Posts Tagged 'American society'

Bring a Culture to Pass: Confronting Cultural Stereotypes Abroad

Auckland, New Zealand

My team is the poster child for workplace diversity.  We have staff members from Australia, England, Ireland, France, India, Japan, the United States, and yes, even New Zealand.  In fact, the only institutionalized discrimination I’ve noticed at the office is towards contractors.  Sure, I’ve heard a few people complain about how difficult it is to understand some of the foreign customer service representatives; but this is often followed by the recognition that international employees are a reality of international business.

Personally, I find the broken English comforting.  When I worked in Argentina, I was hyper-aware of my accent and self-conscious of my Spanish.  I lived in constant fear that someone would make me answer the phone. Now that I work for a large, multinational corporation with a large, multicultural staff, I realize that for some people and in some parts of the world, living and working in a second language is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.

However, the best part of working with such a heterogeneous staff is that I get to learn about other cultures. Did you know that “pom” is a nickname for a Brit or that a Pimms No 1 Cup is a classy English cocktail served during the summer at garden parties, croquet matches, and tennis tournaments? How about that in India, pregnant women are warned to stay in bed and avoid holding sharp objects during a solar eclipse or else her baby will be born with dark spots on its body?

In Japan, you can hire actors to pretend to be your family, friends, or colleagues. Special visitors to my company are greeted with a powhiri, a formal Maori ceremony of welcome. As far as I can tell, New Zealanders love outdoor music festivals and respect work-life balance (either that, or a striking number of Kiwis get sick when the weather turns warm).  And if you want to know anything about Ireland, from the speed of the Internet to the cost of electricity, just ask the girl who sits next to me.

Another great place for cultural observation is a hostel.  Most backpackers I’ve met are happy to explain their practices and rituals, as long as you are open to and accepting of the new and different.  Of course, you have to be careful not to generalize. One example is not a trend, and a trend is not a truth.  If I formed stereotypes based on the limited exposure I’ve had to members of certain nationalities, I’d believe that all Germans are chatty, all French people are cliquey, and all Dutch people are rational. I even have to be careful not to extrapolate from Aucklanders to New Zealanders, as Auckland is to New Zealand what New York City is to the United States.

Still, I must admit that I love it when someone turns out to be a walking cultural cliché, unless that person is an American.  One of the most interesting things for me about living abroad has been discovering what non-Americans believe about the United States.

What you’re about to hear will shock and appall you.

It represents one of the greatest threats to freedom and democracy.

Finally, the secret will be revealed: Americans send their children away to summer camp!

The question is what are YOU going to do about it?

See what I did there?  I “Americanized” my blog.  Apparently we are suckers for sensationalism and guilt.  Also, to the horror of one local radio announce, American parents ship their kids off to overnight camp in the summer against their will, scarring them for life and giving them abandonment issues that only years of therapy will resolve.  That a Kiwi would find the concept of summer camp distressing is particularly odd, as New Zealanders are known for flying the nest.  The New Zealand Government’s Population and Sustainable Development website states that approximately 600,000 Kiwis live overseas.  The total population of New Zealand is only 4.2 million people.

The Titanic Awards, a website that celebrates the “dubious achievements of travel”, features polls on topics of interest to travelers.   Categories include world’s rudest, worst dressed, most easily fooled, and cheapest tourists.  Americans rank among the top three in all categories.

Those results don’t necessarily strike me as suspect.  But when I saw that the United States was also voted as one of the places where you’ll find the worst tasting drinking water (behind India and Mexico), I began to question the validity of the poll.  I’m fairly certain that there are numerous countries whose drinking water is worse than that of the United States, both going down and coming back out.  This leads me to believe that the people surveyed either travel in a very narrow circle or are voting based on prejudice rather than direct experience.

If I ran the website, I would add another category: “Most Likely To Talk Badly About Their Own Country”.  No doubt, American tourists would top the list.  Gone are the days when American travelers affixed a Canadian flag to their backpacks in an attempt to disguise their identity.  Nowadays, those wishing to distance themselves from the ugly, arrogant masses do so by openly bad mouthing America.  In a roomful of backpackers, the most emphatic critic of the United States is likely to be an American.

