Cultural Highlight: The American People

Ok, so I lied about what I was going to post next. Since I posted a highlight about the Kalinago people, I decided that it would only be fair to post something similar about my own culture. Not only did it seem like a fun prospect, but I have noticed that I have a fairly good number of international people checking out my blog, and I thought that this might be a little helpful for anyone thinking about visiting the United States.

Disclaimer: This information is based off of my own experience, so be aware that this post is limited by my own biases as well as the limits of my perception of my own culture. You may have a different opinion of American culture than me, or, if you are a visitor, you may have a different experience. I will provide some information about a good book about American culture for anyone interested at the bottom of this post.

Cultural Highlight: The American People

Culture: American

Resident Area: The United States

Population: 316.1 million (2013)

Language: English is the primary language of the United States, and it is spoken everywhere except in a few small pockets of new immigrant communities in some large cities (e.g. Chicago, Phoenix, etc). The most common language spoken in the States besides English is Spanish, but most Americans only speak English. A lot of people that I know, including myself, wish that we spoke another language as well as English, but our public school methods of language teaching don’t appear to be very effective.

Food: There are a few things that we consider American food, including things like hamburgers, BBQ, apple pie, among others, but for the most part, the joy of eating in the US is the sheer variety of food types available. Furthermore, the country is so large that different regions have different specialties, so that should help any visitors decide what they should try while here. For some guidance, however, here is a list of foods that my friends and I decided are must-tries for visitors to the US: BBQ, hamburgers, hot dogs, chop suet, strange fried foods (Twinkies, pickles, Oreos, etc), ribs, turkey, apple pie, mac & cheese, brisket, pulled pork sandwich, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, deep dish pizza, clam chowder, gumbo, jambalaya, and others! There is so much. 😛 But seriously, you should enjoy eating while you are here; get some tips on the best local restaurants where ever you are going on Tripadvisor (the forums are great for getting advice), and don’t short change yourself by sticking to chains.

Religion: Christianity is the most common religion in the United States, and its influence can be seen everywhere here- from the prevalence of churches throughout our cities to our laws. I get the sense that this influence is more extreme in the United States than it currently is in most Western European countries, and there are some ongoing tensions created by what I would consider extremist Christians, and those of us that are more moderate in our beliefs, but I won’t go into any details about that here.

Besides Christianity, the University of Pennsylvania  lists the following as the other seven major faiths in the United States: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Wicca, Buddhism, Sikhism, Baha’i World Faith. The ideal in the United States is that we are open to people of all walks and religions, although in practice this can be difficult. Overall, however, I do find that while people may be uninformed about other religions, we are generally pretty accepting. Again, there are those extreme exceptions, but as long as you stay away from arguing with people about religion, you should be pretty comfortable, and in many big cities you can find places of worship for most of the religions listed above.

Yearly/Ceremonial Cycle: Note: These are the official holidays of the United States, but there are some religious holidays not listed here.

New Years Day: December 31-January 1: Festivities till midnight on the last day of December. Fireworks and parades are common. At many parties, it is traditional to kiss someone at midnight. It is also common for people to make New Year’s Resolutions, or goals for the coming year for themselves.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Third Monday in January: No work on this day. Celebrates the birthday of the great civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr.

Groundhog Day: February 2. This is a small celebration in which the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil emerges from his burrow and if he sees his shadow then six more weeks of winter are predicted. This has ben celebrated since 1887.

Valentines Day: February 14. This holiday was named after a Christian martyr, however, it is now a day to celebrate love. Gifts are commonly given and time is set aside for significant others. In elementary school, it is traditional for all the children to bring in cards and candy to exchange with eachother on Valentine’s day.

St. Patrick’s Day: March 17. Celebrated in honor of St. Patrick. It has widely lost its religious significance in the US, but many people party and drink with friends on this night. Those who don’t wear green on this day are threatened with a pinch.

Earth Day: April 22. This is a day to celebrate the Earth, and to promote action for its preservation. It was first celebrated in 1970 and helped inspire the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

Mother’s Day: Second Sunday of May. Celebrates the service of mothers. Typically time is spent with family, and gifts are given to the mother of a family.

Memorial Day: Last Monday of May; No work on this day. Originally honored the dead of the Civil War, but currently it honors the dead of all wars.

Father’s Day: Third Sunday of June. A day to honor fathers, celebrated in a similar way to Mother’s Day.

Independence Day: July 4: Honors the nation’s birthday- July 4, 1776. During the day, people celebrate with picnics and parades, and then at night there are fireworks and family gatherings.

Labor Day: First Monday of September. Honors the nations working population, with parades being common.

Columbus Day: Second Monday in October. Commemorates October 12, 1492 when Columbus landed in the new world. No real celebration traditions happen on this day.

