As a Western European I always felt like I knew a lot about the American culture. We often look up the American people, dream of living the American dream. It is what we see in our movies. We think of jeans and cowboys, the Route 66, the Grand Canyon, the Golden Gate and Lady Liberty. Sometimes we think and stereotypes. And no, I’m not saying that every European loves the US. It’s just that we have quite strong opinions about it and feel like we already know what there is to know.
I have quite some American friends from all over the country and have visited the States before. But only moving here made me be aware of how different this culture can be from my own at times. Most remarkably German directness is not usually a great choice of conduct. I’ve also experienced that the understanding of efficiency can greatly differ between cultures. And on the other hand it takes time to adjust to the fact that everything is “great, amazing, awesome and good for you!” – on the other hand, I’m not gonna lie: we Germans could use some pep talk and cheering sometimes. It actually feels quite good – if people really mean it.
The one thing I’ve learned about “THE American culture” is – it doesn’t exist. This country is huge! It would be pretentious to actually claim that there was one American culture. Some aspects seem to stand out though, especially if I compare it to my own culture. One of them is pride and patriotism, that is way more common here.
Two weeks ago Americans were celebrating Memorial Day to honor war veterans, those who died and those missing in action. As a foreigner this is one of the incidents where American patriotism becomes very easy to observe. (American flags everywhere. The US anthem everywhere.) I was however surprised, when I attended the rolling thunder in DC – which is when thousands of Harley Davidsons circle around the National Mall – that this felt more like a cultural event, then just a sheer show off of patriotism that I had expected, honestly. Patriotism is not part of what I experienced to be the German culture. It doesn’t take many words to explain why… Also military and war are not very visible in our every day life. Standing by the Lincoln Memorial and having military helicopters circling over my head, veterans all around me, alongside American flags and officials in uniform, I got to experience a whole new aspect of society and felt that this experience brought me closer to understanding of “the American culture”.
It was definitely one of those experiences that you can never make at home or sitting in front of the TV. This is why we travel. Why we stay open-minded. Because some experience that we make will be different than we expected them to be. And this will teach us to acknowledge that we didn’t know everything there was to know, even if we thought that everything was so familiar and we already knew what was going on.