Not long ago, I met a young African-American man from upstate New York, on holiday in New Zealand before returning to his graduate studies in veterinary medicine.  His primary conflict was trying to decide if he should specialize in horses or dogs.  When I told him I had been living abroad for four years and had no plans to move back to the States, he remarked that I must be, “as disenchanted and disillusioned as he is.”

“Not exactly.  American does a lot of things really well; but there are other ways of doing things that are just as good. I’m just exploring the alternatives,” I explained.

“That’s very wise of you.”

“Thanks.  By the way, I love your t-shirt.”  He grinned and puffed out his chest, where “MY PRESIDENT IS BLACK” was scrawled in large capital letters.

I’m no nationalist nor would I ever advocate defending America’s honor at all costs.  Certainly, the United States can stand up for itself (which is why everyone hates us in the first place).  American citizens should be honest about the mistakes and shortcomings of our country of origin.  However, in mixed company, maybe we could try to downplay our defects and emphasis our strengths. That American citizens are able to publicly denounce their country without fear of imprisonment for treason may be one of the highlights of American society; but it seems to me that we’re abusing that right.

You may think that by trashing the United States, you’re improving your own reputation, but really, you’re just reinforcing negative stereotypes that will later be used to judge you.  In my experience, many foreigners ask about the United States in the hopes that you will confirm what they already believe.  When you don’t, they grow bored and impatient and move on in search of someone who will.  Besides, someone who sees you as a nationality before they see you as an individual is not worth your time.

Recently, I listened to a group of travelers discussing the movie Bruno. “I’m so embarrassed by how many stupid Americans there are,” sighed the lone American in the pack of Europeans.  “Hey,” I interrupted, “if there’s one thing I’m certain of it’s this – all countries have stupid people.”

For more tales of cultural quirks, traditions, customs, and clichés, check out Glimpse, which features real stories from real travelers from all over the globe.


Good While It Lasted: Managing Transience

Wellington, New Zealand

I may be a fan of The Power of Now and a proponent of living in the moment, but if I’m being honest, I don’t and can’t always practice what I preach.  We live in a fearful, future-focused society that encourages us to help our children plan for retirement rather than talk to them about safe sex.  Delayed gratification is a virtue, while instant gratification is seen as hedonistic, frivolous, self-indulgent, and worse, irresponsible. But I believe in the short-term.  I believe that we should allow ourselves to do the things that make us happy now, even if they won’t do anything for us later.  Call me a utilitarian (actually, please don’t), but I believe in the intrinsic value of pleasure.   Yet lately, I’ve been plagued by the question what’s the point?

Considering that I’ve only been in Wellington permanently (and given the nature of the current discussion, I use that term reluctantly) for a few weeks, things are going well.  I live alone and rent-free in a beautiful house, and I have a fun part-time job, friends whose company I enjoy, and a good-looking English guy to give me something to think about.  In other words, there are a lot of things to be happy about.

But happy is not exactly how I’ve been feeling lately.  And trust me, there is nothing more frustrating, obnoxious, or unattractive than being able to count your blessings but not being able to appreciate them.  It’s a little like finding out that your boss, who has a wife and twin girls, is having an affair with the young man who works in the mailroom, and not being able to tell anyone about it.  At first, hormones were my only explanation for this unwarranted and irrational display of indifference.  Until I realized that rationality was actually to blame for my bad mood.

Yesterday, after dance class, I met a friend for coffee.  She had spent the weekend in the mountains, interviewing for seasonal work at a ski lodge.  A lot had happened since we had last spoke, just a week before.  We sat for hours talking psychology, dating, and the hardships of being an expat.  It was one of those great conversations that graduate the relationship to the next level of friendship.  However, when we said goodbye, I didn’t feel satisfied.  I felt empty.  During the evening, my friend had revealed that whether she gets the job or not, she will likely leave Wellington within the next month. And it hit me just how temporary my life is at the moment.

