American Things You Didn’t Know Were Popular Abroad
According to a report from the Levin Institute, the United States is the world's largest producer and exporter of pop-culture goods. Through movies, music, food and television, the American way of life continues to cross international borders, causing some to wonder whether or not the globalization phenomenon will ultimately result in an Americanization of the world. But what if instead, it helps bring the world together?
Imagine traveling to Thailand and sharing a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts with people you've never met before, or striking up a conversation with a Parisian while visiting Paris, only to discover you share an affinity for the 1960s comic Jerry Lewis. And what if while in Senegal, you realize the easiest way to communicate with locals is through a few rounds of Scrabble?
Yes, elements of American culture are becoming increasingly popular abroad, but the phenomenon doesn't need to be a cause for concern if what we share with the world is used to facilitate genuine connection.
This guide includes everything you need to know about the American people, places and things that have been embraced abroad. Who knows, something you discover here could be the exact conversation-starter you'll need on your next adventure.
Scrabble in Senegal
When Alfred Butts, an architect from Poughkeepsie, New York, invented Scrabble in the 1930s, he had no way of forecasting the impact the deceptively simple game would have on the West African country of Senegal.
Over the years, the game has been elevated from a tool used in Senegalese schools to build students' language and vocabulary skills to a nationally valued sport on par with soccer.
Despite the country's 50 percent literacy rate, in 2000 Senegalese Scrabble-devotees Arona Gaye and Ndongo Sylla became the first Africans to score a world title at the Francophone World Scrabble Championship. Their success turned the duo into instant celebrities and established Senegal's international reputation as a hotbed for some of the world's best players.
During the 2008 Francophone World Championship, held in Senegal's capital of Dakar, Patrice Jeanneret, the Swiss president of the Fédération Internationale de Scrabble Francophone, told “Time Magazine,” "Scrabble here is not a game at all, it's a major sport." And when asked why the Senegalese outplay many of their international competitors, Jeanneret added, "The Senegalese are simply more motivated."
‘The Simpsons’ in Argentina
“The Simpsons” first appeared on Telefé, an Argentinian TV channel, in the 1990s. And much like in the U.S., the public eagerly welcomed the flawed yet lovable Simpson family into their homes.
As the show's ratings soared, executives at Telefé decided to run five-hour marathons of the show every weekend. When these marathons were abruptly canceled, fans across Argentina took to Facebook and flooded the channel's page with Simpsons-inspired memes until the decision was reversed.
When asked by “TheBubble,” a Latin American-focused news outlet, why Argentinians remain hopelessly devoted to “The Simpsons,” one fan simply shared, "They are us."
In addition to permeating the hearts and minds of the people, “The Simpsons” has had a significant impact on Argentinian culture and politics. In 2018, Ferro de General Pico, an Argentinian football team, added an image of Homer Simpson to their goal keeper's jersey. And in a congressional election several years ago, voters cast ballots for a Homer Simpson from the Donuts and Beer Party.
The show is popular in many countries, of course, but no nation has embraced it with the fervor of Argentina.
Comic Books in the Middle East
Comics have been around in some form or another since the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until the debut of Superman in the U.S. in 1938 that they really entered the public consciousness. The most influential figure in the industry, the late Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, helped comic books become wildly popular — and it wasn’t just America that embraced his vision. Lee also introduced the Middle East to the colorful world of comics, inspiring many of its people to dream up heroes, burqa-clad heroines and villains of their very own.
Beginning in the late 1970s and 1980s, a Lebanese initiative called Behind the Universe started translating Marvel comics into Arabic. But it wasn’t until 2006 that comic-book popularity in the region really soared, thanks to the debut of the Marvel-inspired comic-book series "The 99." Created by Kuwaiti academic Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, it aimed to defy stereotypes by presenting Middle Eastern heroes with powers based on the Qu'ran's 99 Virtues of Allah, like strength, courage and wisdom.
