Earlier this year I read China in Ten Words by Hua Yu, which I would highly recommend! It’s a short collection of personal stories centered around ten words that the author feels represent China and its history, people, culture, etc. As someone who (at the time) was living in China and had spent the previous two years learning all about said culture, I absolutely loved reading from the perspective of Yu, a native Chinese. He touched on so many of the things I have shared in my various posts and gave new meaning to some of the things Tucker and I experienced ourselves as residents in China. In short, I loved it so much that I thought maybe I could join Yu in sharing a bit about my own culture or at least how I, one American, view it.
Honestly, this is a slight departure for me because I typically choose to write about my discoveries and observations on places and cultures that I am newly discovering myself, but this required a different sort of reflection. Even though I definitely can’t live up to Hua Yu’s work with one short blog post, I hope to share a few of the traits and characteristics (in no particular order) that, for me, make America, America.
As an English teacher I’m often asked to describe the United States and Americans, and for as long as I can remember, the first word that has come to mind is: independent. We love to feel independent! Independent financially, politically, emotionally; in our families, in our workplace, and in the world. Many of us longed to “be out on our own” at a very young age, and most Americans follow that course throughout their lives. We love expressions like “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “stand on your own two feet”. In our culture, there is an immense pride in (and often an expectation to) figure things out on our own. Whether this comes from the pioneer spirit of our history or from Hollywood’s “steal the spotlight” mentality, we can see the strong value placed on independence in all aspects of American lives. From our first declaration as a prospective country to our preference for ordering individual, non-shared meals, we focus every day on our individuality and personal independence, and if ever we feel it’s being threatened, look out.
You might have noticed that I didn’t get very far into this post without mentioning Hollywood. As much as many Americans like to think of that place as somehow “other”, the truth is, we are massive consumers (and producers) of entertainment, all thanks to Tinseltown. In fact, many of my students from all over the world have surprised me with facts and details about life in the US that were gleaned entirely from our movies and TV; some have even confessed that’s how they started learning English or even why they continue today. Of course, what they see in the movies is not always true to American life, but there are definitely many of our values and perspectives shared through our obsession with entertainment. It’s hard to imagine America without movie trailers, award shows, film conventions, and dedicated fandoms. As someone who hasn’t seen such American classics as the Godfather, Stars Wars, or Top Gun, I’ve been described a few times as “simply unamerican”, but I promise I’ll get to them eventually!
Being told I’m unamerican (even jokingly) to my face brings me to my next Americanism. We are a direct people. After living in China for a few years, I know this to be absolutely true of Americans. We like to be told upfront, no matter what it is, and often regardless of how it’s said. I’ve heard people refer to Americans as blunt or straightforward, and although we aren’t always trying to be, we are often quite direct in our daily lives. Imagine communicating with someone (a family member, a colleague, or even a stranger) and not being able to figure out what they mean. You would probably want to shake them and say “stop beating around the bush” or “just break it to me”. We have a certain intolerance for ambiguousness coupled with the idea that things should be said and done as efficiently as possible, feelings be damned. This is why in our culture it’s perfectly normal to decline invitations or to challenge a superior. We would rather ruffle some feathers right off the bat than leave things vague or unclear.
Another trait that I associate with America is our deep patriotism. We love our flag, our national anthem, and the values that we have long attached to our country, such as freedom, perseverance, and justice. Although patriotism means something a little different to each of us, as Americans this is our home, and we feel a certain pride and responsibility in that. Whether we show these feelings by hanging a flag outside our house, voting in every election, or representing our values abroad, we all like to feel that we have a role to play for America, and we’re happy to do it. Perhaps because we grew up with stories of how hard our forefathers, suffragettes, and civil rights activists fought for us to have what we have today, the sense that we need to take up the baton and continue to work for a better homeland has been deeply instilled. Or who knows, maybe it was just hearing that Lee Greenwood song year after year.
Although this word has taken on new meaning and significance in the last few years, the American Dream and the people who embody it are not new, nor I think are they bound by political lines. America was founded on dreams: dreams of a new nation, dreams of equal representation, dreams of prosperity. We can still hear the US referred to as a “Land of Opportunity” from both inside and out. We love the fact that “if you can dream it, you can do it”, and thanks to our lack of a formal class system, many Americans have been able to make it happen all throughout our history. Most of us have immigrants in our ancestry, which is maybe one of the most classic versions of the American Dream. Others have seen their dreams come true in regards to socioeconomic status or overall success. Just like independence, Americans value people who dream big and work hard to make it happen. In short, we believe dreams can come true.
