A Second Look at Cultural Imperialism

This weekend, I went to Chinatown to buy peanut butter.

I’m still not entirely sure how it happened. It is a well-known fact among American travelers in Buenos Aires that while meat, gelato, dulce de leche, and other staples are more plentiful than the dog droppings on the sidewalk (and infinitely more appealing), peanut butter is nowhere to be found.

With a stubbornly gringo craving, I set out Sunday afternoon to find the elusive pasta de maní. I walked a pathetic number of blocks to the closest dietética, or health food store. But Vitalcer, Google Maps’ choice gastronomical link to the Western World of Nutty Spreads, was closed. Unfazed, and somehow hungrier, I ventured into the Coto five blocks farther down Avenida Cabildo. (Coto is basically the CVS of Buenos Aires, with more security guards and a better produce selection—hence the hope for peanut butter.)

I approached the nearest clerk. “¿Tenés pasta de maní?” He looked at me as if I had sparklers shooting out of my head. A snort later, I was walking out of Coto with empty hands and a grumbling stomach. When I asked my host mom why no store had peanut butter, she blinked and answered flatly, “Nadie lo compra.” No one buys it.

Hence my Sunday afternoon journey to Chinatown, el Barrio Chino, where, apparently, Chinese Argentines and hungry gringos do, in fact, buy peanut butter.

Chinatown is a misnomer for what awaited me eight blocks from the Juramento Subte station. Perhaps something like “Americanized, Spanish-speaking, Asian-themed Mélange” would be more appropriate, though I doubt it would fit on the red and green arch that seems to front every Chinatown.

Argentines milled along the street, rattling in rapid castellano under glittering Mandarin signs. The air was heavy with noise and fried food. Po from Kung Fu Panda was painted on a tree by the street. Spider-Man and Iron Man plushies hung in Asia Oriental gift shops. While I was admiring the Spanish-labeled sushi, Casa China played two consecutive Ke$ha songs. Jedi Master Yoda, doodled on a café chalkboard with squinty eyes and red-circled cheeks, advertised coffee in backwards Spanish rhymes—¡Si un buen día tener quieres, un buen café beber debes! My head was spinning when I finally walked out of Tina & Company with a jar of pasta de maní.

As I munched celery and peanut butter in a park nearby, I felt embarrassed by what I had seen. Kung Fu Panda, the Avengers, Ke$ha, Star Wars—all these American icons were loudly leaking from the United States to commercialize and contaminate an otherwise authentic cultural experience. Where were the stuffed Argentine heroes? The doodles from Chinese sci-fi films? The tango playing over speakers, the Oriental and South American stories on display? America—the peanut butter-craving expatriate concluded—was a modern imperialist, the world’s cultural bully.

But reflecting on a full stomach, I’m not so sure that’s the case.

In the words of U2 singer and humanitarian activist Bono, “America is an idea—and that idea is bound up in justice and equality for all.” We don’t call it imperialism when other nations imitate this idea politically, even when such imitation replaces indigenous, “authentic” ideas with distinctly Western ones. On the contrary, we celebrate Argentina’s transition from military regime to republic. These governments aren’t “Americanized” or even “Westernized”; they’re simply “just” and “free.” Why, then, do we feel compelled to condemn the spread of American pop culture as a form of imperialism?

Maybe Barrio Chino thinks of America the way Bono does. Maybe it’s not the “American-ness” of Ke$ha, Kung Fu Panda, the Avengers, or Star Wars that makes these icons so appealing. Maybe it’s the ideas behind them.

These stories and songs give us ideals, an almost modern world of forms where we always wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy, fight injustice, battle aliens, rescue the princess, and save the galaxy. These stories are universalized because they are universal. Their transmission of hope, courage, adventure, fraternity, and fun transcends any one culture or nation. They appeal to us all—not as Americans, Argentines, or Chinese—but simply as human beings.

Maybe the real takeaway from Barrio Chino is that America’s ideas are bigger than America itself. Maybe the vendors and fans of these commercialized icons aren’t victims of cultural imperialism, but active participants in the transcendent ideals that those icons represent. Maybe we should stop feeling ashamed of American culture’s tendency to universalize, and start feeling excited at its power to unify.

And besides, I doubt a day will come when U.S. culture reaches every corner of the world. Argentina may like America’s superheroes, sci-fi, and universal human stories, but Buenos Aires still doesn’t like America’s peanut butter. I had to go to Barrio Chino for that.

Lauren D. Spohn ’20 is a Crimson editorial editor in Currier House.

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