Thursday, July 26, 2007

culture shock!

When I was in the U.S. in the beginning of this year, people were surprised to hear that I seem to experience the worst culture shock when new to the U.S. More things surprise me, frustrate me, and confuse me in the U.S. than in most of the other countries where I travel. Maybe this is because I look and sound American and so somehow I'm supposed to belong, but it just doesn't work that way.

In the spring, people would ask me what shocked me so much, and I couldn't remember, so when I arrived on Monday, I tried to really notice so I could record the uniquely American things that culture-shock me...

- Choices. Definitely the biggest thing is choices. My luggage was lost on my arrival here, so I had to go to the store the next morning to buy some 'incidentals'. You know: toothbrush, soap, deodorant, clean under-clothing... This was a harrowing experience to someone who had just arrived Stateside. It took an hour to choose five items. There are so many combinations of so many varieties of so many things! Just as one example, I made a list of the different scents I could choose from for my deodorant. This is not a list of all deodorant scents; this is a list of the scents available in one type of one brand. (That brand had half a dozen types, and there were several brands to choose from.) Here's the list:
Tropical Tango
Arctic Apple
Eastern Lily
Vanilla Chai (do you really want your armpits to smell like a luxury beverage?)
French Lavender
Southern Peach (or a fruit?)
Jasmine Orient (or a bush? actually, I can't resist jasmine)
Asian Pear
Spanish Rose
Afrikan Violet
Kuku Cocoa Butter (kind of smells like coconut sunscreen/sun lotion!)

Then, in my state of choices-overwhelmed-ness, I heard a commercial on the radio for Applebees, bragging about how you can choose from more than 60 combinations of soups and sandwiches for their soup&sandwich option on their menu (the menu of course offers more choices as well). That was a big point against Applebees for me at that moment!

- Little conservation. I just feel like I'm being a responsible person when I compost my vegetable scraps/fruit rinds/other biodegradables. That doesn't really happen here that I've seen. And if I buy something in a store here, even one easy-to-carry item, it's automatically bagged. And that just makes me feel guilty for producing extra plastic. Now I'm not a scientist, but I'm told such things as composting, bringing-your-own-bag, etc. don't actually make that big a difference, but doing those things remind me that the world is our responsibility to care for, and keep me humble about my place in the world. It's a little scary to contemplate living without those reminders.

- Enthusiasm. This is one thing I really like about the U.S. and its people. You turn on the radio and everyone is hyper and excited. People are friendly, salespeople ask you how you are. It's like everyone's happy. I know it's somewhat fake joy, but I'm enjoying being surrounded by extroverted, enthusiastic people, as opposed to subdued Brits, demure Arabs, proud French, etc.

- Big and Wide. Yesterday I was following my aunt and uncle to my cousin's wedding rehearsal dinner. I was driving a big and wide station wagon (a loaner for which I am very appreciative). It's so big and wide that I'm scared to accelerate too fast or to brake too fast. So I was definitely keeping a safe distance behind my uncle's car. But over and over a car would jump in the hole! What was irksome to me about this was not that cars took advantage of a space (I'd do the same thing in a smaller car, for sure!) - it was that they were all enormous cars! SUV's, pick-up trucks, vans... This country is just full of big and wide cars!

But it's not just the cars. The 24 hours before I left England I rented a car there. The speed limit was 50 or 60 miles an hour on one-lane country roads with lots of bends. It was loads of fun. Here, on wide avenues with multiple lands, straight as an arrow, the speed limit is usually less. I figure if they want low speed limits they should make the roads narrow and spend less money for upkeep. Why have big and wide roads if you can't use them to full advantage? (Actually, my theory is that this dumbs down American drivers who then stop concentrating on driving and become more accident-prone, but I'm not sure how one could prove that...)

And the houses are bigger and wider. Mansions, all of them, it sometimes seems. And serving sizes are bigger and wider. Someone took me out to lunch on Monday and we ordered from the lunch menu, which is billed as having "smaller servings." I've never seen such a big salad, and it was intended for just one person! Everything is big and wide... use your imagination to think of something, and odds are that in the U.S. it's bigger and wider.

Well, those are my observations for now. Maybe I'll add more if I think of them. The reactions are there, but sometimes I forget why quickly, so I have to keep notes. Then maybe it won't surprise me as much the next time.

Do you have any fun culture shock stories? It's fun to hear them if you care to share...


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading about your observations. I think one of the first things that hit me last year when I came back was loudness. For the first week, it felt as if everyone was shouting.

Thanks for sharing your experience,

Jenny Manglos

Katiek patrianoceu said...

A Brazilian friend of mine wrote me an email with her culture shock thoughts. I thought they were very insightful so I've translated them to share her thoughts with all:

"I read your message about culture shock and, as you suggested, I used my imagination to think of such American grandiosity! It's a bit easier since I've been to the U.S. and remember getting a bit dizzy seeing how people could drink such large drinks of coke and big servings of french fries!

When I returned to England from Brazil, I took a bus to Bath, and my first impression was: wow, what a beautiful countryside, I have to be grateful just to be sitting on this bus (which was empty and clean). The weather was lovely, there was a blue sky, and I think that that was why several people got onto the bus with big smiles on their faces! At the same moment, I remembered the crowded buses in downtown Sao Paulo; the street children trying to get a free ride on the bus by hanging onto the back of the bus; my sister telling me about how she spends an hour standing on a crowded bus during her daily commute - just like a can of sardines... wow. I told myself that I had to write down all that I was feeling upon my return to the UK, so that in those moments of "oh, how I miss Brazil", I'd be reminded of the good things about life in England.

Something else that always shocks me when I return here is seeing the young people out for a night on the town, especially the teenagers and even children parading in limousines. Once I saw three limo's at the same time and I was completely overtaken with sadness, that some countries can be so rich and other countries so poor.

Finally, yesterday morning I was watching an MTV program called "cribs", about American celebrities, showing their houses, cars, etc... I think that there were more than 50 celebrities featured, showing their homes... I could only watch through six people because it was all the same: a mansion, four or five cars in the garage... I think it's neat to see different types of decoration, but in the end it all looked the same to me: one mansion after another, sport car after sport car... people accumulating more material goods, and more goods... like robots, doing everything the same as the next guy... and why? For example, one of the houses had a plasma TV in every room, including two plasma TV's in the bathroom, one on either side of the bathtub... the ultimate in absurity... not at all environmentaly and brain-free friendly!?!"

tony said...

Well I'm headed back to the East Coast, but I'm always a bit shocked by the cultural differences between East and West Coasts. Either that or I'm just no way used to the sun rising over the water and setting over the mountains. Its the other way around here. I've traveled around Asia primarily and I notice the same things you do when I come back to the US. Though if you've been in the third world, I've heard cleanliness is unusually high in the US. Hope all is well.

P.S. Are you in and around DC? I'm heading out there at the end of the month for more... wait for it ... research! Anyways love to grab a cup of coffee if you're still around.

-Tony Yang

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