The pleasure we derive from doing certain things, like buying treasury bonds, lifting weights, or shaving our legs is based on the promise that our actions in the present will pay off in the future.  Sure, the more masochistic among us may find such activities amusing (I, for one, do genuinely like going to the gym), but for the most part, we suffer these tasks in silence because we understand that they are part of the creative process.  All of these actions, and the subsequent sore muscles and nicked knees, are necessary in order to reach our objectives.  And it is the knowledge that we are building a foundation or nearing our goal that makes these steps not just bearable, but rewarding.

So, it’s a little disheartening and disappointing knowing with certainty that I will soon have to say good-bye to many of the wonderful things in my life, like the house, my job at the bookstore, and my friend.  And it’s discouraging sensing that the energy I am currently expending will not be compensated.  I just can’t help but feel burdened by the expiration date.  Which brings us back to the age-old question: is it better to have loved and lost or to have never loved at all? When I think about my time in Argentina, this blog, or the recent coffee date with my friend and how comforting it was to share stories, worries, and plans with another person, I would definitely place my vote on the former.

Besides, as my friend pointed out, as much as I need a certain amount of stability and control, I also need to explore, experiment, and evolve.  If everything were sorted and settled, eventually I would get bored and crave change.  Rather than resist or resent the transient nature of my existence, perhaps I should try to accept and embrace it, as it gives me the opportunity to constantly refresh and do-over.  The problem is when something ends before you’re ready to give it up.

It’s exhausting to think about starting anew, again. Especially for a girl who may or may not be writing this at 1pm from her bed because she can’t be bothered to get dressed.  I had been hoping to put on cruise control and just coast for a while.  However, in the immortal words of Bryan Adams, “Ain’t no use in complaining when you got a job to do.”  And there’s also no use in staying at home on a Saturday night, even if it is raining, just because your partner in crime won’t be around the following weekend.  So, I guess I’m going to get up, brush my teeth, and make dinner plans with a friend who is leaving for Asia next week.  I might as well enjoy what I’ve got before it’s gone.

Nouveau Riche: Moving Abroad and Movin’ On Up

Buenos Aires, Argentina

A funny thing happened on the way to Argentina: my socioeconomic status changed.  Growing up in the States, I, like most of my friends and classmates, was middle/upper-middle class.  I never wanted for anything, and often got exactly what I wanted, probably because I never asked for too much.  As is common to my social class, I learned that what you have does not define who you are, the value of hard work and earning your own allowance, and to judge the way that other people spend their money.  This middle class doctrine was only compounded by the quasi-Socialist values of the liberal, intellectual college town where I was born and raised.  Imagine my surprise when I moved to South America, and my assortment of iPods, brand name clothes, passport stamps, and Bat Mitzvah savings all catapulted me into the upper class, albeit the lower-upper class.

Because Buenos Aires looks and feels like a major European city, it can be hard to remember that it is the capital of a developing country.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was one of the world’s ten richest countries, an economic powerhouse with per capita income similar to that of France or Germany.  Despite its strong start, during the past century the country was plagued with financial instability, thanks in large part to a turbulent political situation.  However, during the 1990s, with the peso pegged to the dollar, Argentina had one of the fastest growing economies in the world.  Citizens were once again wealthy at home and abroad.

Then, in 2001, Argentina suffered a disastrous economic crisis.  Convertibility ended and the peso depreciated significantly leading to inflation, as Argentina had no way of quickly compensating for its dependence on inexpensive foreign imports.  By 2002, Buenos Aires was considered one of the cheapest cities in Latin America.  The previous year, it had been the most expensive.  Even though the Argentine economy has rebounded sharply in the past five years, growing at an average rate of 8.5%, prices are rising and people are struggling.  Argentina is like one of those families who continues to keep up appearances after the father gambles away the family fortune, both reluctant to lose its place in high society and confident in its ability to stage a comeback.

Buenos Aires remains a beautiful, even luxurious place, but fewer are those who can afford to take advantage of what it has to offer, and many of them are not from around here.  It used to bother me the way that wealthy Westerners have converted Buenos Aires into the world’s hottest outlet mall, capitalizing on the city’s supply of high style and quality at low cost.  But even if it was not my intention to profit from the misfortune of an entire nation, I, too, have benefited from Argentina’s financial woes.

