American Culture

Disclaimer:  This post was a long time in the thinking and writing and will be very long and boring.  It’s okay if you quit reading.  I won’t be offended.  I just needed to unload ideas that have been swimming around in my noggin. 

Growing up, I thought that “culture” was the traditional dress, art, and spicy food that people wore, made and ate in exotic places.  There was no such thing as American culture, because America is a “melting pot.”  We don’t have people in the mountains wearing swirly brightly colored skirts and top hats.  Though we do have mountain people making damn fine music on the banjo! America was the norm and everything else was “other.”  We eat Italian, Thai, and Mexican food.  I suppose it’s obvious then that I grew up in a very small town.  But even when I left and moved to Boulder and met different kinds of people and experienced cities and even traveled outside of the country, the word “culture” was still not at the front of my mind.  What we did and thought and ate was just what we did.

In graduate school we did a lot of talking about “multi-culturalism” and diversity and how to bring these things into the classroom because they are so valuable.  We talked about how culture is more than different holidays and foods.  It is also attitudes and values and thought that is influenced by language.  But I still could not internalize what the real difference was between us and them.  I could not see ourselves objectively because I was only looking at “them” and trying to understand “them” in a vacuum unaffected by own beliefs and values.

It took living in several different countries, working there, and interacting with parents and students to really be able to “see” and recognize and put my index finger on exactly what American culture is (and I’m still working on it).  Here, in the most different and “other” place I’ve ever lived, I find myself thinking about these concepts a lot because being in a place so opposite has given me the most insight into my own attitudes, values, and thought processes.

For example, I think most people know that Eastern cultures are Collectivist.  Before I lived here, I took that to mean that everyone looks out for each other, caring more about the group than the individual, and that relationships are more important than “getting things done.”  But collectivism really pervades many ways of thinking, sometimes in completely frustrating ways for the hapless American teacher.  One example is parent beliefs about how classes function.  Say we have a little darling named Johnny.  Little Johnny, in the eyes of the American teacher, has been showing a bad attitude and has been irresponsible about turning in homework.  In the eyes of Little Johnny’s mom, Johnny is in a bad class.  The class has a bad attitude because the group is bad and Johnny will do much better if you just put him in the advanced math class where he belongs.  This sort of thing makes me crazy on a daily basis, but only because it does not reflect my American values:  individualism, self-determination, personal responsibility.  All those things sound really good to you, too, right?  But maybe I’m wrong and those are not valuable things.  Or maybe, we’re both right, which waxes my noodle even more.  In the end, I win because mom put Johnny in the school to get a Western education so that he will be prepared for college in the States.  But they are not happy about it and still looking for ways to get him in advanced math instead of (my interpretation) being self-aware and personally responsible in setting time management goals or self-reflecting on attitudes projected and how that might influence other students around little Johnny.

Collectivism among children also means that bullying is easy because all you have to do is exclude someone.  You all ignore a peer and it’s the most devastating thing you can do to a kid here.  Here is where the self-determination in Americans comes in again.  This kind of bullying doesn’t work for us (as much), because we shrug and say we can do it better ourselves anyway, and so Americans must be much more violent and forceful to communicate their hate in a palpable way.  Which is worse?  I don’t know.

These behaviors and values follow every hobby, job, and public behavior in silent yet obvious ways.  I’m going to save the observations in climbing and safety for my husband to reflect upon.  Because I didn’t really mean to get into what I think collectivism is in reality.  I meant to talk about American culture.

Because school is the great training ground–the place where you acquire all cultural capital you don’t get from your parents, it is an interesting comparison.  The leaders of today and yesterday, the States and Europe, all educate their children to be leaders, analytical thinkers, creative doers, capable team workers, and independent researchers.  This is American or Western culture.  In the developing world and the leaders of tomorrow (Asia), the public schools are still teaching memorization and copying.  The parents who understand and see this–probably those who went to international schools themselves–then send their children to us, knowing that the way forward is innovation and creativity.  Not copying.  But we still have to fight to break the mode of thinking that teachers should just be the deliverers of knowledge while students are the quiet receptacles.

And then there’s American food.  Earlier, I said we eat all kinds of food and so we don’t have culturally specific food.  But we do!  I mean, there are foods that are totally American, like collard greens, cheese fries and deep-fried turkey.  But if you think about all the options you have around you in your very own town or city, then you’ve hit the nail on the head.  You probably have at least one Chinese restaurant, a Mexican place or two (or more), Italian options, noodle places, Tapas places, seafood restaurants, and sushi places, BBQ pits, Greek restaurants, diners, hippie pizza joints, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, and probably a whole handful of places that you don’t really know what category they fit into.  But they have good food.   Americans crave and value variety.  What makes good American food is the most unique  flavor combinations one can possibly create and still have the meal taste great.  It’s the mark of a great chef to be able to take a hundred ingredients and create some new fusion dish that no one has made before.  What’s valued in Italian and French food?  A few high quality ingredients well cooked in the same way it’s always been done.  Obviously, I’m generalizing, but you get the idea.  Have you ever been in a grocery store outside the States, then gone back shopping in the States?  The sheer number of options for even just Pringle flavors is staggering.  And have you seen the size of the cereal isle?  Do you know what everyone else in the world wants to eat?  Their own food.  The difference between this Turkish kofte place and that one is this one uses fresher ingredients.  Sure they taste the same to us, but not to the Turks.  Everywhere we have been, people want their own nationality’s food and that’s all (yes maybe once in a while they want some pasta).  Interesting difference, isn’t it?  I guess it’s because America was originally made up of so many different cultures, but not anymore.  This variety has become quintessentially American.

And thus concludes my current ramblings about Americans.  Being away has taught me who I am and where I really came from, according to me, of course.  I wonder what I’ll learn about myself tomorrow?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andrew Petcher
    Jan 27, 2012 @ 08:04:09

    I enjoyed reading this!


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