Dreams are wonderful, but all dreams are based in some sort of reality. And for Americans, right now that reality is a strong division. Party lines are more evident than ever, generation gaps and racial divides exist, and there’s no doubt that whatever the topic of conversation, people tend to divide up into various groups or “sides”. We have the Left and the Right, Boomers and Millennials, white collar and blue collar, Black and white, gay and straight, religious and non-religious, and so many other labels that, like it or not, separate us in some way from our fellow Americans. Although we are the “United” States and a supposed “Melting Pot”, many events have recently been shining a spotlight on our divisions and differences instead. Diversity can often beget division, or at least the perception of division, but I think we’re all also aware of the classic “United we stand; divided we fall”. Trends change everyday, and we can change as well.
Another American feature that stands out to me is our penchant for privacy. On the whole, Americans are quite private (even with the growing popularity of oversharing on social media). We like privacy fences and secure passwords, and we fear Alexa and Siri are gleaning too much information from us. We have all sorts of privacy laws and generally feel that keeping things to ourselves is one of our inalienable rights. I often have students ask me “how old are you?”, “how much do you make?”, “why don’t you have kids?” and other such questions that, as an American, leave me feeling like my privacy has been breached. We talk about “personal boundaries” and “invasions of privacy” fairly regularly – both in the physical and figurative senses. It’s typically very clear to Americans where “the line” is and our use of small talk often demonstrates it: weather, sports, family members – all good; religion, politics, or anything “too personal”, strictly off the table.
Although we might like keeping things to ourselves at times, we are usually still quite good at small talk and making friends. From the outside looking in, Americans are often viewed as very friendly. We’re often smiling for no reason, making jokes with strangers about the broken elevator, or lending a hand in the form of opening doors for others or picking up something that has been dropped. Basically, we’re masters at “Meet-Cute Stories”. I think the reason we often come across as overly friendly is because we’re all pretty much willing to do these things regardless of where we are, who we’re with, or what we’re doing. We also tend to retell these little anecdotes throughout the rest of our day: “I ran into a man at the gas station, and you’ll never guess what he said…”, “Sorry, I’m late. I was chatting with a woman outside.”, etc. And don’t even get me started on what it’s like when two Americans meet while abroad; you’d think they had just met their long-lost cousin!
The US is big and only has two neighbors, a bit of a rarity in terms of geography, and these facts play into my next feature of “Americanness”: isolation. A large portion of Americans never feel the need to leave their homeland (and why would they with the bounty of things to do and see right at home?) or even keep track of what’s going on outside of their immediate surroundings. However, this tendency to face inward seems to contribute to a bit of ignorance about the rest of the world. You might have seen Jimmy Kimmel testing Americans on world geography, which as a geography nerd, definitely makes me cringe, but unlike other countries whose histories and even present day dealings have required a much more thorough knowledge of their surrounding nations, for Americans, it has rarely mattered (of course with increasing globalization that is changing every day). However, regardless of the underlying reasons, Americans can definitely be said to be “in our own little world”.
Perhaps because we’ve always been in our own little world, the US has also been a hotbed for inventiveness and creativity right from its start. From Thomas Edison and Clara Barton to Bill Gates and Katie Bouman, Americans have contributed a great deal to global innovation. Even the average American likes to think and talk about the future, and we always, as Walt Disney famously said, “keep moving forward”. It’s no wonder our people were among the first to take to the skies, race to space, and create all types of digital media. We simply love to take risks and try something new. We have the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”, but in America, it might not even require necessity.
So that’s my list. Of course, there are about a hundred words I sifted through before deciding on these ten! America is complicated; culture is complicated! And we can’t always fit everything into ten neat little categories. But maybe we can agree that reflection and openness can be great for developing a better understanding of ourselves and our communities. I would love to see some of the words you would add to your “America in 10 Words” list, or if you’re from another country, what words would you assign to your culture? We have a lot we can learn from each other’s perspectives, and I can’t wait to continue shifting mine!