Once, while traveling in a certain Asian city several years ago, we visited a theme park and made the startling discovery that the “Hope” poster from Obama’s 2008 campaign was evidently deemed worthy of including in the house of horrors.
Oh, pardon me. The kids have intervened to correct my faulty memory: it was in the “Drunk House,” not the haunted house. You know, the Drunk House, that iconic fixture of all theme parks, with its slanted floors and glow-in-the-dark-paint and spinning spiral thingies..?
Yeah, I had never heard of a drunk house, either. Even after experiencing one, and then comparing notes and combining brain powers, my family still struggled to grasp the intended goal. Maybe the point was just to inspire general dizziness and a feeling of surreal weirdness? Not really sure. At any rate, as a U.S. passport holder, to discover that a group of carnival ride designers out there had (we presume) sat down and thought real hard, spent time and money and plenty of glow paint, only to conclude at last that yes, indeed Obama’s image really ought to be a focal point of this drunken-themed installation–well, that just tickled our little funny bones.
While recognizing that back in the U.S. this might seem hilariously appropriate to persons of particular partisan leanings, in actual fact it is probably much more telling of the political context in which it appeared. The country in question has only recently, within the last decade or so, opened up its borders to the likes of us itinerant outsiders. After a long period of political isolation, the still heavy-handed governing body is now at least willing to allow visitors such as ourselves to poke around, photograph and otherwise consume goods and images to take away with us when we leave.
And they ensured that we did leave: upon departure, exit officers meticulously reviewed the details of our digital visas, complete with photographs and in-depth information about where we had been, and for how long. Who knows what other information they had on us.
More than likely, the Drunk House designers’ knowledge of our current political climate and its principal players was not as thorough, however. Considering the extent of media censorship coupled with strict Internet browsing restrictions within the borders of that country, it is not unreasonable to guess that they did not know much about Barack Obama the man, or the president. They probably did not know anything about the Hope poster or its artist, either. My best guess: they saw it somewhere and they liked it. End of story.
To the five of us in my little family, it seemed funny, but also almost irreverent. At least at first. Our proud nation’s freely elected leader, stuck in a “Drunk House”! (Or rather, it was his image that was stuck in the drunk house.) I suspect that sort of outrage is off-base here, though. Not for a second do I believe that the locals set out to intentionally disrespect our country in any way. Like so many things, it is undoubtedly all about perspective.*
From the viewpoint of someone who was of age around a decade ago, that poster is full of meaning. For Americans who were paying attention back in 2008, and even for those in whom it may not inspire swelling feelings of optimism about the future (either because he was never their candidate of choice, or because they were later disappointed), it will likely at least conjure up memories of that moment when an African-American was elected to top office in our country. A historical first for us that will always be in the books as an indication that we can triumph over a sometimes shameful past. So much knowledge of U.S. history and politics is contained in that image, if you know the backdrop.
But what if you don’t? And what does that poster mean to non-Americans who have been cloistered from the outside for several generations?
The truth is, I do not have any way of accessing that information and so I am left with only speculation. Furthermore, I have no idea how the United States, or U.S. citizens such as myself, are perceived by the locals of that country. Or to citizens of any of the other 193 countries of our globe.
As brief visitors in transit to foreign lands we cannot hope to completely understand each other well simply because for that we would need time. Lots of time. We cannot presume, therefore, to draw generalized conclusions about a new place after taking only a short, quick peek. Without a great deal of intentional investment and goodwill on both sides no one is likely to move beyond initial impressions. In fact, the only certainty in this whole collision-of-cultures thing is the same rule as with all First Encounters: that the way we view ourselves is not the way a stranger ever views us, at least on first assessment.
One final anecdote on getting lost in translation: last year just before Halloween we visited Seoul and stopped in to check out the city’s best-known amusement park, Lotte World. My husband and daughter braved the Haunted House and returned chuckling, and not remotely frightened. There had been the usual ghosts and ghouls but some of the “warning signs” were just plain funny. In particular, the threat that read, in English: “I Will Make Meat Pop You!”
That one has gone down in family lore and we reference it often.
I guess my point here is that it just goes to show just how monstrous American Presidents seem to others. Well, meat-wielding ones anyway.
* Besides, it’s not exactly an isolated instance: his face has inspired more than one artist and not a few cartoon caricatures, and his soon-to-be-successor is not being spared, either. Really, it is nothing new, and we were not offended, just confused.