As Seen on TV
Roland Dollinger has taught German language and literature at Sarah Lawrence since 1989. He first came to the United States as an exchange student at the University of Pittsburgh.
“To this day, I’m still remembering my first thought as I’m looking down that big avenue. There were car dealerships to the left and right of the street, with little blue, white and red flags over the street and decorating the stores. I saw the big cars going up and down the street. And I’m putting down my two suitcases, and I’m saying to myself—in German, obviously—‘ Man, this looks exactly like on television.’
“What did I know about the United States? Very little. I grew up watching Bonanza. The United States was the country of cowboys and Indians. The United States was the dangerous place where cops like Kojak were chasing the bad guys.
“On this first day in Pittsburgh I was, to use the title of a film, ‘lost in translation.’ I could only make sense of what I was seeing by comparing it to the TV images I had in my head. I only saw what I knew about the United States: the cars, the streets, the people, fast food restaurants. The good restaurants I didn’t even see. I only saw fast food restaurants because that was my cultural perception of the United States. You can’t look for things that you don’t know exist.
“I had the impression, ‘My God, I have become a character on a TV show.’ I felt lost in a TV show that I kind of recognized. The learning process I had to go through was finding the differences between TV and reality, to see things that at first you don’t see.”