The quality of my life in Buenos Aires has been far greater than it would have been in the United States or Europe, under similar conditions. I have been able to treat myself to dinners at fancy restaurants, late-night taxis, scuba vacations, apartments in the nicest neighborhoods, and classes at the top dance and yoga studios.  Not all the time or every day, but enough.  And my lifestyle has been financed with nothing more than the money I made as a summer intern at an international consulting firm before moving abroad, and, later, a generous nonprofit salary.

My partners in consumption are either fellow expats or members of the country’s elite. Amazingly, although absolute measures of wealth may vary from country to country, social class stereotypes remain constant.  Having a roommate in Argentina is uncommon, as most young people can’t afford to leave home.  Argentines willing and able to open their doors to a stranger are often those whose parents have purchased them a spacious apartment, among other things, and want to fill the extra space and earn extra spending money.  I have watched such roommates eat Ramen noodles with a silver spoon, because they don’t know how to cook, and I have seen mothers come over to do the dishes and drop off dry cleaning.  On one occasion I heard a roommate chastise a houseguest for leaving clothes to dry in the living room, because, “it makes us look like we’re from the ghetto.”

Finding friends who share the same financial situation, background, and social values, priorities, and interests has been challenging.  I am neither obsessed with appearances nor incapable of caring for myself, and the assumptions can be aggravating.  A group of Argentine girls once confessed to a British friend of mine that they don’t eat fast food because they couldn’t be seen in “places like that.”  Since my friend is from London, they imagined she shared their snobbery, failing to realize that she routinely finishes her Saturday night with a Big Mac and fries.  If I comment on how expensive an item is, the store clerk inevitably reminds me that it’s cheap in dollars.  Leaving me to explain that I don’t have dollars, I earn and spend in pesos.  And people quickly assume that my parents are maintaining me.  Maybe I am well-educated, traveled, and dressed, but I am not a rich kid at heart.  We may dine at the same restaurants, shop at the same stores, and live in the same neighborhood, but we got there in very different ways.  Or did we?

Recently, I have come to the conclusion that I am more spoiled, and more of a brat than I would care to admit.  Thanks to my parents, I have no student loans, and following graduation, I had free room, board, and car insurance, enabling me to save for my trip abroad.  My financial freedom is backed by my parents’ dual income, and the knowledge that my bedroom has not yet been converted into a study.  I am notoriously careless with my possessions: dropping new cell phones in rivers, eating and drinking in front of my computer, and heaping dirty clothes in piles on the floor.  Partly because I am lazy and partly because I know that these things can be replaced.  After all, it’s only money.

Since moving to South America, I have wrestled feelings of guilt; for having so much while so many people have too little and, more importantly, for being ungrateful of what I have and taking my privilege for granted.  Growing up, I never felt relatively deprived, but I never felt relatively wealthy either.  I now understand that much of what for me is an expectation is a luxury to the rest of the world.

These past few months, I have had to cut back in order to stay within my budget.  I walk or take the bus, I cook instead of eat out, and I don’t shop or go to the movies.  I’ve also become domesticated, hanging up and folding, making my bed, and scrubbing the bathroom floor. I’ve learned to take responsibility for and pride in my belongings and to make the most of less.  At some point, I even considered renouncing the pursuit of worldly pleasures.  But, then I realized that having just enough to survive is not just stressful, it’s lonely, because you have nothing left to share.

Fortunately, my reality is not one of subsistence.  While I don’t want it to be one of excess, either, I do want to be able to go out for drinks with friends, have space for houseguests, and treat those people who have taken care of me to dinner. I like being able to do nice things for the people I care about, and that requires resources.  Besides, you are no help to anyone else if all of your time, energy, and money are focused on you and your own survival.   And sure, I don’t need pretty things, but I want them, because there is nothing wrong with having beauty in your life, especially if you appreciate it.  I guess it’s a good thing my mother’s coming to visit me in a week.