In 2012, the United Arab Emirates hosted the Middle East's first comic-con in Dubai. And in 2017, Saudi Arabia followed with Saudi Comic-Con held in the city of Jeddah.
Since the 1970s, the Middle East's love of comic books has continued to grow and evolve, and it doesn't seem like it'll slow down any time soon.
7-Eleven in Taiwan
Born in Texas in the late 1920s, 7-Eleven started out as the Southland Ice Company in Dallas and only sold ice blocks to households without refrigerators. Twenty years later, after the Great Depression and the end of Prohibition, the ice-block shops became 7- Elevens, convenience stores open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. selling food, drinks, beer and alcohol.
After exploding in popularity in North America, in the late 1980s 7-Eleven landed on the shores of Taiwan, eventually becoming a staple in the country’s communities. "Convenience stores function as a community entrance," Yen-Fen Tseng, a professor of sociology at National Taiwan University, told “The Wall Street Journal.” "They are comparable to the village temple in days of yore."
Today in Taiwan, in addition to convenient and quick food, 7-Eleven offers an eclectic array of services including "dry cleaning, train and concert ticket reservations, traffic fine and utility payment, hot sit-down meals, mail drop-off and book pickup," as well as refrigerator delivery.
Interestingly, 7-Eleven is so beloved by the people of Taiwan that locals have fully embraced the chain's mascot, an alien dog named Open-Chan who hails from the planet Open. In addition to Open-Chan theme parks and shopping malls, the rainbow-clad dog has starred in his own musical, "The Great Adventure of the Magical Planet."
Donald Duck in Sweden
Christmas Eve in Sweden would not be complete without a visit from Donald Duck and his many friends. Since 1959, Sweden's public-television station TV1 has aired the Walt Disney special “Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul” or “Kalle Anka” for short, which translates in English to mean "Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas."
Beginning at 3 p.m., families gather at home around their television sets to watch the special, hosted by Jiminy Cricket and featuring a string of Disney cartoons from the 1930s to the 1960s. For one hour, the entirety of Sweden remains glued to their TVs in honor of the decades-long tradition. As one “Kalle Anka” watcher told “Slate,” "You do not tape or DVR ‘Kalle Anka’ for later viewing. You do not eat or prepare dinner while watching ‘Kalle Anka.’ Age does not matter—every member of the family is expected to sit quietly together and watch."
Although the Swedes take “Kalle Anka” seriously, many admit it’s the opportunity to enjoy dedicated family time that matters most.
Spam in South Korea
Whether it's pan-fried, nestled on a bed of rice, wrapped in seaweed or floating in a steamy bowl of budae jjigae Korean stew, Spam — the American-born, love-it-or-hate-it block of processed pork meat — is king in South Korea.
After the Korean War in the 1950s, the peninsula entered a difficult period of recovery that was marked by significant poverty and food shortages. Desperate to eat, many South Koreans discovered Spam while scavenging for food in American military dumpsters. As the meat grew in popularity, Koreans began smuggling cans of Spam from U.S. Army rations stored on nearby bases.
Today, Spam has remained a staple in the stomachs and pantries of the South Korean people. Considered a luxury item, decorative gift boxes of Spam are exchanged as gifts on important holidays such as Lunar New Year and Chuseok, the fall harvest celebration.
The Wild West in Germany
Author Karl May is credited with triggering Germany's long-held fascination with the American Wild West. Before he passed in 1912, May wrote a series of best-selling fantasy novels featuring the Apache chief Winnetou, who journeyed across the West with his companion Old Shatterhand, a German immigrant and explorer. Through May's fictional world, Germans could escape the dark realities of war and enter the endless expanse of the American West. Today, their fascination with this era of American history endures.
Every year, thousands of Wild West devotees flock to the Karl May Festival held in Bad Segeberg, Germany. Visitors spend their time trolling through a replica Native American village complete with a General Store, Barber Shop, Sheriff's Office and Saloon. The main attraction is an open-air theater where, against the backdrop of gun fights and wild horses, visitors watch Karl May's beloved characters Winnetou and Old Shatterhand come to life.
