After living in Spain for three weeks, I’m finally beginning to adjust to the differences between Europe and the United States, from later meal times to a more careful conservation of natural resources. However, I’m still a relative newcomer and some practices continue to baffle me. For example, it’s frustrating that I can’t go shopping anytime between the hours of 3 and 5 pm because most stores are closed for siesta (much as I love the custom).
As I’m learning this semester, however, each individual traveler must develop cultural intelligence at their own pace. Currently, I believe I’m in the Recognition stage; I recognize other cultural norms and am motivated to learn more about them, but I “struggle with the complexity of the new environment” (Thomas & Inkson 154).
An important step in cultural assimilation is first learning the differences between my cultural background and that of my host country. To investigate the qualities that supposedly distinguish Americans from Spaniards, I asked my host parents what they thought of Americans. What assumptions do they have about my country? I was curious to see if I fit into their idea of a “typical” American, although they might be a bit biased since they’ve been hosting American exchange students for years now.
Unsurprisingly, both Raquel and Alberto immediately answered “muy patriótico.” Apparently in Spain no one paints themselves red and yellow and screams “¡Viva España!” at the top of their lungs except when Spain wins at fútbol. I love my country, but I’m not quite as gung ho as many overzealous Americans who think the U.S. can do no wrong. However, I’ve never thought about how other countries view our Fourth of July fireworks and “USA” chants. If I were a European, I think I might be half-baffled, half-admiring of a plucky nation that’s not even three hundred years old and its unflagging confidence.
Both of my host parents also mentioned how they see Americans as unhealthy fast food-lovers. I thought this was funny, considering that they’ve served me more French fries (patatas fritas) per week than I ever ate in the States. But I can’t deny that no other country possesses quite as many fast food chains as the U.S. And even if I don’t eat McDonald’s every week, I also happen to have a sweet tooth; I’ve consumed an entire jar of Nutella since I’ve been here. (Not sure if Nutella counts as fast food, but it sure ain’t healthy.) Negative stereotypes about America’s fast food problem don’t bother me, but maybe that’s because we’re so aware of it in the U.S. already.
Raquel in particular sheepishly noted that America is infamous for its racism. I winced, but I couldn’t disagree. America’s history of racial oppression and violence is not quite as easy to brush off as our weakness for fatty foods, particularly considering the race riots in response to police brutality in Ferguson recently.
As a middle class white girl, I’ve always been safely insulated from the ugly legacy of racism and segregation in the U.S., but I’ve recently started reading up on the experiences of black Americans to better understand the protestors’ anger. My idea of the U.S. as a post-racial paradise quickly shattered in the wake of testimony from actual black people who have been physically or psychologically harmed by white supremacist racists in America. Of course, Europe also has its fair share of racists, but racism is unfortunately alive and well in the U.S.
An interesting American quality my host parents mentioned was our “cold” demeanor. I was initially surprised by this, but I soon realized what they really meant was Americans do not talk as much or as loudly. Americans also have more strict boundaries concerning personal space, and we don’t kiss each other on the cheek in greeting (which some could see as more intimate than a simple handshake).
Seeing my culture through different eyes was interesting–I realized that my idea of “normal” social interaction is actually a manifestation of my American culture. Not all countries need to maintain a distance of three to five feet between strangers, and not all cultures view loud conversation as rude.
It’s been a long three weeks of hard lessons–man, do I miss being able to take long showers without worrying about water conservation–but I can’t wait for the many more lessons to come. I’m ready to gain even more cultural intelligence while also working on my Spanish, and to explore new countries and cultures as well.
Watch out, world.