When I came to the U.S. four years ago freshly graduated from high school in China, my mother warned me about a lot of things. Never walk alone on the streets after dark. Make friends with good people who will not drug me. Never argue about politics and religions with Americans.
Of course, my mother has never been to America in her life nor has she ever talked to an American. She is a typical working-class mother who basically brought me up on her own when my father was sailing around the world as a sea man. Throughout the years I lived here in Pueblo, I tried to tell my parents how safe it is – I have never gotten pick pocketed once, and no one broke into my apartment even when I left the balcony window open for two days. Americans seem to be exceptionally friendly and always in a good mood because they are always “doing great.” The sense of security I have living in America, or at least in Pueblo, is something unimaginable in China where we live in a big city with more than 8 million people. However, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t erase the pre-conceived image of America in her head. The fact that she has never been to America drives her imagination wild – gangs, guns, drugs, sex, murders, primitive ways of problem solving. The possibility that one day a gun could be pointed at her daughter’s head terrifies her, and it wouldn’t even be her daughter’s fault. But where did she get all that from?
Growing up, I didn’t specifically remember products at home that were made in the U.S. I came to know America through Hollywood blockbusters, hip-hop music on MTV, first-person video games in which my avatar was white, and the real events that occasionally popped into the news such as the (accidental?) bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kosovo and 9/11.
American popular culture is by far America’s largest export, and the most powerful one. In Chinese politics, the Communist Party likes to call it cultural imperialism, namely rich cultures dominating poor ones. The party accuses the U.S. of using its soft power as a way to erode the masses and replace our own heritage. The threat American culture poses to the Party indeed seems a lot bigger than weapons and fists. It’s trendy. It’s cool. It labels the followers as open-minded and civilized. It’s intangible, but very convincing.
I don’t believe that exporting American pop culture that involves a lot of violence has to be particularly a political scheme, but it may be a business one. Certainly, there are tons of greater American cultural pieces that don’t always spotlight hotties, big muscles or shooting your way out to save the world. But these are the ones that do get most watched. “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” produced by Paramount Pictures and Dream Works, is the seventh in box office world-wide and received 68% of its revenue overseas. “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” was named the most watched TV series world-wide at the Monte Carlo Television Festival last year, as well as five times in the past seven years. It’s not difficult to understand why sex and violence sell when they are the two most primitive drives for human survival. They are instinctive, universal, and way beyond what languages can convey. Audiences world-wide can get a thrill while the U.S. is making its money. The American model of quick success is learned by other countries and American values are penetrating along the way. The movies are not real anyway. So what does it hurt?
The Pew Research Center, based in Washington, D.C., has conducted an annual Global Attitudes Project that surveys worldwide public opinions since 2001. In 2007, the research on America’s image in the world shows that while a large percentage of people continue to admire American music, movies and television, 70% on average consider American ideas and customs spreading in their countries bad. Favorable opinions of the U.S. and Americans had been dropping in the world. Many countries think the U.S. could be a military threat.
After all, culture is not just a symbol of traditional values and customs of a country. It’s also no longer limited to the emblematic forms of high art followed only by elites. When I think of Chinese culture, I no longer think of the aloof things such as paper-cut art pasted on the wall for New Years or a folk song played on traditional instruments, but something more mundane that really defines and reflects what we are both as individuals and as a collective body that lives in that certain environment. There’s not much doubt that people find America’s image confusing while feverishly absorbing American culture. I also wonder, “Where do rappers find inspirations if not from real life? How on earth could those peaceful minds plot those senseless machine gun shootings in films?” Marketing a film or a TV series as based on a true story has been a way overused tactic but, still, very effective. However small a piece of the fabric is true or even close to truth, it makes the film way catchier because it feels real. So how could people differentiate the real America thousands of miles away from the illusion of America that occupies their screens and billboards? How could they not feel fear about it especially when there are two wars and many other U.S. military interventions going on, and mass shootings rampage in schools and malls?
The culture America has been so proud of exporting all over the place speaks for itself, which has made my mother’s worries reasonable. I won’t tell her that she’s wrong, nor do I feel that I’m living in an America she pictured. But sometimes the image of violence does stay with me, which makes me doubt my sense of security. I remember how vigilant I was in China, but yet the society seems way peaceful. Violence exists in every corner of the world, but at least, we are not celebrating it.