I live outside the USA: here’s how the country looks to me

Most of my blogs are on spiritual issues, but since I just returned home:

I spend most of my time outside the States, typically in Latin America. There’s nothing like living abroad to get to know your home culture better. Every time we return to the US we experience culture shock and pick up on things we hadn’t noticed before, some fundamental, some trivial, some positive and some negative.

In no particular order:

Americans are monolingual. Let’s start with a common observation. Most of us speak only English. Almost everyone I meet outside the US can communicate a little in a second language, and sometimes a third. In the case of recent immigrants to the States: I hear the adults speaking with an accent, but the kids speak perfect English.

Americans are really polite. I know there are exceptions, but what is surprising is how the bad apples seem so few. When I need to change lanes, someone will wave me in; if my arms are full at the store, someone will hold the door; if I have just a few items at checkout, someone will invite me to go ahead of them.

Yep, he's an American.

Yep, he’s an American.

Americans dress casually. I’m thinking especially of men from 30-50, who go out in shorts and t-shirts, sunglasses and baseball caps – male American tourists are easily ID’ed in Latin America. I haven’t given it much thought, but they tell me that American women also go out of the house more casually than those in other countries. In Latin America adults dress, for example, when they to go out to WalMart – makeup, no sweats, no shorts.

Americans have a negative opinion of their government. I mean, they are really down on it, despite the fact that they elected it. Most of the time I live in a country where, a couple of years ago, every single former president was under indictment for corruption, and the citizens didn’t do as much complaining as one hears every year in the US. People complain about how much foreign aid America gives away, or spends on PBS, or spends on science research, but their estimates of how much money this involves is badly skewed. Half a century after it was written, and Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics (click HERE) still seems on the money, whether people are conservative, liberal or otherwise.

(A recent change) Every retailer, from Kohls to the grocery store to the kid who trims your hedges, now insists on signing you up for a membership, savings, or bonus card. If they get too pushy I tell them I live 2000 miles from the nearest outlet of their business and will never use it.

Americans spend a whole lot of time in cars. Whenever I think of the States, I get a mental picture of driving out and driving back; of not being able to travel a few blocks without transportation. E. B. White nailed it: “Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.”

Americans band together in a community. If someone needs a kidney transplant, their friends rent a billboard. People run marathons to defeat breast cancer. Someone’s house burns down and they are taken in, fed and clothed.

"No cuts!"

“No cuts!”

Americans have a strong ethic against “cutting in line.” “No cuts!” is one of the rules we learn from Kindergarten. If you reply that, “But hold on, someone cut in front of me just the other day!” you prove my point that it’s socially unacceptable behavior. In other cultures, “cutting” is the norm.

Americans are not as insular as other nations think we are. I think we would do well to listen to world news (such as the BBC’s broadcasts), and it would be nice if people could find Ghana or Bhutan on a map. I wish we knew the difference between Islamists and Muslims. Still, I don’t notice that people from other nations do much better than we do.

Americans are huge boosters of their soldiers, police and firefighters. For younger people, it may seem the country was always like this, but as someone who grew up during Vietnam and race riots, I can tell you this was a huge cultural reorientation. Why is it that people my own age keep complaining that we treat them with less respect than we used to? Does no-one else remember the 1960s and 1970s?

Americans love technology but don’t trust scientists. It strikes me that many Americans just don’t “get” the scientific method or statistics. You can tell someone how a vaccine saves this number of lives, and they will “disprove” your point with “But I know someone who had a bad reaction to a vaccination!” My jaw drops when I hear how many don’t vaccinate their children against MMR or polio; by how politicized climate change has become; by rumors such as the one in April 2010, that Caltech knew a huge earthquake would come within 24 and sent its people home, but didn’t let the public know (click HERE).

North American children and youth seem harder to impress than Latin American ones. If you put on a simple puppet show in a park in Latin America, kids will run, not walk, to watch it in glee. Is it that American kids watch too much TV? I have no theory on the matter.

Americans read books. Iceland, they tell me, is the top nation for readers (think of those long, dark winters), but the US does well. I wish people would trade in Fifty Shade of Grey or the latest offering in vampire fiction for some Dickens, Whitman, Austen, Ralph Ellison or Saul Bellow; or Shusaku Endo, Isabel Allende or James Baldwin. But still and all, Americans read a lot of books – an average of 9 per year. That’s a pretty good grade.

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Gary, I digress on a couple of issues. Maybe it is where we live but here many Christians and non-Christians that are NOT polite and don’t care about anyone on the street or in line in stores! We have NEVER seen such indifference! It’s very sad. Very few people even say “please” and “thank you” anymore. There is almost no respect for elders here either. I have heard so many people complain of the same things over and over. And, yes, many of us no longer respect our government (or at least certain people in government) and we have every good reason not to.

    Many of us have sat back as Christians believing we do not have a say in government and are now speaking out. You are picking up on what many have believed for years and are finally saying aloud. I just hope it is not too late. (That does not include me. I have been speaking out for years in the form of writing many letters to our government officials, voting every election and supporting Christian groups such as women’s centers, etc.)

    One time I was in Walmart and the man behind me only had a loaf of bread and I told him he could get in front of me. His angry response was, “WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT!?!” The man was really mad. That is a very unusual and rare response but it shows how crazy people can be.

    Cashiers here are by and far not allowed to greet people with, “Happy Thanksgiving” or “Merry Christmas”. Most of the time they say nothing and if you greet them they say nothing or “you, too”. It drags me down at holiday time because it just seems like we have become an atheistic country. There doesn’t seem to be any hope. Believe me, I know from talking to people that I am not the only one that feels that way and the people that share their disappointment are from other states as well.

    It is not unusual to see Americans dressed in pj’s in grocery stores either. It seems to be a new fad that promotes an “I don’t care!” attitude.

    I agree on the other positive issues you mention and I am glad you see some positive things in the US as you travel about. It is sure a relief.

    I think America has really changed immensely since you last made it your home. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks Loralei! Actually, I pass through the States just about every year. These were things that struck me as interesting on this trip.

      The politeness issue may be regional, I couldn’t tell you. I do know that Reader’s Digest recently ranked New York (!) as the most polite city in the world, http://www.readersdigest.ca/health/relationships/how-polite-are-we

      I and other evangelical Christians I know have been active politically since the late 1970s, which is already 35 years.

  2. Wow, how interesting to hear how things look from an outside view. Very good!

  3. Thank you for sharing your observations, Gary. I often reflect that I am probably very parochial without being aware of the particulars of how I am that way. I have never had the means or the opportunity to travel or to live abroad, and I figure that my thinking must reflect a limited perspective. So I read a lot, especially philosophers from the ancient world, and I find that this reading broadens my perspective at least a little bit.

    • Carrie, hi! Yes, a book is still the best flying carpet.

  4. Everything on this list resonates…


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