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On there being "no American culture" [Nov. 1st, 2011|07:55 pm]
(inspired by a comment on MCS)

One of the perils of living abroad is being asked about your country of origin. Like "So, tell me about America."

Go on. Try to think of a coherent answer. "Well, there are, um, spacious skies, and, uh, a lot of amber waves of grain." Not good enough! They don't want to know about the geography! They want to know about life!

The easiest solution is to make something up. "The worst part is the constant gunfights that take place in the streets. It's usually the FBI attacking the black people, but sometimes the terrorists and the local sheriff join in. That's why we drive such big cars, for extra protection. But it's all worth it when we get back home, curl up on the couch with a Bud Light, and watch the traditional Friday night Super Bowl being played amidst all the amber grain waves." My Japanese co-workers would have believed that. In fact, most Japanese people already believe this.

But Irish people usually have family in the States, so they know better. So you've got to think quick.

One answer I have seen my friends give, and which I completely oppose, is "Well, there's really no such thing as American culture. Because it's such a big country. I mean, there's Californian culture, and New England culture, and Deep South culture, but there's no one US culture, not in the same way there's an Italian culture or a Chinese culture."

I oppose this because I think if you mentioned to to a Chinese or Italian person, they would laugh in your face.

Italy has a persistent and growing secessionist movement polling at over 25% in some provinces that wants Northern Italy to break off and become a separate country because they hate the southern Italians so much. And China's provinces have long histories as parts of entirely different kingdoms for centuries and mostly speak entirely different languages.

Either one of those two countries has greater regional diversity than we do with our paltry three hundred years of population drift. And so a Chinese person could very easily become overwhelmed with the variety and say that there was no one Chinese culture. But she would be wrong. And we Americans know she would be wrong, because we have a skill the Chinese cannot match - the ability to easily see the contents of Chinese culture. A short list might include collectivist tendencies, exaggerated respect for elders, and lots and lots of noodles.

But the Chinese, for their part, have a power just as far beyond our grasp - the ability to see the contents of American culture. Their list might include individualist tendencies, insufficient respect for elders, and not enough noodles.

Spiders also have strong opinions on American culture. They say it's about having six fewer eyes than normal and building suburban housing tracts instead of webs.

An American with no standard for comparison won't self-generate the belief that American culture de-emphasizes the family any more than an average person would think, unprovoked, "Y'know, it's interesting to notice that we humans have a very low number of eyes." And so Americans in this sort of situation may notice only that when they went to Texas, everyone there wore big hats and ate greasy food. And so they think "America may not have a culture, but Texas has a culture, and I suppose my own state has a culture of having smaller hats than Texas does."

It is a running joke among Asians how much bread Westerners eat all the time, pretty much in precisely the same way it is a running joke among Westerners how much rice Asians eat all the time. When I taught one of my Japanese students the Lord's Prayer, and we got to to the part about giving us this day our daily bread, she thought it was hilarious that we liked bread so much we specifically asked God for more of it. But that construction - "bread" for "meal" - is exactly equivalent to the Japanese word gohan which can mean either "rice" or "meal" depending on the context.

So whenever someone says that America is too big and varied to have any unifying cultural traits, I am tempted to tell them "That's not true! We all eat hilarious amounts of bread!"

More generally, I think if an Irish person asks me to tell them about America, the best answer is to consider how I would describe Ireland to an American friend, and then say exactly the opposite. "You wouldn't believe how little beer we drink, or how little rain we get! And our politicians almost never send the economy into a catastrophic death spiral destroying the prospects of an entire generation."
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