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Fulbright Scholars Describe Perceptions of U.S. Abroad

Fulbright Scholars Describe Perceptions of U.S. Abroad

Ten visiting Fulbright scholars from 7 countries tell town meeting how the United States is viewed back home.

Leslie Evans Email LeslieEvans

The U.S. got mixed reviews from a group of visiting Fulbright scholars at a town meeting at the UCLA Faculty Center May 28. Their job was to summarize their impressions of how their fellow countrymen and women back home regard the United States, its policies, culture, and people. None of the panelists was able to report a wholly positive impression, despite a fairly common opinion among Americans that their society is superior to all others.

The meeting was sponsored by the Visiting Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, which is housed at the UCLA International Institute and headed by Fulbright Coordinator Ann Zwicker Kerr. The countries represented by the panel were Colombia, Russia, Australia, South Korea, Turkey, China, and Egypt. The meeting was chaired by Ann Kerr.

Colombia: The U.S. is a land of opportunity but rich people there take advantage of poor countries.

Alberto, from Medellin, Colombia. Alberto is at UCLA to get a masters degreee in chemical engineering and plans to continue in a PhD program. "The perception of Americans in Colombia in general is good," he said. "We think that the U.S. is a very powerful country with a lot of opportunities. In general there is respect, appreciation of the technology being developed in the U.S. Most of the books in my field are written by U.S. authors. There are opportunities to do graduate work in science which are very limited in my country. In terms of economy, in my country the economy is not good. It is hard to find a job, but people have the impression that the U.S. economy works."

But there were negative views of the U.S. in Colombia as well. "The bad perceptions are of strong capitalism, companies that just go to invest and take advantage of the resources of the country for their own good. Rich people who take everything. In general the perception is good but some people, some journalists, don't like America."

The main problem in Colombia, Alberto said, is the leftist guerrillas. "There is more support to the president than to the guerrillas. We would like the U.S. to help more to fight the guerrillas. The guerrillas of course don't want the U.S. to be there." He was asked if reports in the American press that the guerrillas are involved in the drug trade are true. He replied, "Yes, the guerrillas protect drug crops to raise money. The Colombian government is always trying to show that the guerrillas are engaged in illegal activities with drugs and that is a true perception."

Russia: Some people supported the Bush administration on Iraq and others did not.

Lydia, Russia. "I live in Russia, in Moscow. I study east Slavic literature and early modern times: Ukrainian Byelorussian and Russian in the baroque period. The famous Russian writers such as Pushkin and Doestoevsky lived in 19th century. I study the 17th century. I am here for 6 months in total."

America and Russia, she said, "are not enemies any more. The cold war is finished and we are very friendly, especially, it was absolutely clear, after September 11. We understood that we could help each other. We had successful work together in the research in space.

"The Russian people are very interested in America, and there is interest here in the Russian language. We look to American sources in literature, movies, computer technology and science. My colleagues at home have written a history of American literature in two volumes."

Lydia talked a little about the her country's economic difficulties. "It is very difficult after the collapse of the Soviet Union, because instead of one country there are 16 republics. There are many political and economic problems. Our economic orientation was toward the military. Now we would like to have an economy like America. We hope for a good future for our nation. We want to live in peace with other nations. The Russian people suffered so much in the last century that we want to organize our lives to be more happy."

She touched on the differences between Russia and the United States over the American invasioin of Iraq. "Our relations and our opinions about Iraq have divided our two countries." But there were some Russians, she added, who agreed with the Bush administration on Iraq. "Some people supported the American administration and others did not. Those who did support America on this saw in Saddam Hussein another Stalin under whom we had a sad history. Our people would like to see a happy future for the Iraqi people."

Australia: Some Americans pretend to be Canadians to avoid fights.

Rebecca, Australia. Rebecca is working on a PhD in the comparative history of women filmmakers in Australia and the United States. "I'm interested in how Australia is seen here and how the U.S. is seen in Australia," she said. Her interests are in bottom up history, women's history, and ethnicity.

