Questioning our Assumptions about Media and Culture
Flying back, through India and then on to Newark, I pondered the impact of U.S. popular culture and media on the rest of the world. And yet, arriving in the U.S., waiting in the long line for U.S. citizens to go through immigration, I am struck by the huge diversity of cultures, colors, dress, and appearance that makes up the population of the United States. In Bhutan, nearly everyone I saw and met was Bhutanese; in India, nearly everyone I saw and met was Indian. But here, standing in the line for U.S. citizens, there were people whose heritage was Indian, African, Arabic, Asian, European – maybe even Bhutanese. I started wondering – do we have a common culture here? Or are we just a wonderful collection of cultures and backgrounds and perspectives, unique in the world in our fundamental diversity?
But later sitting in Starbucks at the Newark Airport, watching the long line of almost exclusively white men and women ordering their tall skinny lattes and grande caramel macchiatos from a counter staff made up entirely of young African American men and women, I am not so sure. Is our diversity merely divided into separate clusters and cultural experiences? To what extent do our media and popular culture experiences unite us with a common connection and experience?
I have one final story about an experience that has left a lasting impression on me. In India – unlike Bhutan – I was repeatedly approached by people of different ages and in different settings to buy something from them or pay for their services (go in their taxi, get a henna tattoo, etc.). I had planned to spend Sunday afternoon just walking around in a relatively safe area of New Delhi to see the India Gate, some parks, and craft areas. A very persuasive taxi driver talked me into letting him drive me (in his tiny 3-wheeled mini-cab) to a craft bazaar, and was waiting for me when I came out an hour later. He drove me to India Gate, where I insisted that I wanted to walk from then on – but arranged for him to pick me up at 6:15 to drive me to the airport (in what he said would be an actual taxicab). I had read plenty of warnings about being careful not to get distracted, to pay attention to my belongings, and not to be conned into overspending for services – and my experiences with people constantly approaching me this started to get in the way of my enjoyment of the day.
I found myself becoming frustrated and annoyed, and growing increasingly suspicious of anyone who approached me. I worried that the taxi driver actually didn’t have a taxicab, or he wouldn’t take me to the airport but elsewhere, etc. I was relieved when he took me to a cab, but concerned when I found out it was going to be another man driving it. Then on our way to the airport we were stopped at a red light, and a man and his children started moving through the cars with flowers to sell. One girl – about 8 years old – came up to my window, and pounded on it, talking in Hindi and pointing to the ground. I kept shaking my head no – I was not interested – when she moved around the car to talk with the driver. He then said something to me in Hindi, and I kept shaking my head, frustrated. Finally he reached back and opened my door – showing me that my long skirt had been hanging out of the door, and that was what the girl was trying to tell me. I felt so embarrassed and guilty – this little girl was just trying to help me out, and I had already made up my mind about her and shut her out. The light turned green and we sped off before I had a chance to thank her. But the incident stayed with me for the rest of my trip.
Now, back in my own home with my wonderful daughter and granddaughter, I wonder: to what extent do our experiences – both personal and mediated ones – affect our assumptions about and openness to people around us? And in our practice of media literacy, how do we balance our critical thinking and skepticism with a genuine openness to new experiences and appreciation for others?
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