You never know how truly different your culture is until you’re no longer in it and exposed to something different. Traveling internationally has certainly proved that to me. For example I never thought it odd or rude to enter a home and leave my shoes on. And I never though it odd to sit on the living room floor of a home, in fact I often choose to sit on the floor because it’s more comfortable. Yet in some countries these two habits together would be considered rude and disgusting…and it makes sense. If the floor is a place where you spend your time sitting, laying, and relaxing, why would you want your shoes, the same ones that stepped in dog poo yesterday, walking all over the carpet? Kinda gross when you think about it huh?
Having spent most of my formative years in Oregon I didn’t realize that our culture there is independent and well, rather unfriendly. We value efficiency and professionalism and I didn’t realize that this often means sacrificing a more relaxed, laid back lifestyle and a level of friendliness with everybody…not until I traveled to Louisiana last winter. Now, I was in the same country where supposedly the same language is spoken in both states, however my two days in Louisiana (oh pronounced “Lucy-ann” by the locals) felt like being in a foreign country. To start off with, nothing is about efficiency there. It seems that the whole mindset is about people and relationships. So there, never mind that the roads don’t make a logical grid, if you get lost you get to talk to a stranger, ask for directions and maybe make a new friend. Never mind that even the above agerage hotels are dingy and certainly not comfortable to stay in. Why would you want to spend any of your awake time in a hotel room anyway when you could be out visitn’? My sister and I, one morning decided to go get coffee. My daughter was asleep so we decided to go to the drive up window instead of waking her up and getting out. So we pulled up to the menu and speaker box and waited, and waited and waited. Then we thought maybe the speaker was broken so we pulled around to the pick-up window and waited and waited again. Now we could see people inside, so we knew this little coffee shop was open, but apparently the drive thru was closed. A sign to let people know that? Oh no! Why would anybody want to go through a drive thru anyway when you can come inside and chat!? And so we did, well, didn’t chat so much, but we did park and go inside (yes, we were desperate for caffeine). Much to our shock not only did they not have ANY sandwich fixings (sandwiches were listed on the menu, the owner just forgot to order supplies that week, oops!) but the girl behind the counter was wearing, I kid you not, men’s boxer shorts, flip-flops, and a tee-shirt. But, thank God, they did have coffee! Now it took me a couple weeks to process this situation and realize what offended me so much. It was that I was inconvenienced and that I didn’t like how casual the employee was dressed, it had nothing to do with the food, er, coffee; that was actually really good. This encounter assaulted my culture, or rather the things that my culture taught me to value. Another interesting point is that this was a well attended coffee shop. None of the locals seemed bothered by the things that I didn’t like.
For the last three months I’ve had the privilege of teaching conversational english to international students on a weekly basis. We discuss our culture, their cultures, and any questions they have. This, more than any other experience, has made me examine our culture in a new way. Trying to explain habits and customs that, to me, seem normal and common place has been challenging. Their questions are so insightful that I feel like for a second I get an opportunity to take off my American glasses and wear Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Argentinian glasses. Sometime I have a hard time explaining why we Americans do things the way we do or why something offends us or why we celebrate certain holidays. There have been many times in class that I’ve said, “I don’t know why we do/think that, we just do.” The more I learn in order to teach them, like the origins of Halloween, why the Republican party is also called the GOP, why we have many levels of government, why personal space is so important to us, and why we send greeting cards, the more I realize that our culture is really very confusing and crazy. Maybe it’s because we’re a melting pot of many different cultures or maybe that’s the way all cultures are. At any rate I’m glad I’m a natural born citizen so that I don’t have to try and learn this crazy culture, however I am also so grateful for the opportunity to see it from a foreigner’s perspective.
P.S. For any reader who is from or loves Louisiana, let me say that I have a very dear friend who is a Louisiana native and she is without a doubt the most friendly, delightful, joyful, and outgoing person I know. She can start a conversation with anybody and can really communicate her care and affection. So though I did focus on their faults, Louisianans do know how to be relational.