"I had enormous culture shock on coming here. The British system is 4 years for an undergraduate degree, then study on your own for a PhD. But here there is extensive course work in the PhD program for 2 years before you do you own work It is very competitive. How do you read 8 books in one week?"

She saw sharp cultural differences that might be rooted in the different origins of the two countries. "I have been thinking about puritans and the protestant work ethic versus Australian convict culture. Not that Australians are lazy, but work is seen differently. Australians are somewhat blunt and irreverent."

Americans, she said, are not always highly regarded in Australia. "I taught history in Sydney and a number of Americans came to ask me what is a sepo. They had been called sepos by some Australians. I was embarrassed. We use Cockney rhyming slang, which lets one word stand for an understood rhyme. A sepo is a septic tank, which rhymes with Yank. A number of Americans would claim to be Canadian to avoid barroom brawls."

Since September 11, she said, "The Australian prime minister, John Howard, has been very much in sympathy with George Bush. But he does not represent all Australians in supporting going into Iraq. Many people were very much against going into Iraq this time around."

South Korea: America's motives have come under increasing suspicion since the Kwangju massacre in 1980.

Young Shik, South Korea. "I came to Los Angeles last July. I have been to the United States several times, but usually only for a few weeks at a time before this time. I was educated in the generation after the Korean war, which ended in 1953. I was born right after the war. I was a soldier at one time, because all Korean males have to serve 33 months. My period was reduced to two and a half years because of my university studies. I studied applied linguistics for an MA in the United Kingdom. I worked on my PhD in 1993-95. I am now a university teacher, training students who will be English language teachers in secondary schools.

"Employment is becoming more difficult. Teachers are guaranteed jobs until they are 62, with the result that hundreds of applicants are coming now in very competitive efforts to get teaching jobs, which are very prestigious in Korea."

South Korea was very pro-American in the thirty-five years after the end of World War II, he said. "Most Koreans liked America best. It had given economic and military aid. American soldiers were sent to fight against communism, while north Korea was supported by Russia and China. Many American soldiers lost their lives fighting for south Korea." This began to change after the assassination of dictator Park Chung Hee in October 1979.

"We expected a democratic government but it was followed by another coup and severe repression of protesters for democracy. Then came the Kwangju massacre in 1980. I was a soldier then. I was ordered to clean the rifles to prepare to kill my own people who were demonstrating for a democratic government. Luckily I did not have to go, but many soldiers did and killed many demonstrators.

"People wondered who was responsible for the 1980 massacre. The status of forces agreement signed at the end of the Korean War gives the U.S. the right to control the Korean military force on the peninsula. then the question is, Korea could not move their military forces from the demilitarized zone to Kwangju without U.S. permission. The Korean government could not control the forces, only the U.S. could. This caused all the suspicion among the Korean people. The U.S. was no longer the Mecca of democracy and peace. America is seen as controlling the peninsula for its own strategic reasons. This caused a lot of suspicion among the Koreans."

He also said that the United States is held partly responsible for the limited progress in efforts to reunify the two states on the Korean peninsula. "Millions of families were divided by the partition. In one family, the husband was kidnapped by the North. After the war the husband and wife could not see each other for forty years. When Kim Dae Jung had a summit with the North some of these families were permitted to meet for the first time in forty years. Many young people expressed a lot of sorrow over this separation. One grandmother who stayed in south Korea couldn't see her grandson in the North before she died. There is kind of a trend of anti-Americanism among the young in South Korea. Although the young people have demonstrations for the Americans to go home, many middle aged people still believe that American troops on the peninsula are vital for keeping the peace. I do think that America should be for more communication between the two Koreas."

Turkey: "I was surprised when I saw homeless people, I didn't know that in such a rich country people live on the street."

