Saturday, January 3, 2009

Culture SHOCK in the USA: America Through a Foreigner’s Eyes

When people hear my accent and learn that I am Russian they usually ask me two standard questions. One of them is “how much vodka can you drink?” The other one is “How do you like it here?”

I LOVE America. It is a great country and there are many things to love it for. I think that the majority of Americans are very kind and friendly people. America is not as corrupted as many other countries and if you work hard and have some intellect, you really can achieve a great deal. I don’t ever see myself going back and I just swore loyalty to this country a couple of weeks ago.

Nevertheless, there are a "few" things in this country, which I had a very hard time understanding and getting used to. I already wrote about food. Now, as I promised, I will continue…

The first thing that shocked me was the friendliness of American people. I remember arriving in JFK airport and having difficulties finding and understanding the subway. I didn’t sleep for two nights prior, due to a very long trip and a couple of rather wild farewell parties, and I looked like a bum. My English skills were lacking, but everyone I asked for directions was polite, patient and very helpful. Even people who didn’t know the answers to my questions, tried to help me figure out the map. The majority of people in my country wouldn’t be so nice and helpful. Many Russians don’t trust people, especially strangers who look like bums, so they often just ignore you, or run away from you.

American friendliness comes with smiles and to be honest it irritated me that people smiled all the time. I don’t have anything against sincere smiles, but more often than not I’ve seen insincere mechanical smiles, which meant absolutely nothing. I like when people are honest and sincere and seeing somebody showing their teeth to you, but having cold eyes, makes me feel creepy.

Also, it still makes me VERY uncomfortable when people I barely know or don’t know at all ask me how I am doing. After spending some time in America I started to realize that there is no reason to freak out when people ask you “How Are You?”. And there is no reason to tell a stranger about everything that is going on in your life. However, it still feels awkward. I personally just can’t say “Fine, thank you. How are you?”, to a stranger because firstly, I know the person doesn’t care. Secondly, if I am cranky, sad or tired I can’t say that I am fine, because it would be a lie. So, if you don't care, DO NOT ASK ME how am I doing, because you may end up listening to a 15-minute whining monologue about lack of free time, too much homework and diaper leaks.

Another big challenge for us, foreigners, is understanding American English. British English is usually taught at schools, and I think that the American version is much more simplified than British, at least when it comes to Grammar and vocabulary. But the American accent is very different and Americans tend to use much more slang, which is not found in a classic English language dictionary. Many foreigners have a hard time understanding sports-expressions. I was and still am confused when people use words such as “curveball’, “homerun”, or “Monday Morning Quarterback”.

I can’t but mention that the American obsession with sports still makes me wonder. I think I hear the words Eagles, Giants and Super Bowl almost as often as I hear the words ‘how are you?”

I tried to like and understand sports and I even went to see the Iron Pigs last season. But when in the end of the game someone as clueless as I was (also from Europe) asked me who won and which ones were the iron pigs and I didn’t know, I gave up. And I apologize for my ignorance, but I still don’t know what the Super Bowl is and what’s the big deal. Who knows, maybe I’ll get it one day.

Another big shocker for many Europeans, particularly for Eastern Europeans and Russians is the way most Americans dress. T-shirts, flip-flops, sneakers, sweats seem to be very popular. I couldn’t understand why people who could afford to dress nicely wore sweatpants and oversized t-shirts all year long. My first year in America was particularly hard. In Russia looks are more important than comfort, and it was normal for me to wear 3-inch stiletto heels, a short skirt and a dressy top to go food shopping. Here, when I was putting high heels and a skirt on, my new American acquaintances were often assuming that I was going out on a date or to a bar; or was hitting on a cashier at the store. It was almost impossible to prove that I was innocent.

I don’t have this problem anymore, since I got Americanized pretty quickly and started wearing sweatshirts, flat shoes and sometimes even sneakers.

The other thing that is difficult for me and for many other Eastern European women to get used to is feminism. I was raised believing that the man should be the head of a household; he should provide for his family; protect it and be responsible for major decisions. To me it never meant that women were worse and defective. I always believed and still believe that women and men are different, by nature,

and when men are better in, for example, crisis situations and decision making; women are generally much better in raising kids, multitasking and taking care of a house. Of course, there are exceptions, but I always thought that if men and women had certain roles in a family it would avoid confusion and conflict.

Also, in Russia, Belarus or Ukraine I was used to guys always paying for me in a restaurant or in a bar - whether it was a male friend, a boyfriend, an uncle or a brother. I know that is not always the case here. Luckily for me, my husband is old-fashioned and he not only paid for me even before we started dating and always opened the car door, but he also shared and continues to share my views on women and men.

