Help me out, would you? What I'd like you to do is go to some high, clear place. A place from which you can see all of American society and all of the "foreign" influences on our culture. A place from which you can see what comes in and what goes out, and what it does to us while it's here. Then come back and tell me if I'm right.
For instance, what is it about China that has the biggest impact on our daily lives? Is it the accumulated weight of their medical wisdom, Panda bears, the hordes of immigrant Chinese peasants who came here and built the American West, Marco Polo and the Silk Road, two thousand years of invasion and warfare, cheap labor to fill Wal-Mart's shelves, Mao's Little Red Book ... all this and a multitude of strings we can't even see? Or am I digging too deep? Could China's biggest impact on our daily lives simply be Jackie Chan's last movie?
Or how about Italy? What has transformed us more Italian-wise: the Renaissance, opera, the Mafia, Michelangelo, the notion of multiple political parties, the Rome of Julius Caesar, the Rome of John Paul ... pasta? Or is it enough that they sent us Sophia Loren?
And the Mexicans ... can we Americans decide how far their impact on our world goes, then just turn it off like a spigot when we feel we've had enough?
I bring this up because my kid and I had a horrible fight recently, and I'm trying to get it straight in my head whether I was right or not. (This is something I've discovered about teenagers: When they're committed to not letting you win an argument they can make a grown man question everything he's ever learned, everything he's ever believed and everything that comes out of his mouth during the discussion. But it's possible I'm telling you something you already know.)
Anyway, it started innocently enough with my daughter--who was on the Internet at the time--announcing the printer was out of ink and that I had to get some more by the next day or she would fail her big school project.
"What's the class?"
"Global Perspectives, Dad. And we have to put together a collage of pictures of items from Asian countries that are part of our daily lives. See? That's what I need the ink for."
"So do the pictures have to be off the Internet? Ink costs $35 or so and besides, I'm not going anywhere tomorrow that sells the stuff."
"Da-yud! I have it all planned out. I'm getting pictures of a Ninendo Game Boy, Yao Ming, a Subaru, some stuffed toy animals and Jackie Chan. Where am I going to get a picture of Jackie Chan except on the Internet?"
"Now calm down, Hon. How's about this ... you go through our old National Geographics and cut out pictures of Asian places and people. Your teacher would be pleased, I'm sure. And it'll save me 35 bucks to boot."
"DAD! Listen to me! It's about things that are part of our daily lives. Not plain old places and plain old people. Don't make this more complicated!"
"Stop yelling at me, sweetheart. And besides, you've never had a Game Boy, we don't drive a Subaru, you don't watch Yao ... or anyone else ... play basketball, so how're those things any more part of your daily life than places and people?"
"DO YOU WANT ME TO GET AN 'F'!?"
It all pretty much went downhill from there. My kid has a low stress threshold over her school assignments, and I have a low stress threshold over spending money. It makes for an uneasy mix.
But I was determined to prove to her that pictures from old National Geographics represented influences on American society. Out of the first six magazines I dug up, I found pictures of the temple at Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, downtown Tokyo, a clear-cut rain forest in Malaysia, and a production line of hardworking Asian people gutting some kind of fish. "See?" I said.
"See what?" She pointed derisively to the Taj Mahal. "I don't even know what that is."
"That's the Taj Mahal, for God's sakes! Don't tell me the Taj Mahal hasn't had an influence on America!"
Of course, she then demanded that I explain precisely how the Taj Mahal affects her daily life, and that's where the going got tough. Sputter and spume as I might, I couldn't come up with even one concrete example of where the Taj Mahal has altered the daily life of a single American.
Not to say I was wrong. As I tried to tell my daughter (through all the sputtering and spuming that was going on), just because we can't see the influence doesn't mean it's not there. Had she stopped stressing long enough for me to complete a complex thought, I might have explained my entire theory of how national borders are perhaps the most ineffectual contrivances mankind has ever come up with to keep ethnic identities and ideas and organic societies separate from one another. As just one example, I might have explained how the Great Wall of China, in diametrical opposition to its intended purpose of keeping foreigners and their influence out, was by its very concept and construction one of the myriad cultural landmarks that made China and all things Chinese an inescapable part of the world's consciousness, and therefore, a part of our daily lives even here in little old Meridian, Idaho. I might have explained that the Taj Mahal--even without knowing what it is or what it is there for--is nevertheless a permanent synapse in the universal psyche, and that those humble fish-gutters are akin to that theoretical butterfly half a world away which by merely flapping its delicate wings, sets in motion a snowstorm over Kansas or a hurricane in Florida.
I meant to further demonstrate how futile it is for Americans to try to isolate themselves from all this cross-cultural interconnecting, and that when they try--for instance, by coming up with more draconian immigration laws or "English Only" statutes--they are attempting to protect some vision of purity that was never there to begin with. I further might have argued that her school class, itself, is misnamed--that instead of "Global Perspectives," it should be called "Global Inevitability."
But she didn't let me get that far. (She's half Latina, you know, and her hotheaded nature comes from the other side of the family, I'm almost sure of it.) "Dad, my teacher wants a one-sentence caption explaining each picture. Now how do you expect a 15-year-old to cut this crap down to one sentence? Huh? How?"
First thing the next morning, I went out and bought that printer ink she needed. Cost me 35 bucks, yeah, but it was a bargain in the long run.