Jerry Lewis in France
Some Americans remember Jerry Lewis as a purveyor of slapstick, low-brow comedy who spent the twilight years of his career hosting an annual Labor Day telethon. But in France, the late actor, director and producer is considered a comic icon and innovator whose work in film is often compared to that of the venerable Jean-Luc Godard — the father of France's New Wave film movement of the 1960s.
Before he passed in August of 2017 at the age of 91, France inducted Lewis into the Legion of Honor, where he was gifted the title of Legion Commander, the country's highest award for merit.
Artistic prowess and prestigious awards aside, the French loved Lewis for his quirky sense of humor. After his death, France's culture minister Françoise Nyssenwhen explained to the “New York Times,” "Jerry Lewis made us laugh, he made us happy. France, which was the country of his heart and of his success, will always dearly remember his voice, his silhouette and his humor.”
‘Santa Barbara’ Soap Opera in Russia
The crumbling of the Soviet Union and its republics, on December 25, 1991, thrust the once mighty region into a period of political upheaval and poverty, making the necessities that once sustained everyday life seem like far-off luxuries. "We worried about locating soap and toilet paper in empty government stores," Sophia Moskalenko, a psychologist and writer born in Soviet Ukraine, Kiev, tells “Far & Wide.” "When we didn't, we used baking soda and vinegar to wash, and old newspapers to wipe."
During the day, people faced a cold and grim reality, but at night, through their television sets, millions across the Russian Federation escaped to Santa Barbara, California, where Moskalenko recalls, "The people were all gorgeous, and the sun was always shining, and everyone was dressed in clothes we could only dream about."
“Santa Barbara,” the first American soap opera to air on Russian television, made its debut in 1992 and, until ending in 2002, became what “Foreign Policy” described as “a national obsession of borderline-insane magnitude.”
More than an infatuation, for many the soap opera offered a glimpse into a life of freedom and prosperity that stood in stark contrast to post-Soviet Russia. "We couldn’t fathom a reality like that," Moskalenko shares. "Watching ‘Santa Barbara’ was not that much different for us than watching ‘Star Wars.’”
Today, nostalgia for the show is very much alive, and it’s not hard to find locals who will wax poetic about the show that, for a time, captivated a nation.
Lionel Richie in the Middle East
Lionel Richie, one of America's pop-music legends, has scored a plethora of number one hits, won four Grammys, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and has collaborated with everyone from Michael Jackson to Diana Ross to country-music star Tim McGraw. However, of all his accomplishments, Richie is most proud of the success his music has seen in the Middle East.
From Iran to Iraq and across the Mediterranean Sea to Africa, people of the Arab world adore Lionel Richie, and many of his fans, even those who don't speak English, can faithfully recite every word of his songs. In 2003, as U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad, Iraqis played Richie's "All Night Long" on full blast. And in 2006, he performed a concert for Libya's late leader Muammar Gaddafi to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion.
When asked about his popularity in the Middle East, Richie told “The Independent” that he attributed his success to the universal messages embedded in his music. “It's a region that has an amount of restrictions in how much you can say but it comes down to ‘I Love You.’ That crosses every border. It's a part of everyone's life.”
Chicano/Chicana Culture in Japan
Since the early 20th century, Chicano and Chicana were used to describe people of Mexican descent living in the United States. For a time, the term was used as a pejorative against communities of disenfranchised and oppressed Mexican Americans. However, with the explosion of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Chicano took on new meaning and became a source of pride and empowerment for marginalized Mexicans who began pushing back against racial injustice.
From this movement, the Chicano culture that has become synonymous with East L.A. was born. And in the 1990s, the Chicano aesthetic — full-body tattoos, branded baseball caps, lowriders, cars with hydraulic jacks — reached the shores of Japan. Today in Tokyo and Osaka, a subculture of Japanese live the Chicano way. But for many, the Japanese obsession with all things Chicano goes beyond the physical trappings and taps into something more profound. As one devotee explained, “We feel sympathy toward them and connect in the way they express their opinions, love their crews, family, and work hard on the things that they love. In my opinion this is what brings the Chicano and Japanese cultures together.”
