Friday, December 2, 2011

Cultural Things

Kelly linked (on facebook) to an article that lists 17 Cultural Reasons an Irishman (as in grew up in Ireland, not here) wouldn't want to live in America and I find it fascinating. Partially because I recently listed American television as one of the reasons it would be hard for me to leave. I'm used to our excessive entertainment budget and plethora of television viewing options at any time of the day or night.

Yes, every now and then I consider leaving. I'm not a Nationalist (screaming American is Number One without checking facts or statistics or how other nations work) so every so often I get discouraged. Worried that this isn't the America I believed in -- and that it might never be the America I believed in.

By the people, for the people.
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Freedom of religion, separation of church and state.

Put those together and you get a nation where the government is there to keep it's citizens safe, healthy, and free from fear.

Sadly, that's not what I see when Fox News chastises the President for not bringing a specific god in on Thanksgiving -- a holiday we have where we're thankful non-Christians stepped in and kept the Puritans (high-octane, rabid, Christians?) from starving. And that same news station speaks against welfare so we can let loads of modern Christians starve. When people are screaming to let someone die who didn't have health insurance without realizing that many people have to choose health insurance or a roof over their head. (That's the choice, people, they're not saying they don't want health insurance.)

When police start beating up peaceful protesters. And where poor sad idiots defend the wealth of the 1% when most of us realize that even winning the highest lottery jackpot won't get them out of the 99%. (These are people who make millions each year, not who made millions once. --Also, not all billionaires are bad people. Just the ones who don't want to pay their taxes or who don't want their corporation to pay taxes at all, but still want to claim the title of being American.)

All this makes me so sad I start looking at other nations to see if they offer those ideals America was built on (You will get no blind worship from me, but honor your commitments and ideals and I will be your staunchest defender.) so when I look at the article I can read it without anger, but I do there are parts that seem a bit off and some parts that just require more cultural background to get. And rebuttals are easier than coming up with something clever and original all on my own.

So, rebuttals.
1. Americans are too sensitive.

Fat Americans know they're fat. This is not a surprise to them and it isn't an issue of no one telling them because we're trying to be nice.  (Now that dude I saw at some Asian restaurant whose belly popped out under his waistband to give evidence why pleats are such a bad idea might not, but he was holding a very small infant and I suspect he gained baby weight with his wife and has likely been too frazzled with newborn sleeplessness to realize he needed to go pant shopping. I wouldn't add to his stress.)

The problem I see is that there is a level of scrawny in every movie and on every magazine cover that puts beauty so far out of the reach of the average person they fall into the WhyBother trap. Seriously, there was a whole news to-do about Brittney Spears gaining ten pounds and becoming too fat. Ten pounds! Back before she was a legal adult.

And I have a friend who was doing great at losing weight then had to go back on birth control to keep from having debilitating menstrual cramps. She ate less than my food-picky 2 year old and kept gaining. Weight gain is a side-effect listed on the package of most birth controls -- and many other medications in our highly medicated society -- but it isn't pointed out often and doctors will tell their patients to change their diet before they'll consider changing medication. The patient has to realize the problem on their own and ask for a medicine change -- but often the other medicines have other and possibly worse side-effects. Can you imagine how discouraging that is when they're already starving themselves? Or how helpful it could possibly be for us to tell these people they're fat when every magazine they see is already saying it?

Americans are nagged to death on their looks.

Constructive criticism? You'll get it more from the people have been given constructive criticism in their lives. It's as individual here in the States as it is anywhere else.

But, the more we focus on improving a child's self-esteem beyond all other concerns, the fewer examples they'll have. It's a hard line to navigate as a parent and while I'll see news stories where I feel other parents are doing it wrong (getting angry with the teacher who fails them for cheating rather than the child who cheats) I don't have (and don't want) the power to change how they choose to raise their own children. In the best case scenario, administration would stand up to the parent and the children would learn from the school the lesson their parents should have taught. We don't always get that result, but we can hope.

2. Everything is "awesome."

How are you? Fine.

It's a social ritual. Answers other than "fine" feel like an intrusive way to air your problems when people really didn't want to know. They wanted the easy generic social chitchat among not-quite-friends.

I never ask my close friends, how are you. I ask about the school issue they talked about last time; how they're enjoying their new job now that they've been there a month; whether their husband's medical issue is improving; what crafting thing is happening now; what's up with that confusing Facebook post....

