“So where is Bulgaria again?”

20 12 2010

Every time I come stateside it amazes me how little Americans know or care about what goes on in the rest of the world. For many, geography beyond the next state line is quite simply non-existent. The U.S. is the planet’s 800-pound (political, diplomatic, economic and military) gorilla, and regular folks seem comfortable in their ignorance.

My earliest confrontation with this was when I was a kid and had just returned to New Jersey from Asia with my family. A new school friend asked me where I had moved from. “Singapore,” I said. She asked back: “Is that somewhere in Pennsylvania?” Uh, no, it’s not.

New perspectives on the world

Over the years, following 9/11 and all those wars that Americans fought overseas, I would have thought the concern with people, places and issues abroad might have increased. In the past decade, millions of American military families have had to tolerate their loved ones’ long deployments in dangerous places up to 12 time zones away.

But sadly, even though the world has shrunk to the size of a laptop, geography still seems far from many Americans’ priority lists. And even though their ancestors pretty much all came from somewhere else – creating the social fabric that is today’s United States of America. 

One of the security guards at our condo building is Alex from Bulgaria. He is one of the nicest people I have ever met and somehow I just can’t imagine him ever pulling a gun if he had to defend the building from armed thieves. Admittedly, my own knowledge of Bulgaria is limited, but at least I can identify it on a map and tell you the name of its capital. (Sofia.)

The other day, I overheard Alex speaking to one of our neighbors.

“So where is Bulgaria again?” she asked Alex.

“Well, it’s in Europe,” he answered patiently.

“Yeah, but where in Europe?”

“Ummm, kind of in the middle… East of Serbia, North of Greece, South of Romania.”

I’m not sure these quite accurate geographic coordinates helped her much. The puzzled look on her face when she wished Alex a good night seemed more complex than before.

The next morning at the bank I picked this up at the window next to me. A middle-aged customer said to the teller: “I’ve never had a passport, you know. I used to be able to go to the islands without one but now you need one. That’s ridiculous! Isn’t that ridiculous? I’ve never needed a passport! I think it’s a nuisance. I don’t even know where I could get one.”

Lady, a whole lot of people want one of these. Too bad you are not one of them.

Speaking as someone who has owned a passport since she was five, I’m just wondering what it’s going to take to make Americans realize that they are not living at the center of the universe.