Mindless spending
is another thing I can’t understand. Before I came here I thought that all Americans were rich and dollars were pretty much growing on trees. Later I discovered that it was just a fabricated delusion of wealth and Americans have much less money than Russians.

Credit cards are not very popular in Eastern Europe. When you buy something, you spend cash. If you have to buy something, even if it is a two thousand dollar fur coat, you actually have to count out two thousands in bills and hand it to someone. This is an important reminder of what you're really spending.

In America there's no real money: It's all just numbers on a piece of paper where you sign away your future earnings to credit card companies. It scares me that you can spend money you don't yet have.

The mindless credit card system in America encourages lifelong enslavement to the financial institutions. Trapped in hopeless credit card debt, many Americans try to spend their way to happiness, further deepening their dept. Another reason for that is probably a consumer culture, which makes you believe that in order to be respected in this society and impress your neighbors and friends you have to have a big house, the newest cell phone and one heck of a car. Different advertisements make you want things you cannot afford, so you get hooked and become a slave of your credit card company.

People say that they have to take credit, because they need a car to drive to work, and need a house to move from their parents’ house. I can understand that, but, from my observation, people usually decide that they need a much nicer car and much bigger house then they can afford. To live by consuming seems to be the chief goal and the operating value of many people. They work two jobs and long hours to pay the debt and then in the process they get into more debt, they mortgage themselves to the hilt and it becomes an endless cycle which draws them in and makes them forget how to live simple but happy lives.
So, credit cards along with food, friendliness, American English, sweatpants, flip-flops and obsession with sports were the hardest things for me to get used to in this country.

Of course, there were and are many other minor things, too. Like, for example, I often hear from Americans, including my husband that I speak too quietly. I wasn’t aware of that until I came here, so I always say to my husband it is not me who is quiet; it is he, and the Americans who are too loud.

Also, when I was pregnant people kept asking me who I was having, when I was due, and whether the baby kicked me a lot. In my country people don’t ask you these- it is considered to be too personal. Also, we don’t do baby showers in Russia. My grandmother nearly had a heart attack when I sent her pictures from my baby shower. In Russia it is a bad sign to celebrate anything until the baby is born. We have the party after the birth, which might not be the smartest choice since the parents are usually exhausted, but that’s how it always was.

I also noticed that many Americans take lots of pills and heavily rely on drugs. For some reason, antibiotics seem to be very popular even though it's been proven that more often than not you don't need them and that they cause a lot of harm. From the amount of commercials advertising drugs on TV, I started to believe that Americans are the unhealthiest nation in the world.

I also have a problem with medical doctors in this country, who push drugs on you whether you need them or not(antibiotics included)and mock all the alternative medicine and holistic approaches...

The list goes on, but I better shut up before you delete me from your blog list.

Despite of everything I said, I love this country, which is now my country also.

There is no perfect state and I am sure when Americans go to Russia or any Eastern European country, they experience a culture shock as well. Probably, even a bigger one.

If you do go there, feel free to send me a message. Let me know everything that you think sucks in Russia. And then we can laugh together on all the imperfectness of this world and on human nature, with which we just can’t help but complain.


Debbie said...

This is great post. I don't understand some of these same things and I've always lived here. I am very used to the "How are you" and realize it is just another way of saying "Hello" really. And, I don't do sweats. Or heels. I guess I'm somewhere in between.

2nd Cup of Coffee said...

I absolutely love reading your perspective. I have limited contact with Europeans, but in the interchange that I have had, I know that I came across as too inquisitive. I felt completely innocent, but my French friend said, "What are you, the CIA? FBI?" I thought I was just being polite and friendly, showing interest in someone else instead of being self-absorbed. It's a delicate thing, cross-cultural relations.

Faith said...

I think I would die of stress if I had to go to another country. I might survive England, but I think Russia would surely kill me! You have always been a very brave person in my eyes.

Darlene said...

Very observant list. I am so glad you are a part of our country. There are soooo many things that need a good "shaking up." That said, I share your sentiments. I love this country!

I have traveled a lot, but one of my biggest shockers was when I was a teen, visiting England as an exchange student. My Brit friend said that they had a teacher that abused/beat the kids, and everyone knew it, but the school did nothing about it. I suggested that he and all of his friends write a petition to let everyone know what this teacher was doing. He looked at me, absurdly, and said, "This is England. We can't do that here."

I had been loving the European way of living, but I had missed a core freedom that I had just taken from granted. It really made me think, and I will never forget it.

Love your thoughts,

Sue said...

Love your blog Natalia! You hit the nail on the head with the US economy. We try to pay cash for everything, but we are certainly in the minority in this country!

Monika said...

I'm from Belarus myself, and some of the American customs you have listed to me I have grown up with, but I also have my doubts, and it's very funny to listen to my mom stress the importance of looking your best outside of the home. Glad to know we're not alone!