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Published: February 14th 2015
It's that time of the year again. Time to say goodbye once more, this time to the USA and in particular to Texas, the truck-driving, gun-blasting, Jesus-lovin' Lone Star State. My curse and my blessing. Let me shortly look back to the countries which I have at least shortly lived in since I left my beloved Italy in 2007: the Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Hong Kong and finally, the United States. At the beginning of next week I will take another never-ending flight back to Hong Kong where I hopefully will wrap up my PhD and depart towards greener pastures.
There would be many things to write about my 4 months spent in the States and lots of good and bad stories to tell. As time and space is limited I will keep most of them for reluctantly listening kids when I am an old fart, ranting about how things have gone worse since I was young. What I want to do anyhow is to express how I have experienced the USA, in particular how my life here compares to what I was used to in Asia and in Europe; and when talking about the States, it is really
The smoke mystery of the NY sewers...
all about the small differences (OK I stole that one from Pulp Fiction).
Let's start with the most important part of every cross-cultural experience: the people. Well, I have spent most of my time in the US in Texas and living with 3 (maybe not all too typical) locals. As if this would not be enough bias, Texans are renowned for their strong identity within the States and, although they somehow represent the American stereotype, they are usually not seen as a good microcosm of the whole nation. Let's throw some words out there that I would consider fundamental to how I have experienced the American people taken an example from mostly Texans met along the way.
First, pretty genuine: in good and bad terms. On my first day in the local superstore HEB I was queuing for the check-out counter: and mind that I have been living in Hong Kong for more than 2 years. Space in Hong Kong is rare and people are used to crammed places. It is thus not surprising that I was standing somewhat close to the older lady which was in the queue before me. She pretty much just turned around and
New Year's Eve!
gave me a direct "can you please back up" to my face. I was pretty shocked, not only that she actually felt I stood too close (Asia) and that she actually told me about it so bluntly (Europe). Similar experiences have been redundant throughout my stay in the States. When people are happy they will just high-five you on the street, when they are pissed, well you better don't be around.
Second, very much individualistic... The all-overarching concept of "freedom" which lies on the core of the States identity has probably contributed to this. Freedom for Americans means that they are not to be harassed by what they perceive to be an outside force and invasion of their space. For example, I was told that in Texas the police can not stop you for an alcohol test if they don't have a valid reason (maybe you drive like a madman and they can actually get you). Else they don't have the right to check on you. Another example is the continuing debate about public health care in the States, which many Americans see as "collectivism" and ultimately an "invasion of their freedom". Although we are strongly individualistic in Europe,
none of us would dare to call a government benefit in such terms. This concept of freedom gives a larger margin of action to people living in the States, but you better do not step outside these given boundaries. In fact, I was caught for illegally downloading a movie and crossing a stop sign on an empty street (by bike!!). In other words, laws seem to be relatively loose but there is not much flexibility outside the rules given.
Last, the ethnic mix of the States is just incredible for a European to understand. When I ask random Americans where their ancestors came from they would often go from 1/6th native to 1/4th Scottish with Italian ancestors. Ultimately they would end up saying "what the hell, I am just from Texas" and this sums their identity pretty much up. The USA have somehow managed to mix this genetic whirlpool into a strong "American" identity concept, mostly being based on nationality and not ethnicity. This would anyhow be an oversimplification as I notice a bigger divide among, for example, black and white people in the USA than anywhere else I have been so far. If by any chance you should
Crowds in Times Square
be of the wrong color in the wrong area of town this can create some serious issues in the States. So the genetic whirlpool only goes as far as it is not openly visible to which ethnicity one belongs. I also realized that many bureaucratic forms to fill in the States ask for "race", a concept we would never touch in Europe.
There would be much more to say about the people I have met in the States, most of them have been great to me and I have to say that particularly my room mates have grown on me although I initially did not believe that we had anything in common. Shotguns, big ol' Jesus, white socks and drive-through coffee breaks have ultimately become part of my daily routine in College Station. The drive through obsession of the States gives me a good segway to the next point I want to make, namely the facilities in this country. In Europe, pretty much everything shuts at sunset. In Asia, pretty much everything is everywhere and open until midnight. In the USA, most stores are huge franchise businesses that can only be reached by car and keep open for 24
hours. You want a soft drink? Sprite, Fanta and Coke that is back home. Here we have Fanta Orange, Fanta Purple, Fanta Blue Zero, Fanta Whatsoever and the list could go until tomorrow. The sheer choice of products offered in the arguably most capitalist country of the world is just mind-blowing. In extremis, Doritos has developed tortilla chips with the taste of Mountain Dew: where is the limit 'Merica? While Asia is obsessed with consuming expensive and useless, America is obsessed with consuming more and cheaper. Bigger size, cheaper price. Buy 5 pay 3. Welcome to the USA.
This obsession with mega stores has also resulted in a country which mostly moves by car, sidewalks being absent in most of the States; bicycles are seen as more of a European hipster habit rather than a sustainable alternative to trucks and jeeps. This has resulted in a very indoorsy lifestyle where food is brought home or directly consumed in the car (it's pretty fun to see people pulling yesterday's french fries from somewhere in their car and take a big bite while driving). Cheap gas and amazing highways facilitate this lifestyle further and the killer weather in Texas helps with
the AC appreciation in the vehicles.
I could go on for a while with this blog but these are the things which stuck with me the most from these 4 months. Similar to Australia, I never thought that the States would be of any interest to me. I am more of a history and exotic culture kind of traveler. What I have found anyhow proves once again that actually getting out there is worth it. Texas has grown on me and so have the people surrounding me in this place. Would I like to live here? I am not sure. What I am sure about is that now, when that time of the year comes closer again, I do feel that little nagging feeling of a hard goodbye. A bitter aftertaste that I did not feel when leaving Hong Kong 4 months ago. So let me drop a couple of lines to all you Yanks out there: Thanks for having me, thanks for treating me with respect and making my time here as pleasant as possible. Thank you Texas A&M, thank you guys from Walton Drive. Gig'em and whatever you do, don't try to mess with Texas!
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