Agents of Change: Watching President Obama From Afar

Buenos Aires, ArgentinaObama Brownie

Domestic politics bore me.  The characters are always the same, the issues unchanging, and the scandals not particularly scandalous (or maybe I’m just desensitized to old white men doing salacious things in public spaces).  Above all, the United States is a functioning democracy that respects human rights and protects and serves its citizens, at least for the most part.  And there just isn’t much room for outrage or outcry.

International politics are where the real action is.  There are megalomaniacal leaders, coup d’états (both failed and successful), weapons of mass destruction (both real and imagined), balances of power, unions and break-ups, protocols and conventions, embargos and treaties, violations and trials.  Foreign affairs are the Mexican telenovela of political science.  Even the name evokes drama.

In college, I loved discussing theory, history, actors, issues, and most importantly, solutions in my Economics and International Studies classes.  Naturally, I imagined that living in South America would only heighten my passion for and awareness of these subjects.  However, since moving abroad, I’ve felt more cut off from the world than ever.

When I was still in school, people helped me to navigate through current events.  Teachers assigned readings, friends and family recited and debated headlines over dinner, and The New York Times and The Economist dictated what was worth knowing and had a monopoly on the facts.  On my own, I found myself drowning in the sea of information.

Suddenly, there were stories about conflicts in countries that I had never heard of between cultures and nations that I didn’t know existed, in languages I was just learning to speak.  I didn’t know which region of the world was worthy of attention, which crisis deserved the most time and energy, and which point of view to trust and respect.  Everything moved so quickly, it was hard to keep up.  Yet at the same time, nothing ever seemed to change or improve.  Frustrated and overwhelmed, I turned inwards, escaping from the ugliness and brutality in the world, and focusing on resolving my own issues and finding inner peace.

Before moving abroad, I at least absorbed important news through osmosis.  But in Argentina, if I don’t actively seek information about current events, I am totally out of the loop. It was during my headline news boycott that Barack Obama entered the scene.  Of course, I heard people about the Obama mania that was sweeping the nation, but I had no notion of the depth or importance of what was happening.  But then my parents started to fight, my mother almost reduced to tears when my father expressed doubts over Obama’s chances of winning.  “Your father is so cynical,” she would sigh when we spoke on the phone.
“I’m not cynical.  I’m realistic,” he would yell in the background.

When my friends began taking time off work to volunteer for the Obama campaign, I decided that this election was worthy of attention.  To get to know The Candidate better, I went online and read a transcript of Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.   I was moved by the power of his words, and saddened that I was missing out on an opportunity to be inspired.  I began to question my own political inaction, and to feel  guilty and selfish for having abandoned the fight, and for not contributing to the cause.  Until a friend helped me understand that disengaging is a strategy for change.

I read that when confronted with an unsatisfactory situation, you have three options: accept it, change it, or remove yourself from it.  More and more of my peers, it seems, are choosing option C: walk away.  We are not apathetic or disinterested.  We are just tired of waiting for the world to change.  Personally, I was bored of hearing the same rhetoric recycled and regurgitated.  I was tired of watching us turn in circles, applying the same ineffective strategies to persistent problems.  And I was disheartened by the fact that people are still killing and dying to protect or get things that aren’t theirs or aren’t necessary.  At some point I said, I don’t want to live under these conditions, not when I have a choice.  So I left home, hoping to create a microcosm that reflects my values, interests, and priorities.

Most of us are no longer looking for a temporary solution.  We demand fundamental changes, but we are bluffing.  There is no “or else.”  There are no ultimatums.  Paradigm shifts cannot be imposed from the top down.  Communities, local and international, are comprised of individuals.  And social values, norms, and institutions reflect, or should reflect, the beliefs, behaviors, and needs of the people. The world will change when a critical mass of individuals change the way they think, act, and live.

If enough people concerned about the environment move to big cities with public transportation or small towns where they can walk or ride a bike, maybe other cities will change in order to retain their residents.  If enough people worried about human rights and social justice refuse to buy products made in sweatshops or under inhumane conditions, maybe other manufacturers will change to appease their customers.  If enough socially conscious CEOs take pay cuts and invest profits in human resources, maybe other companies will change in order to compete for employees.  If enough of the best and brightest concerned with social welfare move to countries that offer universal healthcare, social security, and work-life balance, maybe their own countries will change in order to prevent brain drain.  And if enough politically active youths dedicate their vacation days to presidential campaigns, Barack Obama becomes President of the United States.

