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.

3. Food
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)
The first time we went to Florida we headed straight for the pool (as you do) on our first day in the glorious and unfamiliar sunshine, and when we got back to our lovely apartment I went onto the sun drenched balcony to hang our wet towels and swimsuits on the washing line. There wasn't one. So I went to the lovely bright quadrangle below in search of the washing line. When I couldn't find it there either I went to reception to ask where the washing line was.

"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.

5. Geography
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?


  1. Well, at least for the last one, the simplest answer is that the U.S. is BIG. So while it takes you 6 hours to get to another country (SO jealous about that, btw), it takes us that long to get to another state. I found this map comparing the size of Europe to the size of the U.S. -

    We’re pretty familiar with our own geography, but for a lot of people that’s as far as they get. Most U.S. citizens can tell you what states Tulsa, Cleveland, Detroit, Phoenix, and Little Rock are in because they’re within our “geographic bubble space”. I think that once you throw an ocean or two in there, they become less relevant to our everyday life so we aren’t as familiar.

    Washing lines? I think they’re starting to come back into use again. I just find a dryer much more convenient. I have four kids- lots easier to throw things from one machine to another and press a button than to haul a basket of wet clothes out into the backyard and then spend 15 minutes hanging 20 onesies and 7 sets of footie pajamas on a clothesline. But that’s just me.

    Food? I KNOW. That’s why I have to count my calories!!

    July 4th- never felt awkward around my British friends on that holiday. Maybe because I have no British friends...

    A/C (Air Conditioning)- I agree, I think it’s gotten a little out of hand when you have to bring a sweater or a blanket with you to church! Personally, I keep ours set at a temperature just enough to keep us comfortable. Our house has a lot of trees around it and it faces North/South so it stays pretty cool in the summer. It is nice to get some A/C to cut through that humidity some days, though!

    Very interesting post, Anna! Thanks for asking! :-)

  2. Ah, Kasey, Spain is only two hours away, door-to-door. France is less than an hour if I drove to Ashford and jumped straight on a train through the tunnel. It's a good life! The irony is that I knew which state all those American cities were in too! And how to pronounce and spell them! I watch far too much American TV...

  3. Well, I'm not American or British, but I have found that although Americans are familiar with their own country they are often clueless about Canada, their closest neighbor unless they've made the effort to visit. It's just "up there" and although they may be familiar with the names of some cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary, they have no idea where those places are. I don't think that saying "they're so big" is really an excuse because Canada is bigger (which American's don't realize) and Canadians know American geography fairly well. And yes, the gun thing puzzles me to. Unless you're a hunter or a cop. I guess they're all terrified that the government is going to take over. If that happens there will be a lot of dead bodies around as they shoot each other.

    1. I actually own a handgun, and for me it’s for personal safety. Our house was once broken into at 4am, and my husband was at the top of our stairs with his gun pointed down at the front door (which was standing wide open) and I ended up gathering all of the children in one of the bedrooms. I realized as I was in there with them that if something happened to my husband and some intruder found me with the kids I had absolutely no way to defend either them or me, and that totally terrified me (especially that someone could hurt my kids right in front of me and I couldn’t do a thing about it- totally momma bear instinct going crazy there). After that I learned how to use a gun and I got one that I feel comfortable with. Chances are slim that I’d need it, but unfortunately we don’t live in Mulberry anymore. I used to have nightmares about break-ins, but now I just have dreams that someone tries to hurt me and I am a very good shot. :-)

  4. I wish there were more washing lines here in America too. The A/C is used way too much here. I freeze during church like others said. Strange enough, half my body freezes and the other half boils so I never know what temperature will work:). I didn't fully understand Canadian geography until I had a Canadian walking partner.

  5. I have a washing (clothes) line! I live in FL and I've been drying my clothes outside for at least 5 years. It's a money and energy saver. I love it. I agree that most Americans do know their own country, but not so much about the rest of the world. We're a big plot of land, and it can take a lifetime to just travel around the U.S. We ARE a chubby bunch, I'll grant you that. And that's something we need to change. It's not a good thing! I have to say, I would not want to live in FL WITHOUT A.C.! And of course, you learn British history, not American. Some Americans think the rest of the world is focused on us - that's the American ego at work! Not a good thing either!



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