- 13 Oct 08, 02:19 AM GMT
AKRON, OH:Is there a symbol any more American than the hamburger? I don't think cowboys, the Statue of Liberty or even the Stars and Stripes come close. If you're looking for an icon of gung-ho enterprise and king-sized consumer demand, stick a disc of beef between two buns and smother it with relish.
I don't want to sound like I'm down on burgers. Quite the opposite; I've been enjoying US cuisine all too much during my travels across the country. It's easy to pontificate about obesity and diet, but it's even simpler to succumb to fatty, salty, high-cholesterol temptation.
Whenever foreigners want to vent their displeasure at the American Way, they tend to take it out on burger chains - whether it's French farmer-activist José Bové wrecking the site of a planned McDonalds, or Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me being feted internationally.
But however much it complains about US fast food, it seems the rest of the world can't get enough. Profits generated in Europe alone are worth $1.2bn (£600m) to the Golden Arches.
If anything encapsulates the contradictory nature of so much anti-American sentiment, it must be the hamburger, too.
Well, I've been here long enough now to realise that there's more to this country than any stereotype could ever suggest. But what did Americans themselves think of the way they were perceived abroad?
To find out, I visited Menches Brothers restaurant in Akron. Owner John Menches has long insisted that his great-grandfather, Charles, co-invented the hamburger in 1885 - though the claim has been disputed.
I'd arranged to meet a group of five teenagers from the city's PeaceMakers programme - a community group aimed at keeping young people away from crime.
They were smart, engaged kids who were all interested in the views of people from beyond their borders. Each one quickly dispelled any suggestion that Americans wouldn't be interested in the rest of the world.
Ariel Davis, 17, ordered a chicken burger. She didn't have a problem with fast food, she said. But she thought it was a shame that it was used to symbolise her country.
"It makes it seem like we all just want to have fun," she added. "But we're not just about having fun."
There were, she'd noticed, three recurring themes the overseas media would employ to characterise America.
"One is the hamburger, the second is that we're the land of opportunity, and the third is the war," she said.
"I'd like it to be not so much about hamburgers, not so much the war. We're a bunch of people who want peace."
Her friend, 16-year-old Dominique Council, agreed that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan had distorted many foreigners' views of the US. Her family had hosted a Spanish exchange student who, Dominique noted sadly, had written off the nation before she even arrived.
"She was really upset about the war," Dominique remembered. "She thought everyone agreed with the president.
"She couldn't see that people here might believe the war is wrong, but they still respect the troops."
Cory Jarvis, 15, saw the role of the American military differently. He said he was frustrated that attempts to spread democracy had been misinterpreted as bids to grab power.
"They think we're a bunch of violent people," Cory added. "But we're over there to help them."
For Dao Letdara, the view from the outside was closest to home. The 15-year-old's parents had moved here as teenagers from war-torn Laos. The steady stream of incomers was testament, she said, to the fact that America was seen as a place rich in possibilities.
"The immigrants are coming here because they want a better job, they want a better life - obviously, they believe they can get all that here," Dao added.
But she worried that the American media was tarnishing this impression.
"I think they're getting their images from music and movies - all the R-rated movies with killing and violence," she frowned.
Travis Carlton, 16, disagreed. To him, the image that America projected of itself was one of wealth and prosperity - far removed from the reality of life in a place like Akron.
"People don't see cities for what they are," he argued. "They don't know that there are people living like they would in Africa.
"I'd like America to be what it's portrayed as: the land of the free. I want it to live up to the name."
I thanked them all. As an outsider trying to understand this country, it had been instructive - and encouraging, too, given that they all seemed to really care what the world though of them
But it was time for me to let them enjoy their lunch.
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