3. Smiling means nothing.

Smiling means a lot. Smiling is an acknowledgement of someone's presence, an offer to let a car out in front of you, a promise to the oncoming bicyclist that you won't run them over even if traffic gives you an opening, an apology for a misspoken sentiment or something that came out more hurtful than intended. Paired with a wave it's a hello or goodbye across a crowd. Tight-lipped, it commiserates with pain that words cannot make better. It helps frame a joke in a culture fond of sarcasm. Offered to strangers, it's a request for them to be happy with you or a wordless expression of goodwill.

Maybe the problem is that smiling means too much.

4. Tipping.

I can't defend tipping. It dislike it immensely. I think waitstaff should be paid a living wage and tipping should be extra when you're particularly happy with them. I've had waitstaff leave me waiting half an hour before offering even a beverage, come back forty-five minutes later to deliver cold food and a check, then never see them again. And still I felt a need to tip them because I knew their hourly wage was ridiculous. Hate that.

Sadly, I think the practice is too ingrained to be changed.

5. False prices on everything.

I would love taxes to be added into the price before purchase; to see the full cost on the sticker. I have no idea why they're not. Taxes are different in many counties and states, but not for different people -- except those who don't pay taxes (purchasing for state agencies) and they have to go through a special checkout procedure anyway. Once it gets to the final store, the final price should be set and stamped on.

It probably has to do with all the psychology testing on how to make people buy more, which is also annoying. We make so much crap here. Or rather, we have China make so much crap for us to sell here. I hate the extra charges airlines instituted since 9-11 as well as the extra "security" that is more image than actuality that these charges are pretending to pay for.

6. Cheesy in-your-face marketing.

Another one I agree with. Hate this. However, when I was in London there were flyers posted on every flat surface; bus stops, buildings, and store windows. Not quite the same as sticking it in television shows to the point you forget which show you were watching, but there are few places without it anymore. Vegas was ridiculous, but this isn't entirely American. We do, however, have psychologists who study ways to make you buy more and their discoveries have been instituted in most of the big chain stores. I think Time magazine had an article on it recently.

7. Wasteful Consumerism.

Yes. Support America, buy more stuff. Second-Bush era economics. Telling people to buy without looking at where they're buying from. It cannot be supporting America to buy knicknacks made in China, but we don't like telling people to think. Which is the single largest issue I have with America. If Americans were taught to question single-point directives like go buy, we'd be doing a lot better.

8. Idiotic Stereotypes of Other Countries.

I wouldn't have as much of a problem with this one if we were willing to admit our own stereotypes. What do we have? We're not thinky? We don't know geography, math or science. But hey, America is number 1. At what? Something.

During WWII, we manufactured so much in the US that we wouldn't be affected by other countries not trading with us for quite some time. Going to war against against German metal-workers wasn't going to leave our soldiers without weapons or our people without food. I wonder if this is still the case.

But feel free to stereotype us as full of ignorance and machismo. Watch any of our news channels and you'll see it's the stereotype we've chosen for ourselves. (Honestly, I'd rather be thought of for having fairies and an oversized love of alcohol -- or math.)

9. Heritage.

I think we are more interested in heritage because we don't have an American look. No one can look American -- except Native Americans and most of us aren't. Or, I suppose, there is no typical American. So we have to look outside our country to figure out who we look like. I'm a freckled redhead born in Pennsylvania and without any Irish heritage I've been able to find so far, but so many people see Irish in me that I don't bother to correct it. And changing countries seems like something that should have a story. Somewhere in our past someone left another country for us to end up here. Finding out where and when might give us a why and whether or not we know why, we can feel that our family has a story and even if it's short and without a point, we all love sharing stories.

10. ID checks and stupid drinking laws.

Recognizing that countries that don't have drinking-age laws at all don't have the same problems right up front, I then have to point a finger back at the Puritans. (Same idea, different detail: Do you know how many kinds of sex are illegal here? Actually, put on the books illegal?) We also had prohibition. Mixing religion and laws make for some bad ones or at least some really confusing messed up ones. Starting off with our people trying too hard to make others follow their religious tenets, we know we won't be able to get rid of our age restrictions, so we have to look at things practically. When the drinking age was raised to 21 the number of drinking-related car accidents plummeted.

It's hard to argue with statistics like those.

I hate that registering for the is required somewhere between years 18 and 25. Driving is allowed at 16. Military service at 18, and people have been tried as adults as young as 12, but drinking isn't allowed until 21. I hate it. There should be one age for that. Adult or not adult.

It's not easy because when parents aren't parental, children grow up fast. And when children aren't allowed to do anything on their own, they never grow up. We have both extremes. And still I think that legally, there should be an age. Adult or not adult.