President Obama promises change, but he doesn’t necessarily promise to be the one to make those changes.  Let’s be honest, the new President has inherited a mess, and will likely spend the next four years trying to relieve the disaster left by his predecessors. One of the sentiments from Obama’s nomination acceptance speech that most inspired me was reiterated in his inauguration address:

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon  which this nation relies. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly….  This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

When Barack Obama accepted the presidency, he didn’t just give people hope. He gave them a mandate.  One man cannot manufacture a miracle, but we’ve seen what can happen when the interests of a nation of disaffected individuals align. Perhaps President Obama’s greatest legacy will not be the policies he implements, but the responsibility and authority he delegates to his people.

Three-Year Ego Boost: Sharing the Streets with Argentine Men

Buenos Aires, Argentina

6:45am.  Downtown.  I am walking to my first English class of the day.  The dark circles under my eyes match the color of my over-sized winter jacket, and nearly reach the scarf tied around my neck.  The only other person on the street at this hour is a businessman.  Wind has blown my hair over my reddened face, but he is unmistakable by his suit and the cell phone pressed to his ear.  As he passes he leans in, interrupting his early morning conversation to tell me, “Qué linda que sos.”  You’re beautiful.  I know how to take a compliment, but that was clearly bullshit.

Catcalling is a national pastime in Argentina.  I studied abroad in Spain and traveled through Italy, so Buenos Aires was not my first encounter with unsolicited comments and hissing. And of course, catcalling exists in the United States.  But still, the consistency and pervasiveness of it here never ceases to amaze me. You cannot walk down the street without someone literally congratulating you on how pretty you are.  (I am always tempted to tell them to direct all feedback to my parents, but as a rule I don’t dignify such behavior with a response.)  I complained about this to an English acquaintance living in France. She eyed me with jealous contempt and remarked, “Basically what you’re saying is that you’ve had a three-year ego boost.”

Personally, I don’t find catcalls demeaning, degrading, or threatening, but I certainly don’t find them flattering.  How can it possibly make you feel special when someone says the exact same thing to every single woman, regardless of shape, size, age, place, or time?  The men here lack creativity, criteria, and sincerity. Hitting on women is a reflex so deeply ingrained in their machismo culture that it has become an unconscious reaction.  I’m not sure that the businessman who talked to me was even aware of doing so.

Rarely has a catcall provoked a positive reaction.  There was one afternoon while I was running.  I was feeling particularly not in shape when a guy yelled, “No te hace falta ese ejercicio.”  You don’t need to exercise.  On another occasion, I was walking down the street, wearing a new hat.  I liked the hat but worried it made me look like a back-up dancer from a Paula Abdul video.  An old man, stooped over, shuffling down the sidewalk stopped and said, “Qué bien que te queda esa gorrita.”  That hat looks great on you.  I actually responded, “thanks!”

For the most part, I find the uninvited attention obnoxious, invasive, and disrespectful.  What bothers me most is that it robs me of my anonymity.  One of the great things about living in a big city is that you can get lost in the crowd.  You may be surrounded by thousands of people, but you get the whole city to yourself.  In Buenos Aires, people audibly notice you on every street corner.  There is no regard or respect for privacy or personal boundaries.  Even if men have the genuine intention of complimenting you, they don’t realize that unsolicited praise from a stranger is often unwelcome.

As it so happens, becoming invisible is easy.  I just have to go the United States.  The first time I returned home after moving to Argentina, I was culture-shocked by how no one even looked at me in that way, let alone said anything.  In my hometown, the only people who shout at you on the street are construction workers, and that’s to warn you to watch your step.

I didn’t realized how accustomed I had grown to being noticed.  That’s not to say that I liked it, just that I had come to expect it.  Like a high-pitched noise that you don’t hear until it stops, and that you kind of miss when it’s gone.  At first, I worried that something had happened during the flight.  But then I realized that while a ten-hour plane ride looks good on no one, it’s hardly enough to turn you ugly.  It’s not me, I decided. It’s them.

