Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Five Things I Don't Understand About America
Apparently tomorrow is Thanksgiving in America. Happy Thanksgiving! I'm thankful for all my lovely American friends, but if it's alright with you I'll give the turkey a miss this close to Christmas.
America is my second favourite country. I've been there five times now and have some wonderful memories. Such as the time I was driving a Cadillac (!) from Phoenix to Las Vegas and got pulled over for speeding - not having any idea what the speed limit was, you see.
I stayed quiet and contrite, because the cop had a gun -the first I'd ever seen- and was therefore terrifying. I gave him my EU driving licence and he wandered off to examine it. Then he came back, walked round to the passenger side and spoke to my American friend, Kerry. He suggested she explain to me that there were serious consequences to breaking the speed limit and, although he was letting me off with a warning this time, I should drive more carefully in future.
"He doesn't know you speak English," Kerry whispered to me. The address printed on my driving licence at the time was Lluesty, Tanygrisiau, Criccieth, Gwynedd, Cymru. The Hispanic cop probably didn't want to have to do the paperwork.
Much as I love America, there are still many aspects to American culture I just can't quite wrap my head around. I'm not just talking about the lack of gun control or free healthcare, although goodness' knows, they puzzle me plenty. No, it's the little things that baffle me:
1. Air Conditioning
Isn't air conditioning great? In Arizona I discovered the wonder of stepping from an impossibly hot parking lot (see! I picked up the lingo and everything!) into an air conditioned shopping mall. Wow, you can put the central heating into reverse!
But two minutes later I was thinking of dashing back out to the parking lot again because I was so cold. And it wasn't just Arizona - Florida, Utah and Nevada were much the same. It's as though owners of public buildings in America want to show off their amazing air conditioning system by creating Arctic conditions within their walls. But really, I'd be perfectly happy to be just a few degrees cooler that I was outside.
During our last trip to Florida we went to Epcot, where there was a very fun exhibit where you had to build a virtual city, including setting up the power grid to supply all the homes and businesses. At one point I got a warning which told me that I didn't have a sufficient power supply in place to "cope with a very hot summer". For about ten minutes that confused the heck out of me. But surely people use far less electricity in the summer since they don't need to put the heating on? Hubby Dearest had to explain to me that in America people have air conditioning in their homes (wow!) and that uses electricity.
2. July 4th
Every time the 4th of July rolls around my poor dear American friends get awkward and self-conscious around me, certain that I am still upset at being defeated in the war of independence. Well, don't apologise. We don't mind that you got your independence. In fact, many of us have no idea that the war even happened because we are taught British history in schools, not American history, and there's a lot of British history to learn so we really don't have time for anything extra.
We're actually fine with you no longer being part of the British Empire, really we are. We know that children have to grow up and fly the nest at some point, and we're looking on indulgently, and perhaps a little proudly, as you find your way in the world. We have seen plenty of other territories go by the way since then -India, Botswana, Zimbabwe- most of them quite amicably and generally deliberately. (And besides, we still have Canada and Australia.)
4th of July is a big patriotic "holiday" (there's that lingo again!) for Americans. So don't apologise for it, or be ashamed.
A lot of Americans are obese, apparently. What I don't understand is why all Americans are not obese. Not only is the food wonderful, but there so much of it! America invented the all-you-can-eat buffet, and I truly thank you for that. I watch Man vs. Food and am amazed that places will really serve a dish which they don't expect anyone to be able to finish. Now there are ethical issues about that, of course, with so much of the world struggling to find enough to eat because we Westerners are devaluing food, but that's not the point I'm making here. The point is that, in the land of corn dogs and Golden Corrall, how is anyone thin? As a foodie, I salute you. And on my next visit I want to do a food challenge. Anyone know any good ones in the Orlando area?
4. Washing lines (lack thereof)
"There's a dryer in your apartment," I was told.
Well, yes, I already knew this, but I didn't want to waste expensive (to us and to the environment) electricity when half-an-hour over a washing line in the beautiful Florida sunshine would have all our things dry, fresh, and maybe even crispy. So I went to the shop and bought some strong string and tied up my own washing line, on which I dried all our clothes for the rest of the holiday. We were the only family in the complex doing this and I was baffled. The tumble dryer is one of the most expensive appliances to run, and sunshine is free and plentiful.
When I got home I emailed some American friends to ask why those living in hot, sunny climates would choose to dry their clothes indoors in an energy-guzzling machine, rather than spend a few pleasant minutes outside pegging laundry to a line. Most didn't have any answers, except that they had always done it that way. (Always? The pioneers took their tumble dryers with them on their handcarts?) One, however, did suggest that it was because the air outside was too dirty. I was very relieved to be back on my cold, cramped, rainy island at that point. After all, I'd been breathing the stuff for two weeks.
Americans are famously bad at geography, if YouTube is to be believed at least. It's possibly because only 38% of Americans own a passport, compared to 71% of Brits. (But then, if you want some sunshine you can just potter along to Florida or California. I have to actually leave the country.) It doesn't help, though, that you Americans insist on drawing attention to your lack of world knowledge by giving clues as to the location of any particular city. It's not just "Rome", it's "Rome, Italy".
I watched an episode of Star Trek: Voyager recently where Harry Kim was informed that his friend Tom was in "Marseilles, France." "Why is he in Marseilles, France?" Harry asked the computer. If Harry Kim, Tom Paris and the scriptwriters had been English, he would have just been in plain old Marseilles, because we know that Marseilles is in France, we don't need directions. (I have to know - were the Olympics advertised over there as being in "London, England" just in case anyone mistakenly went to London, Michigan?)
So in a nutshell, those are the five things which I don't understand about American culture. Can anyone answer my burning questions?
Posted by Anna Buttimore