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.
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.
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.