Vildon, Turkey. "I am an organic chemist here for more than one year, doing research in the Chemistry Department. Turkey is a wonderful country, filled with historical places, great food, hospitality. It was founded by Attaturk in 1920 when the sultanate was abolished. Turkey uses the Latin alphabet. We have a democracy with 550 deputies in the parliament. We even had a woman prime minister although there are only 20 women in the parliament.

"Before I cam here I did not know much about how America is, or anything about Los Angeles. I did know I could do research very well here. I'm gong to be very honest about what I think and what I saw. Before I came I knew that black people were used as slaves and that Indians were shown as bad people, as killers. When I came here I was surprised when I saw homeless people, I didn't know that in such a rich country people live on the street. Maybe they want to live there, but doesn't the government find them a place to live?

"Mexican people. I was thinking why Mexican people are not well educated. In my department there is only one Mexican. In this country it is real hard to jump from one level to another. If you are well educated it is easy. In my country you can be everything without money. Here money is very important. My daughter goes to school and it is easy for her. She want to go to Harvard Law School but I cannot imagine how she could do that.

"We had a good relation between American and Turkey until Iraq. We have had suffering from the Kurds for 10 years, 30,000 people have been killed and no other country seems to care. After September 11 the U.S. seemed to wake up because of terrorism but it is not clear what attitude they plan to take toward the Kurds."

Hong Kong, China: " Right and wrong don't seem to be very strong here. In Hong Kong we still have strict moral standards which don't seem to exist here."

Frederick, Hong Kong. "Hong Kong is an SAR, which does not stand for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, but for Special Administrative Region. Every American I meet thinks we are very unhappy about the union with the mainland, that we are very anticommunist. This is not so true. Even after 100 years of British rule we still consider ourselves Chinese. There is a dilemma. We are glad to go back to the motherland but we hate the communists, so we are very uneasy.

"I am working here on math education, on a set of data on math teaching in several countries. We want to understand why Asians do so well in math. We have videotaped classes in 7 countries to make a huge dataset."

Frederick suggested some two-word associations that he felt captured the contradictory character of Americans as viewed from Hong Kong.

"On perceptions of America, these are not research findings but mere perceptions. The first word that comes to mind is affluence. America is a very affluent country but it is paired with the word wasteful. If I go to McDonald's in Hong Kong, if I ask for ketchup they give me one small pack. If I go to McDonald's in Europe, they give me one but they charge for it. If I go here, they give me 10 packs. Wasteful.

"Free is the word, you can do what you want, but it is also wanton. Right and wrong don't seem to be very strong here. In Hong Kong we still have strict moral standards which don't seem to exist here.

"Confident, but also arrogant. The country is so powerful, so rich, it is very confident, but also very arrogant."

Frederick reported a study he had been involved in comparing mathematics education in 40 countries. "We asked students how they thought of their own achievement. Students from Japan, China, and Korea do very well. The Americans do very badly. But in the self-assessment sections, the Americans put themselves at the top, while in self-assessment China, Japan, and Korea are at the bottom."

Frederick suggested that the American education system encourages students to be confident. "We Chinese don't feel easy interacting with such arrogant people. But these are very competitive people. One of our disadvantages is that we are modest, we don't present ourselves very well. In my university we get applications from all over the world. The American applications claim they know everything and can teach anything. The applications from mainland China say what they don't know."

Another word pair he suggested was aggressive and egocentric. "Americans seem to be  only concerned about the American interests. Here the local channel is only the L.A. news. They are concerned so much about America that they know very little about other places. Some Americans asked me if Hong Kong was part of Japan, or maybe Vietnam. You are so self-contained you seem not to need other places. We are so small in Hong Kong, we are an international city. We have to be concerned about the rest of the world.

"The Iraqi war is a good example. I watch Hong Kong news about it every day. It seems the Hong Kong news is watching a different war. For example many people are very sad about what happened in the museum. In Hong Kong there was the rumor that the Americans had a hand in looting the museum. I am not saying that this is true, but it was reported that the American army did not protect the hospitals to create a climate of chaos to lay the groundwork for the looting of the museum. I am not saying that this is true, but this theory was not even reported here.

