Life in the United States is very often misunderstood, especially by those who come from countries that are fairly isolated from American influence, or that have a very old history of which its citizens are proud. Needless to say, the American media does much harm (and perhaps some good) in portraying life in the United States, full of stereotypes. One can only wonder how many American-hating terrorists have ever set foot on American soil or ever interacted with Americans before waging a campaign of hatred against them. Here are some characteristics about American culture that those overseas may not realize:
-Americans really ARE that friendly. Many visitors to the United States are surprised to find out that Americans in general are nice. They don’t usually have some agenda, ulterior motive, or centuries-long opinion by which to judge someone. American culture places a high value on being “nice,” friendly, pleasant, and smiling. (Americans are probably the only people who smile in their passport photos). Of course this can vary from region to region in the United States, with the brusqueness of the Northeast contrasting with the take-your-time-to-get-to-know-someone manner of the South. One must not read into the friendliness of Americans too deeply. Rather, it must be seen as the necessary social glue that holds us together, a country of nearly 320 million people made up of every imaginable culture, spread out over thousands of miles.
-All people in America are considered “Americans.” It is sadly true and hegemonic that race is based on a white standard in the United States. But the most insulting mistake foreigners make when coming to America is not understanding that “American” is a nationality, not an ethnicity, and it relates to birth and living here. This is especially difficult for Western Europeans, who generally come from extremely ethnically homogenous societies, to grasp; in their societies, nationality and ethnicity are one. Even those who accept that African-Americans are also “legitimate” Americans along with those of European ancestry fail to realize that the fabric of America is multicultural. People overseas might be astonished to find that even white Americans have a diversity of cultures in their ancestry: it is not uncommon to have German, Irish, English, Scottish, and perhaps some Native American blood in one’s “white” background.
And now, with the racial mix of America increasing further, many people have a mix of white and non-white ancestry, or a mix of non-white ancestries: many half-white/half-Asians in California, Hawaiians of European/native Hawaiian/Japanese ancestry, many individuals whose international parents of different races who met in graduate school or the military overseas (Indian and Filipino, Persian and Italian, etc.), and modern Americans of mixed races who marry others of mixed races which produce truly multicultural children (for example, someone who is half Korean, one quarter white and one quarter Cuban, someone who is Puerto Rican, Italian, and Jewish, etc.).
President Obama has brought some awareness globally to this issue, but still, American diversity is extremely difficult for many foreigners to grasp. It is of note that there are indeed other countries and cultures that are arguably more progressive with matters of race, such as Brazil, and with the recent spate of police killings of African-Americans, we still have a long way to go with creating a more harmonious society.
-America is not the same country everywhere. Many visitors or foreigners who come to the United States do not realize how regional America is in character. A Bostonian is as different from a New Mexican who is as different from a “Hoosier” (Indiana citizen). Midwesterners place a high value on community and non-confrontation; Californians value personal fulfillment and ambition; Washingtonians (from DC) value family name and status. Even among ethnic groups, one can contrast, for example, Indians in other parts of the country and Indians in California, or Jews around the US and New York Jews. Again, the homogeneity of finding the same McDonald’s, Target, or Trader Joe’s in different places may be what helps unify us when we are so physically spread out.
-The American education system, at its core, is about teaching students to think flexibly and differently. Many countries in the world, such as former colonies, place a high value on rote learning and a more hierarchical system of imparting knowledge (think Paulo Freire’s “banking model” of education). Communist countries focus(ed) on history and ideology (the verb in both present and past tense, given that there are still a few remaining communist countries). Western European countries focus on tracking students at an early age and specializing in high levels of sciences, humanities, etc. and ground students in their culture and deep-rooted history. The Nordic countries value academic as well as vocational education, and developing the whole person.
But here in the United States, what matters most is your individual opinion, even if it means challenging the system. Our heroes are individuals who did that–Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and George Washington defying the British. Being creative and innovative are highly valued traits.
-Religion plays a significant role in the United States, even if many people are atheists or not religious. The irony is that we are by law a secular society. America has a strong reputation overseas of having a very conservative, Christian right-wing religious streak. However, there are many Americans who live quite to the contrary who oppose the religious conservatives and fight ardently for a culture free from religion. They oppose the teaching of religion in schools or even wishing others a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” There are also many Americans who practice a variety of religions, who are Christian as well as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Wiccan, Native American, etc. who are rooted in their traditions and also respectful of other traditions. Many foreigners, especially Western Europeans, fail to realize that America is a haven for the religiously persecuted from around the globe. Diana Eck of Harvard has done much to shine light on America’s religious pluralism.
-Success is not a taboo. Granted, this will differ in degree in different regions of the country. More traditional parts of America that are highly community-based may frown on being too successful and regard it as being “too big” and a betrayal of one’s humble origins. But generally speaking, one is expected to be a success, there is no sin in being upwardly mobile or a social climber, countless courses, websites, seminars, and TV shows focus on how to improve oneself. The “can-do,” positive spirit is something that always takes foreigners by surprise, but again, like American friendliness, it really is true.