Don’t ask me how, but we have housebroken American men. We have taught them exactly when and where it is appropriate to approach women as members of the opposite sex.  For example, in a bar, club, or party, totally acceptable.  When we look especially good, acceptable.  When we find you attractive, acceptable.  In all other circumstances, we are to be regarded as equals. We have trained American men not to see us as women.

Someone once told me that we are given gifts and talents to share them with others. If you have an incredible voice, it’s not so that you can sing in the shower.  If you are an amazing artist, it’s not so that you can paint your garage.  And if you are attractive, it’s not so that you can stare at your reflection. We don’t need our eyes, mouths, or bodies to be pretty, we just need them to function.  So, if you are beautiful, which we all are in our own way, it’s not for your own benefit. And if someone genuinely recognizes your physical beauty, or is perceptive enough to see your inner beauty, they should be able to express their appreciation.

Neither country has it right.  Argentine men are too hot, and American men are too cold.  I want men to view me as a woman, but first and foremost to respect me as a person.  I want them to feel comfortable talking to me, but to think about my feelings before they speak. I don’t want a stranger shouting his admiration at me from a distance of 20 feet, but I also don’t want him to be afraid to smile.

I am an independent, intelligent, ambitious, talented individual, and I expect to be treated as such.  But I am also a young, attractive woman, and I expect to be treated as such. Women don’t want to be objectified. But let’s be honest, we are objects of beauty.

Prize Winning Pumpkin: Celebrating American Culture Abroad

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Moving competition-size pumpkins calls for a forklift.Today, I stumbled upon a Japanese Culture Festival at the     Jardín Japonés.  Organized by the Fundación Cultural Argentino Japonesa, the agenda included a food tasting and a judo exhibition, both of which I missed.  Luckily, I arrived just in time for a performance by Medetaiko, a Japanese drum ensemble.

Taiko, according to Google, refers to both a kind of drum and a style of ensemble drumming which combines traditional Japanese percussion with karate movements.  Performed in customary dress, taiko is a high-energy mix of music, dance, and martial arts, and it’s fabulous. Taiko drums have been in use for some 2000 years, but Taiko as it is performed today dates back only to the 1950s.  In the 1980s, the Japanese government began sponsoring taiko groups as a way to preserve and promote Japanese culture both at home and abroad.  There are now approximately 5,000 taiko groups in Japan.

As I sat there watching Japanese drumming in Argentina, I thought about how wonderful it is that Japanese immigrants have been able to maintain their cultural identity and share their traditions with both their children and their host country.  And I began to wonder what an American Cultural Festival would like:

12pm: Beauty Pageant
1pm: How to Build the World’s Largest Ball of Yarn
2pm: Thomas Kinkade Cross Stitch Workshop
3pm: Pie Eating Contest

Large immigrant groups tend to inspire the foundation of organizations dedicated to improving cross-cultural relations, and to the preservation, teaching, and diffusion of the language, customs, and rites of the migrant community.  I guess that because Americans tend not to emigrate, you don’t see a lot of American Cultural Societies in foreign countries.

Come to think of it, even though we don’t send people abroad, American language, culture, and commerce is so pervasive worldwide that I’m not sure that such an association would be necessary.  Want to teach your expat children about American society?  Turn on the T.V.  Want them to learn to speak English?  Send them to any local school.  Want to introduce them to American goods and products?  Look for the nearest Walmart. Still, for those of us who do live, work, or raise families abroad, it would be nice to have a building shaped like a skyscraper where we could play baseball, listen to hip-hop music, and eat a decent sandwich.

Of course, it’s wonderful that America does not produce many refugees or political exiles, and that people born in the United States tend to feel comfortable and welcome right where they are.  But the downside to this is that we are not actively promoting awareness or understanding of our culture abroad, nor are we mingling with or learning from other peoples.  If you ask me, a few more American cross-cultural associations in other countries might not be a bad thing.

