I grew up in the shadow of American culture. A strange thing to say for someone from half a world away, from Poland, a country that the average American can’t place on a map the same way I can’t place Nebraska. But, back in the 80s and 90s culture and entertainment used to be chief American exports. My generation grew up playing American games and watching American television.
Watching Looney Tunes, Hanna Barbera, and Cartoon Network, it was easy to believe we were a part of some shared generation of kids worldwide, but then the commercials would start rolling, and we saw toys that only American children would get for their birthday or Christmas. I was lucky enough to have a Gameboy that my parents brought from Germany (where they went to work in the summer because they made more in a month picking cabbage than they did in a year of their white-collar jobs back home).
When you’re a kid, you know what money is, but no one expects you to understand the concept of wealth or inequality. Besides, you don’t think of yourself as poor, not really, not when everyone around you walks up in patched-up second-hand clothes. You’re just like everyone else.
But the contrast between what you see on the TV and in real life has a strange effect on your perception of the world. Take a show like Friends. People and places from that show are as fantastical as the ones in Star Wars, because—for all the life has to offer you—they might as well be from a different planet.
To witness the splendor of New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago from afar or, to be more precise, to view a miniature of it on the small and bulky TV set we’ve had, was something unreal back then. Something that, for a time, trapped me thinking I belonged to a different category of a human being. If the Bundys were poor, what did it make us? Were there really people driving the kinds of cars you only saw pictures of? Were women so beautiful and men so muscular? Maybe they were made from a different kind of clay over there, or chiseled from the rock they brought back from the Moon.
Our brief romance with the Soviet Union taught us never to trust anything they show on TV, but I can’t deny that there was a certain draw to that cleaner, sleeker version of the world.
I know, a glossy cover on a badly edited magazine is all it ever was, but the image of that world haunts me to this day.
The culture I experienced was the remnant of the post-cold-war American supremacy. Since then, the world got richer. Even places like Poland caught up, and Polish parents no longer have to work in fields to buy their kids a Gameboy. America has ceased to impress in more ways than one.
What is it these days, but a country once built by immigrants, now paranoid about its border controls; a nation that once built its prosperity on the back of scientific progress, now rejecting science. Once a leader of world politics, now just a bully.
Not so different from the empty Russian matryoshka, a toy that I know far too well.