Oh say, can you see?

Amy Wu is about to take a group of young students to the US, and wonders how reality will match their media-gleaned perceptions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 2:42am

In less than a week, we will be in Washington and part of the US presidential election brouhaha. "We" includes six members of Generation Y, most of whom have never been to the US, and me. We are headed there as part of a university-sponsored trip to observe the electoral process and how it is covered by the media.

These young people have worked hard to join this trip. They are smart and iPhone savvy. In this age of Facebook and Google, they can access information and Lady Gaga, Captain America and Gossip Girl in a snap. They are psyched for this trip, and have been doing internal jumping jacks and high-fives during our weekly meetings to discuss how we will blog, Facebook, tweet, video and weibo our journey for the student newspaper.

I've seen this kind of excitement in nearly every cross-cultural adventure among newbies to any country. These students romanticise America in a way I romanticise my own homeland when I've been away too long. Maybe years later, when they are older, they will understand that America, however geographically beautiful, however portrayed by Hollywood, has its dark side.

The American fantasy is very much alive in glossy magazines, in film and in music - it permeates the overall image of what America is in the eyes of many.

Here in Hong Kong, Hollywood films are a hit at the box office, and Mark Zuckerberg is living proof to my students that the American dream is very possible. Come up with a smashing idea - or rather, snatch someone else's idea - become a billionaire, and get married. It's a very Disneyesque ending. Has Hong Kong or mainland China churned out a social media 2.0 smash hit yet? No.

"Do you watch The O.C.?" a young woman asks me. "Is California really like that?" I've watched enough Friends, Desperate Housewives and Modern Family to differentiate between entertainment and reality.

The kids want to shop at Banana Republic and Macy's; they want to check out the Humvee-sized shopping carts at supermarkets. They ask me if it's true that most Americans eat pizza and hamburgers for dinner every day ("no" unless every day is Fourth of July). The spark in their eyes burns bright.

So I bite my tongue and keep quiet about the other America: the friends back at home with MBAs and PhDs from top universities struggling to find a job; the Grand Canyon-sized gap between the haves and have-nots as seen through wealthy communities that I've lived in that stand shoulder to shoulder with housing projects; the struggle for Chinese and other minorities to gain clout, status and voice in what remains in many places a white man's world; racism and discrimination between class; the airports, roads and buildings that could be called "quaint" but are really just falling apart; the extreme poverty in rural areas where families struggle to survive on charity. I wonder if the homeless people on the streets will stun them when they look closely at the landscape.

I remain quiet because in the end I hope that they will have an experience that is independent of mine, independent of what is portrayed in pop culture or by gossip. They will observe, and have their own stories to share when they return.

Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator now living in Hong Kong