(Want to learn more? Check out this excellent “New York Times”-produced video about this unique subculture.)
Conan O’Brien in Finland
Finland's affection for late-night talk show host and comedian Conan O'Brien exploded in 2006 during the run-up to the country's presidential election. At the time, a large swath of O'Brien's fan base believed he resembled Finland's incumbent female presidential candidate, Tarja Halonen.
As the comparison gained traction, O'Brien flew out to Finland to meet with Halonen. When he arrived at Helsinki's Vantaa International Airport, renamed the Conan O'Brien Airport for his visit, thousands of fans greeted Halonen's supposed doppelganger with cheers and banners, which, according to a ”New York Times” report, read "Tarja is our president but Conan is our king" and "Welcome to Conelandia."
After meeting with President Halonen, O'Brien was presented with a Telvis, a Finnish television award "for the most surprising and entertaining TV personality.”
John Denver in China
In 1971, John Denver, the folk-music singer-songwriter from Roswell, New Mexico, released "Take Me Home Country Roads," a ballad that glorifies the stoic mountains and rushing rivers of West Virginia. In addition to being a hit in the United States, the song also became a cult favorite 7,000 miles away in China.
Today, John Denver's music can be heard at weddings, bars and restaurants throughout the U.S. — but it's the people of rural China, drawn to Denver's love of the countryside, who tend to be his biggest fans.
Before he passed in 1997, Denver was the first Western artist invited to hold a multi-city tour in China. During the height of his popularity, he performed for Deng Xiaoping, a high-profile Chinese politician, as well as Zhao Ziyang, the third premier of the People's Republic in China.
Krispy Kreme Doughnuts in Thailand & Myanmar
In 1937 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Vernon Rudolph sold his first Krispy Kreme doughnut. Nearly 80 years later, in September 2010, the first Krispy Kreme shop opened in Bangkok, Thailand in the Siam Paragon shopping mall. Today, less than a decade later, the freshly baked doughnuts are ubiquitous in the South East Asian country and available in over 30 stores. While Krispy Kreme has outposts around the world, this growth is particularly impressive, and indicative of a national fervor for the sweet treats. (Meanwhile, in neighboring Myanmar, Krispy Kreme is one of the only Westeran restaurant brands you’ll find.)
In addition to the classic glazed doughnut, flavors such as mango and green tea cookie are favorites in Thailand. And while you don’t need a reason to snack on a doughnut, Thais consider a fresh box of Krispy Kremes, along with tea and coffee, the perfect excuse to meet with friends and connect with family.
Irish Spring Soap in the Philippines
In 1972 the Colgate-Palmolive company introduced Irish Spring soap to the American market. Soon the green-and-white-swirled, double deodorant bar could be found resting in soap dishes and on shower rims across the U.S.
Around the 1980s, Irish Spring began popping up somewhere else: on shelves in sari-saris, small family-owned corner shops in the Philippines. It wasn’t long until the bars had ousted Palmolive and SafeGuard as the preferred soaps of Filipino families.
Today, the fresh scent of Irish Spring continues to reign supreme in the Philippines, "My family owns a soap-making shop in Las Piñas City, Philippines," Celeste Paed, a Filipino native who currently lives in San Diego, California, tells “Far & Wide.” "Even though we make our own soap, we have a small section of soap products that my dad brings in from America, one of which is Irish Spring."
In the Philippines, products imported from America are considered to be of higher quality than items produced on the mainland, which helps explain Irish Spring's ongoing popularity. “He sells it for about 100-200 Philippine pesos a bar, or about $2," Paed says. "We usually sell out within days of putting them out. So to say that Irish Spring is popular because it came from America is absolutely correct.”