business

Old Glory in a Distant Prism

Viewing the world through a red-white-and-blue lens, as Americans do, obscures the fact that others often see the U.S. in a less flattering light

By Lisa Bergson

"I wanted to wear my Stars and Stripes tie, but Kelly talked me out of it," Tom Mallon, my hulking executive vice-president for sales, tells me as we set up our booth at the Semicon Europa Show in Munich last week. I imagine his tiny wife admonishing him.

"That's good. You might not have been so comfortable with the reaction," I reply, thinking about Tom's negative response to my own pronounced misgivings about the war in Iraq. He shrugs.

TRAGEDY AND TIRADES.

  As our government becomes increasingly assertive in the world, Americans abroad are finding themselves increasingly placed as their country's unofficial diplomats. This fact was brought home to me on the first day of my first trip to South Korea, shortly before the war in Iraq began.

I was happily seated cross-legged on a heated restaurant floor across the table from a young engineer who has spent well over $250,000 on my company's latest technology. Chopsticks poised to sample a variety of pickled kimchee, I am suddenly ambushed by a tirade about our military's responsibility for the deaths of two 14-year-old girls. "They were walking home from school when a U.S. tank hit them," my customer said, with a dark scowl.

"That's awful. I'm sorry," I say, wishing I had heard about the tragedy. (Why don't I read the paper more closely? Why didn't my husband, the news junkie, warn me that this was going on?) Now, our host, my independent sales representative, piles on, berating me: "There was no apology. Nothing."

"Well, I apologize," I proclaim. "Those poor girls and their families!" It doesn't help. My young customer, who just paid for two of our perfectly functioning and promptly delivered systems, looks even angrier.

"There was no punishment. The U.S. government tried them and found them not guilty. What do you expect when the Army tries its own? Now they are home having a good life," he rails, bitter as brine.

WORLDS APART.

  After lunch, my sullen companions and I pile back into my rep's roomy SUV. Mindful of the 13-hour difference, I call my husband. (In Korea, as in China, public cell phone use is ubiquitous over meals, in cars, during meetings. Knowing that everyone can hear me, I go for maximum effect.)

"I've got a geopolitical situation here," I say, depicting the tragedy in the strongest possible terms. Experience has convinced me that some foreigners view Americans as uncaring, happy-go-lucky oafs. It takes extra effort to dispel this image. Calm as ever, my husband replies, "It was a while ago. There were big demonstrations. But I didn't think…."

"Apparently, we didn't even apologize!"

"We did apologize. But it took a while," my husband corrects.

"Yeah, but we should have apologized right away and sent someone high-level to the funerals. Mrs. Bush or Colin Powell," I retort. I can tell the Koreans appreciate the transpacific telephonic by-play between American husband and wife. My rep chuckles and elbows the customer, "Listen to them argue." The tension eases.

Two weeks later and half a world away, my retelling of the tank tale sparks a debate over dinner with three German business associates in Munich. The notion of collective guilt doesn't sit well with this crowd. "Why should you apologize? The army didn't deliberately run over the girls. You have no need to be sorry," asserts the president of a local sensor company.

DON'T MENTION THE WAR.

  He continues, "When I travel to the U.S., sometimes people say, 'Hey, Hitler did a great job,' and I hate that. Just because I am German doesn't mean I am for Hitler." His brown eyes shine with childlike innocence.

"But you can be sorry about something without assuming responsibility," I counter. "That was one of Clinton's strengths. He had empathy. He knew when to apologize."

"That's because he got plenty of practice at home," Tom quips, and we all laugh.

Still, for Americans abroad, the issue of personal responsibility is one we cannot avoid. In the window of our Princeton townhouse, I taped a protest sign that reads, "Not in My Name." But, outside the U.S., such distinctions are lost. These days, whether you don a flag tie or a peace symbol doesn't matter. Like it or not, we are all accountable.

Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at lbergson@meeco.com

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