As an American citizen living overseas for the past 4.5 years I always try to be aware of the fact that the impressions that I make upon people will be long lasting and "color" others opinions of foreigners. With this in mind I do my best to be respectful and sensitive to other cultures. I don't always succeed, but I am mindful.
Recently, I watched with utter disbelief and disdain, an interview, that Jesse Watters of Fox News conducted this past September with people attending a UN General Assembly. Mr. Watters uses something called "ambush tactics" in which he rushes at people, shoves a microphone in front of their mouths and starts filming. This catches people, especially, non-native English speakers, off-guard. Watters then asks people nonsensical questions in American vernacular, hoping to embarrass and humiliate those that his right wing, i.e. ultra-conservative boss, Bill O'Reilly, dislikes. In the case of the interview in question, O'Reilly's hate extends to the UN and the ideals that it hopes to stand for.
I've never made a habit of watching Fox News; nor would I given its political perspective. The station is known for its vitriolic hate of President Obama and there is no respect for anything other than a right wing opinion of what America should be. With this as background, this particular interview starts off with Mr. Watters, asking delegates, "Is America a noble nation?" asking a Russian, "do the Russians think that President Putin "hot-dogged" President Obama over Syria? He asks a French TV producer, who obviously has no idea, "what has the UN accomplished recently?" He asks others, "What kind of work do you do? Do you ever just hit the restaurants and just tie one on?" As a native English speaker I really have little idea of what Mr. Watters is talking about.
At 1:28 of the interview Watters meets Sudarshan Subedi, the Chairperson for the National Federation of the Disabled Nepal (NFDN), who has been working with Handicap International for more than a decade, promoting disability rights and policies. The question asked by Mr. Watters is, "What is the cuisine like in Nepal?" Mr. Subedi doesn't appear to know the word cuisine and Watters says food, and laughs, which is only the start of the insults, as if somehow everyone coming to the UN speaks and understands American English. Mr. Subedi next says rice, with Watters continuing to laugh, as the interview is cut off before Mr. Subedi can say the English words to describe Dal Bhaat.
Mr. Watters goes on to ask a Tibetan Lama, "are you trying to stay out of trouble here in New York?" He asks a Russian, "When President Putin takes his shirt off and rides around on horseback, do you find him attractive?" He asks a Dutch representative, "Do you smoke at the UN?" He asks a Romanian, "Are you involved in any diplomatic spats these days?" When asked to translate, Watters says, "Are you guys having beef with other countries? He asks an Albanian, "If I came to Albania what would I do for fun? And then asks Mr. Subedi, "What's fun to do in Nepal?" As Mr. Subedi, doesn't understand the question, Watters only laughs and then asks Mr. Subedi, "Have you found romance in NY, with the ladies?" "You may be striking out, but things will pick up." If Mr. Watters had understood anything about other cultures, other than his own little world in the U.S., he might, have realized how insulting and inappropriate his questions were. But then that is the point for Fox News.
At the end of the interview and back in the studio, Mr. O'Reilly says, "we have to go to Nepal." Mr. Watters laughingly replies, "Oh and you know what they also have, lentil soup and you know what they serve it over, rice," with Mr. O'Reilly now also laughing. Watters indicates that the U.S. pays 1/5 or $300 million of the UN budget and that this primarily goes to the cafeteria. O'Reilly replies if you live in some (unintelligible), you get to come to NY and go to meetings and nothing ever happens. O'Reilly ends by stating, "I love the guy from Nepal, we gotta get Watters World in Nepal."
Unfortunately these were not the only cultural insensitivities that I've recently heard to those living outside of the U.S. Last week I attended a meeting, with various organizations discussing some of their projects in Nepal. One organization was discussing how they were working on "dal bhaat", i.e. trying to get people to have more equal portions of vegetables with their rice. In terms of nutrition this makes sense, but in terms of cultural sensitivities I'm not at all sure.
On both accounts I wonder where this sense of "arrogance," i.e. knowing better comes from. I'm also open to this kind of criticism being a "white" somewhat privileged American volunteering overseas. But I hope through my VSO experience, I'm doing more of realizing it's not about me and the answers that I've got to other people's issues, but it's about asking other people how I can help and what can I do.
There is not much that I can say to O'Reilly and Watters to change their minds, as they do have a following in the heavily divided U.S., a country where the government is currently shut down over the issue of health care for it citizens. Somehow this is not what I pictured for my birth country. But I will continue, on a personal level, to do what I can to show that America is not Fox News, but is more about people that care deeply about how to make the world a better place.
Please show your support for Mr. Subedi, by liking his Facebook page.