebrated for? (One worthy answer said “it’s some special religious thing for Americans”)
Whom did American get independence from (for the 4th of July celebrations)? (One classic answer I heard was slavery)
Why was there a civil war?
How is the president elected?
When I occasionally ask why people didn’t bother to learn about these things, they said it was because they didn’t really care and it didn’t matter much.
Postscript: Sometimes I feel the larger and brasher the society (and I include an “Indian culture” in the brash category), the less the individual feels he/she is compelled to learn about others (I could probably say the same about sub-Indian regional cultures). But people from smaller countries often feel the need to learn about the big ones. You hear about ugly Americans or Indians or Chinese or Germans or Brits. You don’t hear about ugly Lituanians. And the few Lithuanians I’ve met have uniformly been well aware of the world they live in. Doesn’t prove anything, but perhaps there is something here.