Halloween: October 31. People dress up in costumes on this day, and at night people will party or take their children out trick-or-treating, in which they knock on their neighbor’s doors and receive candy.

Veteran’s Day: November 11. Originally, this holiday honored the veterans of WWI, but now it honors all veterans. There is typically no work on this day, parades are common, and the President places a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Thanksgiving: Fourth Thursday of November. This is done in remembrance of a three day feast that the Pilgrims held to Celebrate a bountiful harvest. Currently, this is celebrated with two days off of work- Thursday and Friday. On Thursday night, families will gather to eat a turkey dinner.

Christmas Day: December 25. Religiously, this is a Christian holiday that marks the birth of Christ; however, most Americans celebrate it regardless of religion. Families come together and exchange gifts and the symbolic presence of a Christmas pine as well as stockings are common. Must businesses are closed on Christmas.

Birthday: Varies. This is a celebration of the day of birth of an individual. Typically, gifts are given to the person of interest, and the family will gather to celebrate them.

Culture: The notes made below are based on generalized American culture, and will vary from family to family, region to region, and religion to religion. This is just meant to provide a brief overview of general American traditions.

Family Life: The American family typically consists of the core family, with the mother, father and children. Extended family gather on special occasions, but in most cases they don’t play a major role in the everyday life. Ideally, when Americans grow up, they are expected to illustrate their independence by breaking away from their parents, getting their own place, and starting their own families. This independent action is considered a major step towards adulthood, and the idea of adult children “living in their parent’s basement” is considered a somewhat shameful situation, although the Great Recession has caused many young adults to live with their parents. In their old age, Americans attempt to maintain their independence by avoiding the care of their children, which is often considered an inconvenience on the younger generation. Altogether, this need for independence is a point of pride and concern for Americans, as most people seek to be able to provide for themselves without the help of their parents, but many feel that this lack of community is detrimental over all.

Marriage: Americans date before they marry, and couples may move in together before marriage to see what living together will be like. The period of time taken for this varies from individual to individual. After the dating period, American men are expected to propose to their wives-to-be, often with the presentation of a ring, although it is also acceptable for women to propose if they so choose. Once this is done, the couple is considered engaged. Planning for the wedding is expected to be time consuming, and the wedding itself is often expensive. Before the wedding itself there will be a wedding shower, which is a family affair, as well as bachelorette and bachelor parties. At the wedding, the wife will usually wear a white dress (not to be seen by the husband until she walks down the aisle) and the man will wear black. The father will walk his daughter down the aisle to where the husband-to-be and the person residing over the wedding wait. Then the two lovers will exchange vows, rings, and finally they will kiss. After the wedding, most couples who can afford it will go on a honeymoon trip together.

Women and Men: Technically speaking, women and men should be treated equal in American society, and compared to some cultures the equality between the two is significant. That being said, there are still pressures on both genders to play traditional roles in which the man works, and the wife cares for the house and family. Women are also typically paid less than men, and are less represented in media such as movies and video games.

Extra Notes: Here are a couple things that you may find helpful when traveling to the US, depending on where you are coming from. These come from my own opinions as well as some thoughts from my friends (both American and friends from other countries who have visited).

(1) We are sticklers when it comes to lines. Pushing to the front is not acceptable, nor is grouping up towards the front of the line. Everyone waits their turn here, and in the few instances when people cut, most of the other people in line are clearly dissatisfied.

(2) Americans like their personal space. Typically, you should keep at least a foot or two (yes, we still use our antiquated measurement system 😀 ) away from people that you don’t know unless you are in a crowded place such as a bus or train, where there isn’t much of an option otherwise.

(3) There is an interesting dichotomy in America of people who believe that America is the best country in the world, and are particularly harsh towards immigrants and foreign visitors. On the other hand, lots of Americans have a much more realistic understanding of our country, and are excited to meet people from countries around the world.

(4) Americans are deeply interested in their ancestry, and most people know where their families have come from. I know several people who have made it their hobby to study their genealogy, and I made it a point to find records of some of my family when I visited Ellis Island in New York City.

(5) We tip our servers! Unless you get really horrible service, you should tip. 15% of your bill is considered normal, but I usually try to tip 20%.

(6) Lots of Americans love to believe in things like Bigfoot, government conspiracies, and UFOs. There are even some small towns (like Roswell, New Mexico) that have made their connection to these (perhaps) urban legends into a tourism draw.

A great book for further information about American culture for visitors is American Ways: A Cultural Guide to the United States by Gary Althen and Janet Bennett.

And if you have any questions about my experience in my own country or my travels feel free to leave me a comment. 🙂

My next update will be on February 15th, and I will actually be writing about Coronado’s neighbor, San Diego.

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