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America: From the Outside, Looking In

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It is extraordinary how confident and articulate Americans are. I cannot recall ever meeting one who was at a loss for words or who gave the impression of being shy. They must all be educated from an early age in the arts of social intercourse and self-projection. One is struck by this, watching the witnesses who appear before Congress.... Most British people, I imagine, would find this absolutely terrifying, but Americans seem to take it in their stride. Even those who have never been called upon to speak in public on television look as if they have undergone special media training.

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Londoner Jane Walmsley on American obsessions:

Ironically, Yanks - with most of life's basic necessities under wraps - are the world's greatest malcontents. They seek perfection, and cannot rest until they've made the best of a bad job. Every bad job. When it comes to themselves and their personal prospects, no effort is too great, no correction or refinement too insignificant, no orthodontist too expensive.

Hungarian composer S'andor Balasse:

The cultural kitsch emanating from your country has colonized the youth of mine. The generation of the 12-22 year olds, brought up on cartoons and dum dum music, have relinquished their own culture and individuality. Their thinking and conduct are like those of metropolitan mobs in the United States. That manipulated, shallow rabble is incapable of taking its destiny in its hands. They can, however, be motivated to regard consumption and entertainment as the goals of their lives.

Spanish film director Pedtro Almodovar:

I knew that even in America life is different from the movies, yet though I was formed by the pop culture in the sixties, I wasn't aware of how it had installed itself in life here. Yes, Los Angeles is littered with bad taste, but I'm not afraid of bad taste. I am excited by it!

A Hungarian woman living in L.A.:

I can recall the exact moment when I suddenly knew I had become an American. We had been living for four years here. Then one day I sent my son to a nearby market for several items, and he returned with a package of green toilet paper. ``Freddy,'' I said impatiently, ``you march right back to the store and exchange this green toilet paper for the pink. You know it doesn't match the tile color of our bathroom!!!!''

British journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse on New York City:

All human life is here these days, not there or anywhere else in the Western world: which means that New York can be disgusting, frightening, maddening, cruel. It also means that New York can be uplifting, exciting, enchanting, warm.

British actor and author Peter Ustinov:

In America they interpret American democracy as the inalienable right to sit on your own front-porch in your pajamas drinking a can of beer and shouting out, ``Where else is this possible?'' Which doesn't seem to be freedom, really, so much as license.

Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff:

When my parents and I came to New York, getting a nice, large apartment was a big priority.... The problem I ran into was that I couldn't speak any English, and to make matters worse, I didn't realize that most of the apartment managers in New York City speak only Spanish. There I was, trying to ask if there were any apartments available, and all they kept answering was, ``No comprende! No comprende!'' Finally, I figured out that no comprende must be the English words for ``no apartment.'' So at the next building I went to I said, ``Comprende?'' and the manager said, ``We don't rent to Puerto Ricans.''

A British minister in a letter to ``Dear Abby'':

I like my ministry and I love Americans. But one of the biggest culture shocks I've had to face in your country is the phenomenon of hugging.

Total strangers rush up and grab me as though I were a long-lost relative! Otherwise charming women will clasp me, impaling my cheeks on their flyaway diamond earrings. Even more alarming are the burly males who grip me in a bear hug from which there is no escape.

Abby, I am not a cold person, but such trespass bespeaks a false intimacy. As I had to put it to one clinging vine, ``Madam, a handshake will do.''

French actor Yves Montand:

You want to criticize America? Bien. America is not perfect. But be careful when you criticize America's political institutions. They are the safeguard of freedom on this planet. In our world without America there would be no France!

The above excerpts are from ``AMERICANS: THE VIEW FROM ABROAD'' by James C. Simmons. They are reprinted by permission of Harmony Books, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc. Copyright 1990 by James C. Simmons.