Thuppal: TV show glosses rigors of assimilation

By Hay Thuppal

I’m generally a big fan of the Travel Channel. It offers an intriguing mix of beautiful… I’m generally a big fan of the Travel Channel. It offers an intriguing mix of beautiful landscapes, outrageous hotels and the occasional clip of someone eating an animal testicle. But I recently caught an episode of the network’s newest venture called “Meet the Natives: USA” and was slightly perturbed.

The show is based off a similar program that appeared on British television during 2007. It features five men from the South Pacific island of Tanna who were brought to the United States for an experiment in what some are calling reverse anthropology.

It has often been Western anthropologists who explore cultures by living like the people they study. This attempt at a role reversal has the ambassadors of Tanna encounter the broad spectrum of American culture. In the five-part series, the tribesmen have been introduced to ranchers in Montana, WASPs in New York, and nuclear families in the Midwest.

Along the way, they have some funny, heartwarming and confusing encounters. The men are astounded by their first glimpse of snow in Montana and marvel at the opulence of supermarkets.

Using the observations of these visitors, the producers of the show hope to “force us to look at ourselves through brand-new eyes,” according to

It would seem that the observations the Tanna tribesmen make during their travels are meant to illuminate the shortcomings of American society. By exposing us to our unquestioned fast-paced lives, the show hopes to examine why we put so much emphasis on ironing our shirts or why we sometimes value our pets more than our fellow citizens.

I guess you could call it a classier version of “Borat.”

But despite these admirable ambitions, “Meet the Natives” portrays an idealized version of how these men interact with their new surroundings. Some viewers might understand their experiences as typical of newcomers to the U.S., but such an impression would be inaccurate.

From the onset, the men are allowed to question and criticize the new world in which they’ve arrived. They can ask a farmer why he needs so many cows and they can tell a woman that her methods of cooking are unhealthy, all without repercussion. Their thoughts probably reflect how many people feel as they enter this country, but their ability to scrutinize Americans overlooks many realities that foreigners must face daily.

This distillation belittles what many immigrants experience when they arrive in this country.

My family came to the U.S. from India in 1995 and we observed many of the same things that the Tanna natives did. Our first sight of snow was just as exciting and our acclimation to American grocery stores proved to be just as confusing.

We came here before the Internet gave people from around the world access to other cultures and languages. Like the men from “Meet the Natives,” we sometimes felt like we were on another planet, surrounded by people who acted, spoke and dressed differently.

My initial exposure to America and its people was also filled with many ugly encounters. Meeting the natives of this country can be filled with hardships that no one would want to see on television.

For me, being an immigrant meant that I skipped lunch regularly because the other kids in the cafeteria made fun of the food I brought from home. As for my parents, it meant that they had to reaffirm their place as functioning members of society by learning a new language.

While the U.S. did afford us time to adjust, we had to do so unquestioningly. Even when my family and I were made to feel unwelcome and totally out of place in America, we kept quiet because there was no television audience backing us up.

The Travel Channel’s show was likely not intentionally oversimplified, but it needs to be approached with the understanding that the Tanna tribesman have the privilege of so overtly and freely asking questions and expressing their own beliefs — a privilege that most newcomers do not have.

Still, “Meet the Natives” has potential. Because this country has so much wealth and power, we’re often inclined to see our lifestyle as superior. Anything, even if it’s a TV show, that could better attune us to different cultures and lifestyles and positively affect us is worth our attention. At any rate, it’s better than watching the mindless, superficial programs so rampant on TV today.

E-mail Hay at [email protected]