"We find Americans confident but also very shallow. They can talk on anything but without much depth. A typical Asian tradition is not to say much but to have a lot to back up what we say. I think these perceptions are quite common not only in Hong Kong but in many places outside of America."

Tianjin, China (1): "Some Chinese people, especially the young people in the cities, are more or less Americanized."

One Fulbright scholar, Zhiyuan, from Tianjin, China, came with his daughter Qingqing. Zhiyuan led off: "During these several months we have had time to make some impressions about the United States. My field is accounting, not something that prepares me to make statements about America. China is a large country that contains different perceptions about America. Generally speaking in China there are both positive and negative perceptions about the U.S.

"I think that the United States is the greatest influence on China right now. Some Chinese people, especially the young people in the cities, are more or less Americanized. They work in American-based multinationals. They wear MBA tee shirts. They eat at McDonalds. They appreciate American culture and life styles and even the political values and political institutions. Sometimes when a person does something that upsets the officials they will say that in the United States this is nothing, who cares about that? They appreciate that the U.S. is helping China develop its economy and in the transition from a planned economy to a market economy.

"But there are still some negative perceptions. These are mainly in American foreign policy, especially as related to China. Sometimes Chinese people call the U.S. imperialists or call the American government a world policeman. Sometimes this policy stimulates nationalistic feelings among the Chinese, such as with the Taiwan issue. Washington's gestures toward Taiwan appear as an effort to weaken China because the Chinese believe that Taiwan is a part that belongs to China. Also the embassy bombing in [Belgrade in May] 1999 has been viewed as a deliberate attempt to humiliate China. Some ordinary people still reject the American explanation that it was an accident.

"In general Chinese people like the United States. They like American people to visit China and are usually very friendly to American visitors."

Tianjin, China (2): " If we allow Taiwan to become an independent country it is like someone will pull out a part of your body."

Zhiyuan's daughter, Qingqing, who had just celebrated her thirteenth birthday, charmed the audience with a lively and impassioned speech.

Qingqing, Tianjin, China: "My home town is the third largest city in China but most Americans have never heard of it. I have been here 8 months and hope my English is showing improvement. On the Chinese education system: American schools are much easier than Chinese schools. There is much less homework and more time to play. This is the basic thing. But the American school is more creative than in China. In China every teacher gives us a definite answer. You just memorize. You can't use your own brain. This is the part I like about the American education system.

"The Chinese government: communism and democracy: I know Americans hopes that China will become a democratic country, but China was built on communism. In communism the people get together and have built a new country. To change that the country may become upset. I have to say that China is changing now. Our economic system is changing. Even to choose a class president we use votes to select them. We can't use it in the community but we use it in school."

Qingqing voiced some serious concerns about U.S. relations with Taiwan:

"This country gives me a very nice impression, the people and the environment. But a part of Chinese people don't like America. A major problem is about Taiwan. Most Americans don't know too much about it, but it is very important to us. People ask me why we don't allow Taiwan to become an independent country. Long years ago it was a part of China. I have met many people here from Taiwan and their perception is different. I was surprised at first but now I understand it better. Taiwan schools maybe teach the students that Taiwan is an independent country, but our schools say Taiwan is bad. Now I have changed my mind and know that one third of the people from Taiwan think Taiwan is an independent country.

"Americans support Taiwan to be an independent country and many people [in China] are getting angry about this. If we allow Taiwan to become an independent country it is like someone will pull out a part of your body. It is very sad I think. In the Qing dynasty China was very weak. Even then, we said we can give as much gold to other countries as they want but we cannot give any land to them. The land is very meaningful. It is not just the soil.

"The people of my age think America is a good place to improve ourselves. We can learn more from America if we don't forget what we learned in China."

Egypt (1): "You would not like it if someone came here and said we are going to give you something."

