As I come close to celebrating my tenth year of US citizenship, I started thinking about when I first came here in 1989. Despite having traveled extensively around the world before that, I still had some serious cultural barriers to understand. Here are ten entertaining cultural lessons I learned during my first year in the states:
1. “What’s up?” is not, despite how it sounds, a question -– it’s just a way to say hello. It is also acceptable to just echo the sentiment right back -– resulting in two questions, neither of which requires an answer. In fact, actually proceeding to tell the asker all that is indeed “up” provokes great awkwardness and confusion.
2. A “party” does not always entail the usual things you find at parties such as music, food, and entertainment. Among younger people, a party just means there’s cheap liquor and a stale joint or two. I was frequently disappointed the first few times I was invited to “party” only to show up and find seven guys crushing beer cans on their foreheads.
3. It is not rare at all to find rabid sports fans who are grossly overweight.You would assume that a sports fan would stay fit and in shape by actively playing the sport that he or she is such a fan of. But no, you don’t need to play the sport to be a fan. You can admire and tout the athleticism of others without having any urge to be athletic yourself. This disconnect does not surprise many Americans.
4. Despite what you see in many movies, only white people seem to high-five one another. Also, you should never actually ask for a high-five because that removes the coolness quotient and makes you look odd. Standing there with your open palm in the air and an expectant grin on your face while waiting for someone to execute the second half of the high-five, however, doesn’t look odd at all, apparently.
5. Losing weight is considered a laudable achievement. The ability to deny oneself excessive or unhealthy food is considered admirable. This is not to say that losing weight is not a healthy and good thing for many people; it’s just odd that such an act is worthy of celebration.
6. People who have lots of crosses and crucifixes tattooed on their bodies aren’t necessarily strong Christians. Having such tattoos or even wearing clothing or jewelry with crosses is considered a style statement and little else. In some cases, excessive religious iconography can be found on some decidedly un-Christian people.
7. Just because two people are “roommates,” it doesn’t mean that they actually share a single room. People who share a house but have their own bedrooms and bathrooms are still called “roommates.” For the longest time, I thought the majority of single Americans lived with other single Americans in one-bedroom domiciles.
8. On hot days, people –- mostly women –- like to put on bathing suits and lie by a swimming pool. Even though they are wearing swimwear, it’s hot, and they strategically place themselves next to water, they will never actually enter the pool. They just need to be in proximity of it. I had never before experienced a scenario where people would be crowded around the pool but with barely anyone actually in the pool.
9. Though Americans get a lot of flak for generalizing people of other geographical areas and being ignorant of various cultural and political borders, most people outside of the United States do the same thing to Americans. Americans are generalized as a single population who all share a common culture, but the truth is that some subcontinents divided by large oceans share more common values than Americans in different parts of the nation do.
10. People will tattoo just about anything on their bodies as long as it is not of their culture. East Asians never tattoo Chinese or Japanese characters on their bodies, but others do. Tribal tattoos are popular, but only with people who don’t come from any of the lands the tribal tattoos originated from. South Asian Hindu iconography or Sanskrit will rarely be found on anyone of actual South Asian heritage.
But I’ve also made many wonderful discoveries about this great nation. Here’s just one (and my favorite):
No matter how well they know (or don’t know) you, if you do not have a place to go on Thanksgiving Day, countless friends and acquaintances will insist upon inviting you into their homes, where you will meet all those odd relatives and family members they told you they never wanted you to meet. And they will feed you until you are bursting and send you home with enough food for a week. It’s an unspoken rule: no one spends Thanksgiving alone if you can help it.