Still, I can't defend that a few thousand fatal car accidents worth.

11. Religious Americans.

Yes. But with the television telling them that anyone who isn't of their religion is trying to take their god away, I sort of feel sorry for them. They have to spend most of their lives being terrified.

12. Corporations win all the time instead of small business.

I have to agree on this one. Instead of small businesses. Instead of people. Instead of practicality or logic. ("Drill, baby, drill" remaining one of the big political slogans even after the gulf coast oil-drenching.) This is one of the things that make me look at other countries too.

13. A country designed for cars, not humans.

Well, our country is huge and a lot of it is rural. And cars aren't a centuries-late afterthought for us. They were invented before much of our infrastructure so people created for the future instead of the past. There are obvious problems with that much forward thinking and tourists who prefer walking see much of it. (I'm lumping my sister and myself in there. Even in Ireland we had people asking us "you walked from where?" and we saw lots of walkers there. There were even walking based festivals.)

But I agree. We should be better at public transportation. Once we finish our current trend toward the selfish (don't want to pay for anything that I don't use directly) maybe we'll get better at that. I was so excited a few years ago when I thought we were going to get a high-speed rail throughout Florida -- I might go see Miami if it was a day-trip and we all know Florida gets much of it's income from tourism -- but it got voted down. I still can't figure out why.

Maybe we'll eventually figure out that taking care of others IS taking care of ourselves.

14. Always in a Hurry.

Diet pills aren't the real hurry. That's the surgery options. We've got those too. I always thought diet pills were for people who had trouble sticking to a diet and hoped the pills would help -- or for people who tried dieting and still didn't lose weight (like the ones on medication with side effects who hoped more medicine would help.)

I'm a home-mommy so my only hurry is to make sure I'm not late picking up the kids from school.  (Public transportation failure. Apparently the bus won't deliver the children who live within 2 miles of the school, no matter how young they are.)

We live in a moderately sized city though (not one of the big ones) and don't have the money to add a million activities to the children's days so that might be part of it.  (Making sure one of us got to be home to raise the children required significant monetary sacrifices.) So it could be more prevalent elsewhere or with people who have larger salaries.

15. Obsession with Money.

Yes. But that's only because rich people don't have to worry about healthcare or rent. And even the poor people on television have 4 bedroom apartments and smart-phones so why don't we?

And it might have something to do with the paparazzi or the celebrity-centered media. If we're so intensely focused on what they have, and the idiotic things they're doing with it, it's hard to feel we shouldn't have it instead.

Just a thought.

Because, while I'd like more money, we did choose to have a parent home with the children over two salaries and I get all my celebrity news from The Soup. If there wasn't something amusing about it, I'd have no interest at all. Maybe I would care if I followed celebrity news.

16. Unhealthy portions.

And I have to agree again. I suspect this is another of those something-for-nothing sales techniques cooked up by some study somewhere. And most restaurants look at you funny if you try to order a kid's meal for an adult. But they will bring a to-go box at the same time they bring a meal, if you ask.

Sadly, it colors our perception of our meals at home too. I've started serving all our meals on salad plates to keep us from over-filling. It's surprising how much effort it takes to counteract the images you get on all sides.

But then again -- drink sizes in Ireland were frustrating to those of us used to Venti coffees, but I don't remember finishing everything on my plate the entire two weeks we were there either. Maybe they were giving me American portions?

17. Thinking America is the Best

I think I've agreed with this one in fits and bursts all the way through. If we're to be the best, we have to be the best at something. Otherwise it's only empty words no more real than the things said by cocky teens as they try to puff out their chests.

We're not the best at freedom. We're not even pretending anymore. No mosque anywhere near ground zero. Require IDs and proof of citizenship from anyone in Alabama who has darker skin than white (perhaps less dark than black?). We're not at the top in education. Our hospitals aren't the best. There are nearly 50 countries with lower infant mortality rates than ours. We're not the best manufacturers. So many of our jobs have been shipped overseas.

Maybe we can claim that competence for war. We haven't been defeated (really defeated) in 100 years and we were a big part of (though not the totality of) the win in WWII. But I think that the more connected the world is, the less important this will be.

Besides, do we really want to be the best warmongers? Above all else we excel at killing large numbers of people? Go us.

Anyway, there was probably less rebutting than there should be in a rebuttal, but there are cultural reasons behind a lot of our craziness. Much of which I can recognize even if they're the parts that make me feel like America is trying to reject me (not a Christian) or if they're the parts that make it hard for me to keep faith in the ideals our country was based on.

Go America.

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