The panel closed with presentations from a husband and wife team of trained economists from Egypt, Gouda and Karima. Karima spoke first. Contrary to stereotypes of Egyptian women, she works with the World Bank and teaches economics in Egypt.

Karima, Egypt: "The U.S. is not new for me. Both of us did graduate study in Canada and came frequently to the U.S. This is our third sabbatical here. America is quite known for us.

"Most of you know how America is now perceived in the Middle East. Our friends said to us when they heard we were going to the U.S., there is a big criticism of the U.S. for supporting Israel too much. We came in December before the Iraqi thing had happened. We told our friends that we would go and criticize the U.S. for its policy toward Israel and express our support for the Palestinians.

"Nobody in Egypt supports Saddam Hussein, but we feel that change must come from inside. You would not like it if someone came here and said we are going to give you something. You would not like it. The perception of America in the Arab world, and not just Egypt, is the worst it has reached in many years. We thought they might deny us a visa because of our criticism, but they didn't. I must say that there is a strong attitude toward America as a whole, occupiers of an Arab country, for the layman, although the layman didn't like the Iraqi government. It was one of the worst places to go to work.

"But we see big changes here. Maybe you don't see it because you live here. I am surprised at what I read even from the L.A. times. I want to end by saying that I hope that the road map that has been initiated can lead to something, although there is less confidence now. I think if Bush is sincere to push it and really exercise some control on the Israelis and secure some justice there can be some improvement in the picture of America in the Middle East."

Egypt (2): "From the perspective of watching America for a quarter century I see America going down. The power it exercises today has more to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union that with America's own real fortunes."

Gouda, Egypt: "I don't intend to speak for long but I would like to start out by introducing myself to frame these perceptions. I think of myself as wearing two hats, one is the academician, being a professor at Cairo University, and the other is being a politician in the opposition on the left in Egypt.

"William Fulbright spoke of the arrogance of power and the duty to dissent. We should think deeply about what a man like Fulbright had to say. 'A great nation tends to equate power with virtue.' He wrote this more than 30 years ago and it seems to apply more today than then. Being an Egyptian patriot, not an Americans patriot, my patriotism requires that I speak out.

"These are not monolithic perceptions on either side, Egypt or the U.S. Having said that as a caveat, America has sustained a dramatic change in the perception of Egyptians post September 11, and even more so after the declaration of war on Iraq. Before that time Egyptians generally used to look favorably on the U.S. whether for good or for bad. They looked at Americans through the United Nations in New York, and Washington, DC, with the administration and the World Bank and the IMF. They also saw Americans through the Great Plains, because America supplies Egypt with food aid and sales of commercial food. We also saw America for a long time through California, and in particular Hollywood and through soap operas and films, which colored their view of other races and other places.

"For some Egyptians they still crave Levi pants and other symbols and buy at McDonalds. Egyptians for today don't perceive the United States as a multiracial country. You feel it when you live here. The Egyptians do not perceive how much the religious fundamentalists have taken root in this country. It is not just the [Bush] administration but it is the widespread backing from religious fundamentalists. Egyptians think America is the richest country but when they visit here they are appalled by the extent of poverty that exists here.

"Egyptians used to look up to the American model of capitalism. But with all the things being discovered about Enron and World Com many people are starting to change their mind. I would say that for American citizens they should not fear to visit Egypt. They will be welcomed by the man on the street. There is still a clear distinction between American citizens and Washington DC. Americans citizens are open at times, and as my Hong Kong colleague has said, superficial at times. But from the perspective of watching America for a quarter century I see America going down. The power it exercises today has more to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union that with America's own real fortunes. I just wanted to tell you what my fellow Egyptians think of the United States."

The Fulbright scholars who spoke at the panel had participated in teaching a 10-week undergraduate Fiat Lux seminar class on perceptions of America abroad, organized by Ann Zwicker Kerr. In addition to those who spoke at the panel there had also been scholars from Belgium and Norway who had already left UCLA when the panel was held.


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