American Culture

They’re much more open – their moms won’t be complaining about things like wearing shorts and miniskirts.

People are so outgoing. Talking to strangers is normal – I just randomly walked into a party and it was completely fine!

There’s freedom unlike the oppression we have here. We’re so backwards. Why can’t we be as progressive as they are?

I love America. I’d rather live there.

These are some of the comments I’ve heard from my Thai friends in the past. Educated by Hollywood, MTV, and Scholastic, America used to seem glamorous and exciting. If you had asked me before what American culture was, I’d probably give you two words: outgoing and friendly.

Limited?

Quite.

But that is exactly what went in my head until I left Thailand and made my first American friends abroad. They introduced me to the absurdity of auto-tuning, the pleasures of being obnoxiously loud, the reality of race, and the ways one can deal with criticisms.

Coming from a place where America still seemed great, I was surprised to hear that everyone’s got a problem with America. It was normal for other international students to make jokes about the United States and blame global problems on its politics. I observed my American friends laugh it off, even joining in on the comedy. Being ‘American’, at one point, seemed like an insult.

It was always strange to me, that all other nationalities could freely judge this nation and, at the same time, criticize it for judging others. I suppose it made us feel like we were putting in more equity into the world, as a global community enacting the rules of “karma”.

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Since I arrived Clark University last year, I’ve gotten the chance to expand my narrow understanding of American culture. Thanksgiving may not be without controversies, but my experiences made me admire the notion of coming together to be grateful. I’ve learned to appreciate the spirit of freedom this country nourishes, and respect its hardworking citizens. Living here has made me realize that not all Americans are unaware of perceptions of ‘America’ abroad. Many are, in fact, working hard to change things here.

I previously overheard a discussion on American culture. One argued that there was no such thing. That, on top of all the criticisms I have heard about America, ticked me off and eventually pushed me to write something.

Yet for some reason, it was difficult to put my thoughts into words. There was a confusion I couldn’t quite resolve. I believe there is an American culture, but I don’t know how I should describe it. As I struggled, a helpful friend offered me a possible explanation. She proposed that one of the reasons it’s so hard for us to locate an ‘American culture’ is that the culture itself is widespread amongst various cultures. It’s easy to pinpoint a culture when it’s unique or foreign to us, but many parts of the American lifestyle are shared across the globe.

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Some of the responses 22 Clarkies gave to the question: What are some words you associate with the American culture? The ones in bigger sizes are the ones that were frequently mentioned. You’ll have to excuse words like “french” or “melting”, which the application split out of “french fries” and “melting pot”. 

As you can see in the image above, many of these words can be associated with other cultures and lifestyles. Baseball is widely played in Japan. Obesity is a huge problem in Mexico. Oprah and Hollywood are popular around the world – Bollywood isn’t considered American, is it? Freedom and democracy are values now advocated by international organizations around the globe. Perhaps because they are so well-known, we don’t associate these traits as being ‘American’ even though they spring to mind when we are asked to define ‘American culture’.

That raises the question: does a characteristic trait of a culture still belong to its people if it has been shared with other groups of people?

If we go back to the roots of the word ‘culture’, we find that it is not a static term. ‘Culture’ comes from the Latin term ‘colore’ which means to tend or cultivate. It was only expanded from its agricultural definition when Cicero used the word as a metaphor for the development of the soul – cultura animi (Yes, I did use Wikipedia). Rather than a fixed word identifying a fixed way of life, it is a growing process. Just as it doesn’t have to be trapped in the limits of time, it also doesn’t have to remain within physical boundaries. Culture is shared.

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Today, especially with the developments in technology and the reductions in the weights of distance, we have come to a point where we constantly share thoughts with those on the other side of the globe. We influence them as they influence us, and our identities are as mixed as ever. Although we may not realize it, our lifestyles probably have references from societies we have never physically met. Just as we criticize other cultures, we must also then recognize the flaws in our own.

What do you think American culture is? What is your culture? Do you see spaces where they overlap? If you have opinions, please share in the comments below and please disagree with me. After all, we are in the land of the free.

-Charis 

(All photos by Charis Smuthkochorn)

 

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