I was nervous, and mumbled a vague apology for my slide show before my first presentation. My audience, a classroom full of Danish teenagers, was eagerly awaiting this presentation from me, a visiting American. But the pictures of my life back in Indiana suddenly seemed so, well ... corny.
Corny, indeed. I actually had a slide showing tall stalks of corn growing in a field. That's part of the landscape in Indiana, I had reasoned when I took the picture.
I was in Denmark on an exchange program, living for three months in Aarhus, a city of about a quarter-million, and staying with Danish families while working in a local church and schools. I visited classrooms regularly to talk to students. Since so few American tourists travel beyond Copenhagen, a real-live American was a rarity. I wanted to make a good impression. I wanted them to like me.
But when I began my slide show, my confidence waned. Why didn't I have pictures of spectacular things the New York City skyline, the Grand Canyon, and the White House?
I began clicking quickly through the 50 or so slides that depicted my life in my hometown Columbus, Ind. Click. My house and garden. Click. My son playing with his dog. Click. Folks watching the Fourth of July parade go by. Click. The downtown light display at Christmas time.
Not so! My audience was ecstatic!
"Why, it looks like a nice place to live!" said one of the students with obvious surprise. One boy even apologized to me for all the negative images he had always held of the United States.
In the dozens of times I showed my slides to various classes and groups, I always got the same enthusiastic response. They had already seen all the famous images Disney World, the Statue of Liberty, Michael Jordan, Pamela Anderson, thousands of times before. What they saw in my slides was totally new to them.
The Danish teenagers' impressions of our country garnered through the media were quite skewed. They knew the latest scandals in Washington, hot celebrity gossip out of Hollywood, hip trends from New York, sensationalistic crime reports, and the names of various American professional sports teams.
But my Danish friends knew little about ordinary Americans and their lives. Hearing about my life intrigued them.
Click. The covered bridge that spans the river in our city park.
Click. A farm stand with big orange pumpkins and bright yellow mums.
Click. Neighbor girls building a snowman in winter.
Click. My sons shooting free throws in the backyard.
Click. An outdoor concert on the library plaza.
It genuinely surprised my Danish audiences to see how ordinary, how normal, I was. I took it as a compliment. Their view of Americans was so colored by inane TV sitcoms and trashy talk shows (both imported from the United States), as well as by the reports of violence, crime, and political shenanigans that the news media sensationalize. It's no wonder my Danish audiences were surprised to see me a "normal" person, much like their own friends and family.
No, I told them, I don't own a gun. I'm not grossly overweight. I do not chew gum constantly or wear loud clothing. I don't drive a gas-guzzling automobile or live in a palatial home. I don't swear constantly like a character in a Hollywood movie. I don't come across as arrogant or overbearing. In short, I didn't fit any of the stereotypes they had of Americans.
The Danish teens were eager to talk about things they'd heard and read about: gun violence, racial intolerance, and capital punishment, and how a civilized society could condone them. I could only speak for myself, but it apparently surprised them to hear my middle-of-the-road opinions. Were there other Americans like me?
I assured them there were.
Of course, all this happened before last Sept. 11.
After that event, when Americans began asking in anguish how people of other cultures could hate us so much, I remembered the Danes. They hardly hate us. They are our friends and political allies; they live in a free country with ready access to information. Yet many of their perceptions of America and Americans were cockeyed and unflattering.
I wonder if it's a peculiarly American trait this wanting people to like us. If so, we're doing a poor job of it.
Here's an idea: Let's send planeloads of ordinary Americans to spend several months living among the citizens of other countries, just as I did.
They couldn't do any more harm than an episode of Jerry Springer.