Quite honestly, I’m saddened by the idea that everything people know about American culture, they learned from Friends.  And I’m even sadder to admit that if I were open an American Cultural Society abroad, I’m not sure what services and activities it would offer, what events it would organize, or what traditions it would celebrate.

Any ideas?

Please, May I Have a Little Less?: America’s Consumer Culture

Peanut butter and jelly on a pumpkin bagel

Peanut butter and jelly on a pumpkin bagel

I was recently in the States for the first time in almost a year. Now, a year may be long enough for my parents to redo the landscaping, but it is hardly long enough for me to feel like a stranger in my own home. Yet this trip found me in tears in the snack food aisle.

“Do I want barbeque or sour cream and onion? Baked or fried? Do I even like potato chips?” What had started as a simple trip to the supermarket had turned into an identity crisis. Aisles later, I realized that my problem wasn’t that I couldn’t pick a flavor, it was that I couldn’t find the right product. Back to my senses, I returned the box of chocolate chip cookie cereal to the shelf, and as I left the store empty handed I wondered: if America is the land of plenty, why doesn’t it have anything to offer me?

Groceries come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and colors but they all belong to the same category: artificial. I don’t want to microwave it or just add water. While I appreciate convenience and efficiency, I prefer to have the time, energy, and materials to cook it myself. But Americans don’t create, they consume. This cultural phenomenon, reflected in the supermarket, was the true cause of my culture shock.

Americans, it seems to me, are in a never-ending pursuit of products, because “stuff” has become synonymous with happiness. Money dictates moods. People are defined by what they have and they are haunted by what they have not. Because new and improved products constantly enter the market, there is a lingering sense of dissatisfaction and relative deprivation.

Perhaps worst of all, the availability and accessibility of top end consumer goods has caused Americans to lose perspective and to miscalculate their own quality of life. Some of the wealthiest people in the world believe themselves to be poor. Clothes purchased at Target are often better than those found at top stores in Argentina. Luxury has become the new basic. Yet Americans go into credit card debt over Louis Vuitton purses.

My preferences and priorities are somewhat simpler. This is not to say that I don’t like pretty things or that I don’t miss certain products from the States. Garbage disposals, tampons with applicators, and pumpkin bagels all spring to mind. However, I am not defined or motivated by them. And for me, the cost of living in a society that offers those products is too high. I don’t want to trade my interests, passions, talents, and health for purchasing power. Houses, cars, clothes, and iPhones are not worth my soul.

Personally, I would rather pay less and receive less. There are even times when I would be willing to pay the same and receive less. One night while in the States, I went to the mall to treat myself to frozen yogurt. The boy behind the counter grabbed what looked to be a venti frappuccino cup stolen from the neighboring Starbucks. “Is that really the smallest size there is?” I asked in disbelief. He assured me that it was. Before he had finished filling the cup, I shouted to him in desperation, “That’s enough!” I wanted dessert, not Thanksgiving dinner. In the end, I had to throw most of it away anyways.

25% more free is wasted on me. I don’t have the space to store it and I can’t possibly consume it before it goes bad. What I want is moderation. But that option is now obsolete.

Finding balance in the States is it not impossible. But when the pervasive culture is to always strive for more, you have to fight if you want less. Or if not fight, at the very least defend. You have to defend your lifestyle from the judgment of others and from the temptation to keep up with the Jone’s.

When I explain to people that I would rather enjoy my life now than spend it collecting objects, they look at me like I’m lazy, crazy, or a Socialist. If you ask me, lazy is letting a machine do all the work for you. And crazy is starting to save for retirement the day you graduate from college, saddling yourself with debts and loans so that you can buy things that you can’t afford, wasting your days inside chained to a desk, and looking for fulfillment in material possessions.

Ultimately, this is not about ideology. I’m not trying to start a revolution. And I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with having expensive tastes. I just don’t want to live in a place where comfort kills creativity, where salvation is found in shopping, and where fear of financial insecurity in the future prevents people from living the present. Personally, I don’t want to have to be rich to be happy.

For more on the paradox of choice, check out Barry Schwartz’s Ted Talk

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