Lost in (Cultural) Translation: Strange Things About Americans

Here’s an article from Thought Catalog about 30 things non-Americans said they found odd (or endearing, or flat-out annoying) about American culture. It’s fun to take a step back and realize how strange your norms can seem to others.

Here are some that most stood out to me from the article, now that I’m living in Spain:

Astounding variety of food items. I’m bad with decisions, so the variety in the U.S. was sometimes a problem for me–I believe part of the reason I became a vegetarian for a year was so that every restaurant menu was limited to about two choices. But I would KILL for all these options now! Take your basic restaurant or deli sandwich: in Spain, it’s bread, meat, and literally nothing else. Onions, lettuce, tomatoes, mustard, pepperoncinis, avocados, and cheese are all the stuff of dreams. This isn’t to say that all aspects of gastronomy are limited–there are entire supermarket aisles here devoted to fiber-filled digestive cookies, and choosing which type of olive oil you’ll take home could take the better part of the afternoon.

Tons of advertisements for prescription medications. HA!! Until I read this, I never gave that a second thought. Of course it’s normal to see billboards for Prozac, right? And during a commercial break for Modern Family, why shouldn’t we be convinced to try Viagra? Ok, so Americans love to talk about prescription meds, but Spaniards like to just hand ’em out. I just got birth-control pills over-the-counter at the closest pharmacy, and the only question asked was, “How many packs do you need?” (And the price-tag? 2.50 a month. Another point for Socialism.)

Gaps in bathroom stalls. In all my life, I always thought a certain lack of privacy was simply the price you paid for using a public restroom. The gaps below the door, the gaps between the stalls, sometimes even walls that are so short you can see over–all designed to encourage you to hold it till you make it home. Then I came to Spain, and lo and behold! Stall doors are made from solid materials, with no gaps, peepholes, or other deficiencies designed to make your experience truly miserable. Peeing can be a private occasion again! I will say this, though: before Spain gets cocky about its brilliant stall engineering, it may consider keeping a bathroom well stocked with toilet paper and soap. Well-sealed doors don’t make up for a forced reliance on the shake-dry method.

Americans are overly concerned with political correctness. I do think it’s true that in the U.S. we are so busy treading on eggshells that any drop of the word “black” incites cries of racism, even if the perpetrator in question was merely referring to the dark hue of his Labrador’s coat. But Spain takes the exact opposite approach–most are so unconcerned with political correctness that (what I would deem as) inappropriate comments seem to permeate every conversation here. For example: the teachers at my school point out every “gypsy kid” to me, saying (before I even get a chance to see for myself) how they don’t do anything in class, how they barely even know how to read, how they come to school dressed so sloppily–one even showed up once with a bit of jam spilled down his front! The horror! Not the ideal learning environment, yet I’ve heard similar stories from many other Auxiliars working in other schools as well. Another typical comment heard here: “Don’t walk through the San Francisco neighborhood of Bilbao. It’s where all the immigrants live.” So, naturally, you’ll automatically get knifed if you walk there after 5 p.m. 

The prevalence of Fast Food. YESSSSS for crying out loud, we have a lot of fast food in the U.S.! People say it as though it’s some sort of huge revelation, like they weren’t expecting to see a KFC and a McDonald’s on every corner when visiting Middle America. You’ve watched TV! You’ve read the news! Our country has an obesity epidemic, and it stems from SOMEWHERE! That does not mean, however, that all United Statesians partake, and I have had to explain to my students at least a dozen times here that my dinners are usually food-pyramid approved, not quarter-pounders from Mickey D’s. One tiny shout-out in defense of the U.S., though: We may have roughly one McDonald’s per every half-square-mile, but at least ours aren’t packed to the brim, as they were when I visited two FOOD CAPITALS of the world, Paris and San Sebastián. In cities with more Michelin stars than they know what to do with, there were lines out the door for some soggy fries and burgers. (And a burger at a McDonald’s in Europe costs 7 euros–so small budgets in expensive cities has nothing to do with it!).

Poverty and homelessness is so rife in every city in America. Again, like crappy bathroom stalls, something I just took as part of life. I knew homelessness was a problem, but I never explored the idea that in some places, it just ISN’T. In Spain, where youth unemployment has passed the 50% mark and the economic crisis seems never-ending, I’ve seen about three people asking for spare change. I’m sure weather and social safety nets are factors.

After taking a step back, it’s easy to see we’ve grown accustomed to some odd things. I remember my social studies teacher in high school telling us some pretty “shocking” tendencies of other cultures, like eating guinea pigs in Peru, or binding feet in China. Then he said, “In one culture, woman pay loads of money to have their toenails sawed down, pummeled with coarse rocks, and then painted strange neon colors with a sort of thin, toxic material, which no substance found in nature can get rid of.” Of course, he was talking about pedicures in the U.S. Perspective is a funny thing.