American Culture Shock Pt. 2
Continuing my previous post, there are a few other culture shocks i've had since moving to America:
Celebrity & film as common knowledge
When I first moved to America the only celebrities I could recall with ease were Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (because of Titanic), Will Smith and Denzel Washington (because he’s Denzel Washington!). Most others i’d have to think long and hard and in the end would probably have no idea who they were. So when I realized people were always referring to celebrities, or things that happened in movies and TV shows I accepted i'd be confused for a long time. The Simpsons, Star Trek and Star Wars are so interwoven in American culture that the references are everywhere, professors use them during lectures, friends refer to episodes making what to me would always be inside jokes and i’m sure there's been at least one American pastor who’s made an analogy during a sermon using a character from the Simpsons.
I didn’t grow up watching much TV so apart from Fresh Prince of Bel Air, some Disney Movies and maybe a couple of whatever movies USA would show back in the day I am lost. I can’t tell you the amount of times someone has looked at me with shock and slight horror when I had no idea what they meant when they talked about Rambo, or The Sopranos. And many times I would hear someone speaking of Sean Penn or Kevin Costner with such familiarity I assumed he was their brother.
My first few years here I felt like a contestant on a game show who didn’t know any of the answers but was still never eliminated and instead would be questioned forever! These days, now that i’ve watched my fair share of American sitcoms, I too have had some occasions where a scene from Frasier or Arrested Development would come to mind and I just HAVE to refer to it - out loud! I completely understand the temptation.
There are A LOT of holidays that on the surface seem legitimate but when you really think about it are just ways to get people to spend money and buy themed knickknacks that they use for a couple days/weeks and then discard or save in a basement or attic for the next time, except the next time never comes because when another year rolls around there are new and better nicknacks to be bought to celebrate the holiday all over again.
My first September in America I noticed squash in different shapes and colors, along with pumpkins of varying hues adorning the front of people’s houses. I was puzzled. A few weeks later, at some houses, added to the vegetable display were inflatable plastic witches on brooms and on the trees or hedges faux spider webs with plastic spiders clinging. Fall had come, and halloween was on its heels. Several weeks later, the ghouls and goblins and pounds of candy to reward the trick or treaters were replaced with inflated santa clauses, Christmas trees both indoors and outdoors and light displays that shone as brightly as those that illuminate the Eiffel tower.
One January afternoon I went to the pharmacy to stock up on toothpaste, shampoo and things of that nature and before I could get to the toiletries aisle I had to fight my way through a maze of inflated balloons (you know the silver fancy type) with ‘I love you!’ and ‘Be Mine’ printed across them, and string connecting them to forlorn looking teddybears who had, attached to their stuffed legs, heart shaped cardboard boxes, red of course, but actually there were some pink ones too, all containing chocolate. The entire pharmacy, and in fact most other stores were transformed into a sea of pink and red hearts . It was a month before Valentines day.
This display seems to be repeated just in different colors and shapes almost monthly, St. Patricks Day (everything green!), Easter (bunnies and eggs everywhere), 4th of July (a sea of red white and blue)- the list goes on...
The idea of holidays as a proxy for shopping sprees is so foreign to me given that where I grew up, a holiday simply meant a day at the beach and for extra special holidays like new year's day, maybe even a picnic on the sand after the sea bath.
Christmas in America
My family never really celebrated Christmas in the traditional way. On Christmas eve or the day before it my grandparents would have a party and each grandchild would receive a single gift and be overjoyed! We would eat sandwiches with the crusts cut off, plain salted chips, mixed nuts, cake of course, and drink punch out of styrofoam cups that my thrifty grandmother planned to rinse out and reuse and so when I went to the kitchen to refill my cup and she discovered that I had bitten around the entire rim redesigning it with a string of teeth indentations she scolded me quietly. I must have forgotten by the next year because I clearly remember the pleasure of biting into this styrofoam at least two years in a row and the only time I ever saw these cups was at her house at Christmas time.
I moved to America and discovered that Christmas is a completely different type of celebration here. What shocked me the most was the panic that set in at the beginning of the December, how frantic parents were, but mostly how strongly they felt that their children needed the latest toys in order to have ‘a good Christmas’. Parents seemed willing to spend their last dollar just so their child could have the latest gadget and in turn the children felt that their parents had to pony up. The entire holiday seemed to revolve around hysteric consumption.
An American friend invited me to her house for Christmas dinner with her family and I graciously accepted. The meal was very nice and very fancy, there was roasted ham as the main dish and many different sides to accompany it. Being a vegetarian, I helped myself to mashed potatoes, green beans, sweet potatoes and salad. We drank apple cider and for desert had a choice between sweet potato or pumpkin pie and if we liked, some whipped cream on top. We chatted and laughed and had a really nice time while we ate. Then once the last forkful of food was raised to the last mouth, everyone jumped up from the table and bolted to the Christmas tree in the living room because it was time to open the gifts. I thought maybe at this point i’d thank them for their kindness and then make good my escape - I figured it would be awkward not to mention tiring watching them open the mountain of gifts that were stacked almost as high as the tree itself. But the mother said “No! please stay, in fact there are some gifts for you under the tree!”. I was taken aback! but also thought it was so sweet for them to go out of their way to include me.
For the next two hours I sat wide eyed as the family, the parents, two sons and a daughter exchanged gifts. They bought each other at least 10 gifts each, no exaggeration and they opened every single one. Never before had I seen such display of largesse! These were not wealthy people mind you, a normal middle class family - but they went all out with the gift giving. I'm not one to count other people's money but I admit while sitting there watching with incredulity I wondered "How can youall afford to buy all of this! And by the way is this really necessary?".
The gifts varied from handbags and pairs of shoes, and clothing to a package containing two pairs of socks and several pairs of underwear for one of the boys. Then there were other gifts like a red and white candy cane patterned mug that was stuffed with a cone shaped plastic containing a brown powder that said ‘hot cocoa powder’ and another smaller plastic bag attached with different colored mini marshmallows altogether wrapped in plastic printed with grinning Santa Clauses. For my gifts I got one such mug, a bath set that included body wash, mini soaps and a red pouf, a scarf and pair of gloves (loved these!) and a three pack of fuzzy socks (loved these too!). I was really appreciative of these gifts but deep down I thought to myself ‘you really shouldn't have!’ and that one gift, maybe the bath set or the scarf and gloves would have been plenty!
Though the family did seem to take much pleasure in opening the gifts, at the end of the evening as everyone was leaving, the daughter - my friend with an annoyed sigh speaking of her recently gifted items asked me to help her ‘get all this junk to my car’…
America, The Beautiful
The biggest shock of America though is how largely diverse this country is. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel through many of the states and have lived in several. From the East Coast to the West Coast, from Florida to the Midwest, each part of the country is unique. A look beyond the surface of what sometimes seems like rampant consumerism and unholy egotism, I've found that it’s an amazing country filled with interesting and beautiful individuals. Despite my culture shock, at the end of the day I can truly say that America is great!