26 February 2008

Get your one pound bars of Hershey here...

I am an advocate of adapting to a culture you're in as much as possible. When friends and family from the States ask me if I'd like anything (or if there's something that I miss that I can't get here), I usually draw a blank. That isn't to say that there aren't things I miss, but usually it's fleeting. Since I don't bake traditional grained based food, I can't rue the fact that the ingredients here might perform differently than those from home (although I did make some really odd fudge for Christmas from UK products that came out like a cross between a brownie and fudge). Much of what I love from back home has either been replaced by UK equivalents, isn't a part of my diet, available here, or not an urgent craving.

There are a few things that I do yearn for. I can't eat the tuna here. When I open a can for my husband, I always swear that I will try a bite, but the cultural connection between dark tuna and cat food is too strong. Intellectually I know that it's healthier to eat dark tuna, but I was raised on white. The pickles here are more like our sweet pickles, and while I like those, they have too much sugar in them. The closest thing I could find to a dill pickle was a can of kosher cucumbers in brine. No dill whatsoever.

So Mr. Yumi and I headed to Partridge's, a store which specializes in hard to find food, which includes American foods. When we found the American food section, it was a little disorienting. There was a section of shelves full of things that I have heard other Americans ask for, all for premium prices (for example, I paid over $10 for a big jar of baby dill pickles). But even if I were not off sugars and grains, I doubt I would be tempted by much of it. It wasn't that I am above such food, it's just that it isn't the best we have to offer. There was a shelf of Betty Crocker cake mixes and Goober peanut butter and jelly, but the very best of our food wouldn't have made the trip. Or they can be made from quality ingredients from the UK. But when you strip away all the other foods, you get a view of cheap and highly processed food.

I don't expect people to want to know my culture. "Cultural Imperialism" is a real thing, even if it's a bit more complicated than a pithy phrase. But if we fall into the trap of believing that America is just something you can get in a box or in a McDonald's Happy Meal, we ignore the very real cultural richness of our country. Sometimes it's easier to assume that anything that we have to offer the world is cheap, fast, and full of chemicals. Or that our art is equal to the latest blockbuster out of Hollywood. I have to admit that there was a moment when I looked at the wall of Lucky Charms and Duncan Hines frosting that I felt self loathing.

But then I did what any good American does and bought something. I bought us some canned pumpkin, tuna, ranch dressing, and pickles. We bought "gifts" for our family. But I still felt sad and disoriented.

When people ask me if seeing a McDonald's makes me feel like I am home, I try to explain that apart from the time I worked there, I have probably eaten there less than 150 times in my life. Probably less than 100. By the time I was a full fledged adult, I ate at fast food places a couple of times a year. Of course I am a fat American, but not all fat Americans get that way on Big Macs.
When people complain about the Americanization of culture, what they are complaining about is the commercialization of their culture. Yes, US companies tend to have more money for more chains and imports, and the US franchise signs blink the loudest, but few Americans truly benefit from a Dutch Subway franchise being opened. I doubt much trickles down to the average American from a years worth of American blockbusters. What would other countries' cultures look like to outsiders (or even insiders) if the dominating corporate influence were based in say France, China, Japan, or the UK?

I am an unlikely defender of the US. I am usually a critic. I just wonder how much reflection is actually made when we resort to generalities. This is my version of homesickness, I suppose, an unlikely case of bittersweet yearning tinged with embarrassment and defensiveness.

1 comment:

mpsly said...

Thanks for this post. I'm a U.S. American studying in Germany for two years. It's often difficult to talk with people here about the U.S., especially when many make unfair generalizations. For example, many Germans say Americans are superficial or even facetious. It's strange, considering sometimes I'm the only American they've ever met. I'm not surprised when they say that I am not a typical American, even though I consider myself to be somewhat typical.

I'm puzzled by this, and I find time after time the same generalizations are made (e.g. "Americans are loud."), the same questions are asked (e.g. "Does everyone really have a gun?"), and the same comments are said ("After all, Americans elected Bush."). It’s as if the people saying these things were trying to fool themselves.

It’s nice to meet Germans who've been to the U.S. or who know Americans. They often give praise; it's not as if they somehow overcame the stereotype of Americans they always believed, but rather as if this stereotype had suddenly been illuminated or filled with more.

I, like you, think one should assimilate to the culture in which he lives. One should learn the language and accent well, change one’s diet, alter one’s habits, and try to see the world on a higher level. This changing of environment is the key to evaluating the concept of culture; it forces a person to reevaluate his predispositions and assumptions. Indeed, many Americans I know are good at this. But they’re not the ones standing out.