The United States, through others' eyes

Thursday, September 27, 2012

I first caught an episode of the miniseries "Stephen Fry in America" when at my hotel in Auckland, New Zealand. In that particular episode, he was crossing the Deep South in one of those cute rounded English black cabs. When I returned to the U.S., I signed up for a free month's trial of Netflix and I found this miniseries online and just couldn't help myself. I was curious to see America through Stephen Fry's eyes.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Each state gets 3-5 minutes of screen time, though some states (like Ohio and North Carolina) are merely depicted as a drive down a highway, coupled with an anecdote or short story about a historically significant event which has taken place in the state. What I find most interesting about Fry's journey across the U.S. is the points of interest he takes interest to. In Tennessee, it's not Graceland or Nashville, but a "body farm" of cadavers in Knoxville. In Minnesota, he discusses the Hmong population (and ice fishing).

He finds Miami dreadful, with its concrete, and shies away from the scantily clad and beautiful on Miami Beach, opting to feature a gathering of retirees. Yet, he is brave enough to trail along with a U.S. Border Patrol agent along the U.S.-Mexico border. That's something you'd never catch me doing! In Utah, he visits a photoshoot for a Mormon missionaries calendar and a Native American reservation. It's all part of American culture, but some are less significant than others. At times, I cringed at how Americans were "portrayed." 

In the fourth episode, titled "Mountains and Plains," he visits Glacier National Park (a place I dream of visiting someday) in Montana and speaks to geologist Dan Faber, who says that Americans have a love affair with their national parks. I can't speak for everyone, of course, but I definitely second that. Aside from our ridiculous foods, the thing I'm most proud of is our geography, our landscapes. The United States is just so beautiful, and so varied. It's so big that we have almost every kind of terrain and climate there is, and you can get to almost all of it by car.

Washington State
Jackson Lake, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming
Williamsburg, Virginia
Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Folly Beach, South Carolina
The sheer size of the United States is mentioned several times throughout the miniseries, by Stephen Fry himself whilst driving through Nebraska: "It's hard for someone like me, from a small island, to comprehend the vastness of it. Trains that seem to go on forever, and of course the long roads that are so much part of the almost mythical romance of America." And then again as he leaves Lake Powell in Utah: "Leaving the otherworldly landscape and my gloriously gargantuan houseboat, I realize just how much Americans are used to super sizes in everything. The distances out West are just vast."

Watching this miniseries brought to mind a series of articles from The Atlantic about the United States through non-Americans' eyes. I was really amused by many of the comments, though they made a whole lot of sense to me ... here are some that stood out to me:

"Americans are a lot more religious than I ever assumed from watching American television." 
"Many Indians are very surprised to find out that there are large numbers of Americans who actually love their parents and siblings and wives and children and have normal, healthy relationships with them."  
And this one I'm not sure what to make of:
"A McDonalds in a mall in Beijing or Brasilia is a horror. But go to one for breakfast in Los Angeles and it all kind of works: the design and appearance, the food, the behaviour of the staff. Not a wooden formula but a living culture."

And apparently visitors are shocked that cowboys do not roam the United States like they do (or did) in the movies. Well, visit Montana and Texas and you'll surely see a lot of Stetsons ... not sure if they're real cowboys or they just like wearing the hat.

While the Stephen Fry miniseries was filmed in either 2006 or 2007 (that is before the Great Recession), I think there must be some truth to the idea that the American Dream is still alive, somewhere. In San Francisco, Fry meets up with British expat Jonathan Ive of Apple, who compares the working atmosphere of England to that of the U.S.: "I think that there's just a conspicuous lack of cynicism and skepticism. Ideas are so fragile, aren't they? It's so easy to sort of miss an idea because they can be so quiet, or to snuff an idea out. I think that the sense of, the inquisitiveness, the willingness to try is so important for design, for developing those tentative, fragile ideas into a real product."

I wouldn't agree that the whole of the U.S. is a cradle of creativity -- in fact, I believe that much of New York City is a graveyard to innovation, but it's a nice sentiment that I have to hope is true. I think that the miniseries is probably more enlightening and useful to Americans than it is to non-Americans, who probably don't care as much about the quirky, hidden sites formerly used as a missile launching pad or a Wiccan gathering place. But we have just about everything here, and it's there if only you look for it.

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  1. Stephen Fry is hilarious. One thing I'm shocked about the US is the size. Everything seems bigger over there, especially the meals. I would love to go on a road trip around America. I have only ever been to the East Coast - New York and Washington. My friends just came back from their American road trip. They rented a convertible mustang haha.

    1. Haha, I guess a convertible Mustang is the best way to see the U.S.! My friends in Australia want to rent a Jeep when they come here, which I guess is a bit of a cliche but why not? Australia is huge too, though ... although I guess the main difference between the U.S. and Australia in terms of size vs. population is that a lot of Australia seems to be uninhabited? I could be very wrong though ...

  2. I'm always looking for something good to watch on Netflix. I will add this to my list. My husband and I went on a 2000 mile road trip around Utah, Wyoming area mid year. What an amazing country! But so much more to see.

    1. Utah is one of my favorite states, geographically. It's got the snowy, cold parts and then the desert-like parts to the south. Wyoming too, of course, is amazing as well. There is so much to see and not enough time, but if you are into skiing or snow sports, I highly recommend heading back to Utah in the winter (Park City, specifically) ... or Colorado, of course. Northern Utah in the winter/spring is a sight to see with the snow-covered Wasatch Mountains.



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