Saturday, March 17, 2007

Culture, Actually

I met a Japanese boy who lives on the second floor last night. He, Fluf, Eddie, and I all watched Love Actually in Fluf’s room. While I did remember that the movie was set around Christmas time, I hadn’t remembered that Love Actually was a British movie. It is, however, completely British—set in London and everything—and once again, Americans are completely unfairly portrayed. There are three American characters in the movie, only one of whom I would qualify as even partially “normal.” The other two are the President of the United States—who is portrayed as an arrogant, pushy, bigoted prick who tries to steal the Prime Minister’s “girl”—and an eleven-year-old African-American girl—who is depicted as being able to sing like the next American Idol and puts on a performance complete with gospel choir and participatory audience. Poor Americans. We are either cut down by stereotypes or expected to live up to them.

After the movie, the four of us began a discussion that ranged from voting practices in our countries to cultural differences between US, Japan, and the UK. I was shocked that, of the four of us, I (who was the youngest in the room; the others were 23, 26, and 30) seemed to have the best understanding of overall political systems and parties. I spent at least fifteen minutes explaining the US voting system, of which the others had absolutely no knowledge. Fluf was convinced that our people voted for our President—which is different from how the UK elects its Prime Minister, since each political party elects its own candidate—and I had to explain to him not only the intricacies of primary elections, but also the workings of the Electoral College. All that for a non-political science major…I must give thanks to St. Robert Bellermine, St. Maurice, and Woodland Hills for my grand American education.

After the political discussion, the Japanese boy (whose name I cannot pronounce, much less attempt to spell) wanted to know if there was a great difference between America and the UK. I replied that there was, but it was comprised of many many small things. If someone from the US were just plopped down in Britain, they wouldn’t immediately say that it is tremendously different here. I attribute that to our shared language and the fact that the two cultures exchange so much in terms of fashion, entertainment, etc. Still, when you encounter all of the little things affecting daily life, the US is pretty different from the UK. It starts with language (“trousers” for “pants,” “jelly” for “Jell-O,” “cheers” and “mate”—words we would never say in the US) and works its way up to trends in lifestyles. Here, people walk their dogs without leashes, and they walk them as a form of recreation, not just in order to prevent the dog from peeing on their dining room floor. They walk their children, too, and the styles and designs of baby carriages I have seen probably outnumber the different models of cars they sell here. Also, as I have mentioned before, things are generally smaller here: the stores are smaller, the number of choices are smaller, even the toilet seats are smaller. America is a country of opulence and options: you can have your pretzel in a mini twist, a jumbo twist, a rod, a mini rid, ultra-thin, ultra-thick, sourdough, with salt, without salt, cheese-covered, cinnamon-and-sugar, soft, hard, and in any size portion imaginable. Here in Brighton, there are two varieties: Penn State brand mini twists, 175g bag, salted or sour cream and chive.

If I had covered all of the differences, I would have been going all night. So I mentioned the words and the pretzels. He said Japan and the UK offer about the same number of grocery store brands and varieties. Then he wanted to know if the people were different—their attitudes or personalities. This is a harder trend to explain. The answer is “yes, they are different” but even more subtly so than the “cultures.” The best way I have of explaining the general difference in people comes from observing interactions between students in Holland House. The Americans aren’t afraid to come out and say what they think. They will start conversations with the Europeans and with each other, argue over issues, and send food back in restaurants because damn it, they’re entitled to good service. British people are generally more reserved. They’re perfectly willing to talk to you…if you initiate the conversation. They also have less of the fight-for-my-rights spirit. If something is substandard, they are far less likely to complain. Their mentality isn’t, “Hey, I paid for this,” it’s, “Well, at least I got something.” I take this difference in personality to account for the country’s lagging technology and the shoddy state of public facilities in general (particularly the gyms). Still, I would say that British people are, on the whole, friendlier than American people. They are less self-centered, perhaps because they are less “driven;” they don’t seem so focused on the goal of “getting ahead” all the time. This works to their disadvantage—in sports, most obviously—but it also makes my task, as the American, to initiate conversations here easier than in America!

According to the Japanese boy, the difference between British people and Japanese people is that the Japanese are more reserved. Thank goodness I didn’t study in Japan. Initiating conversations with the British is hard enough.


Julie said...

I like this post - it's just as good as the "clothes" post. I'm glad you're an observant person.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting indeed. Glad you feel motivated to initiate conversations! Also,hopefully you'll give those you interact with a very uplifting version of an American! Enjoy!

Aunt "B"

Emily said...

yay culture. It was especially interesting to me to hear the Japanese point of view....he's right, the Japanese are way more reserved. Keep initiating convos!