Sunday, August 2, 2009

Verständnis Amerika

[ Understanding America ]

Wednesday morning began after a quick breakfast and was scheduled with the first speaker of the seminar. Discussing cross-cultural issues, and with a lecture titled Reflecting on America, Professor Gary Weaver from American University, whom I was very intrigued to hear from.

Essentially the lecture captured the idea that before we could even begin to understand Germany and Europe, we really had to understand America first. Many elements of the lecture paralelled familiar training to me with YFU students that I have been invited to be a part of in both California and Washington, DC, but this lecture added more history and observations to the idea of culture shock and understanding cross-culturally.

For starters, things were broken down as simply as possible. This included definitions, and a closer look at the word empathy. Uniquely different from sympathy, empathy is being able to understand the way someone percieves reality, not necessarily agreeing with it; trying on someone elses shoes for a while. After all, we were reminded that we really never can change out innate values and the way we were brought up; "no on sat you down at a table and said these are your values". And professor Weaver also critiqued that there is probably nothing more obnoxious than an Anglo-American in a foreign country trying everything they can to act JUST like a locals. There is a mindset that is appropriate to appreciate being unique and American, but also appreciating the foreign culture you are in.

From this we delved deeper into the relations of Europe and the US and really, a look at America and its own unique culture. The lecture was actually highly critical on the views over America, and how our culture and actions, especially to Europeans, can be easily deeped superficial. The first comment was how Americans really just can't say "no". When asked to do something by a superior and we know it isn't possible or feasible, the last thing on our minds is simply saying no it isn't possible. Instead, we feel the pressure to soften things, and therefore speak with many, "you know... ", "thats great, but", "umm sure, however" and ultimately beat the bush and don't really express the real truth. To us however, that is fine. The Japanese were actually used as an example (to my great amusement and excitement) since in a nutshell they always say "hai" whether it is yes or no... since hai is not yes, but more of "understood". Then of course the Japanese don't have to say anything and just clench their teeth and make a sssss noise while sucking in - of course with their head tilted sideways - "thats difficult" ちょっと. Germans especialy like to get straight to the point [ and I already got some practice with the Finns ]. This is just one example of a communication barrier, beyond just a language barrier, and it is this that creates the elusive "culture shock" that is repeated in every pre-departure manual for exchange ever. Professor Weaver liked to redefine it as a stress that evolves from a communication breakdown, and that is unique from person to person.

Other parts of the lecture touched onto historical and current issues. Something that was a new observation to me was just examining popular entertainment and drama in both continents. Americans love pitting good vs. evil and making sure that everything is clear-cut black and white, usually with cliche symbolism. This was defined as the melodrama, and should not be mistaken with the European crowdplease that is the tragedy. Europeans love the complex scenarios of good people doing bad things and thus the tragic consequences that ensue. Professor Weaver cleverly tied this observation to the broad idea that this is how the nations have come out of WW2 and how many nations think about themselves today, which I thought was credible and kind of facinating even though very generalized. This led to a breaking down the word evil and how liberal Americans are at using it. This was very apparent at the outcry of anger that Europeans had when President Bush freely labeled an "Axis of Evil" during the War on Terrorism [ with war being not too far behind as a word Americans use frequently in politics. ] France was brought up since apparently the translation of evil in French result in something meaning demonic, and to label something like a country as something that has such a harsh religious connotation is blasphemous and severe - and from this French and European outlook, how can something be labeled as demonic and evil without first self-evaluating one's own country, another valid point.

On the subject of religion, this major difference between Americans and Europeans, notably Germans here, was another important observation. Statistically over 40% of Germans consider themselves athiests. This is compared to only 4% in America. Actually, from my YFU days, over 50% of Americans claim to at least regularly attend a church service. What we fail to realize as Americans is just how integrated religion is into our land of seperation of church and state. After all, our nation was created by Europeans that fled for tollerance who could have easily have been considered "religious fanatics". It is no wonder why many Europeans, even with beautiful churches all around, still view our country as being this way.

It is interesting to reflect on who initially started in this county, and from where it grew, and see how our American culture expands from there. Along with the religious background, and our puritan past [ which I think is important to address since that corresponds directly with Europes infamous comfort with sex and nudity that Americans are enthralled by], other parts of early America was started with convicts - the entire state of Georgia was first a compound for the criminals dispelled from Great Britain! Even with our origins as a continent of misfits and outcasts, Professor Weaver addressed the common assumption and response from surveyed American's that "we have no American culture." This was immidiately debunk as false, and whereas our culture is varied, there is one that still exists. Americans are generalized with having the believe that we are all extremely individual, or that we at least believe to have an extremely individualistic society [ in contrast to, say, Japan, that has the saying "if a nail is sticking out, pound it in"]. Americans also have a common distrust for a strong centralized authority (which is why the liberal Obama administration is causing many waves in America each day on the news) and this can be traced back to the fact that our nation has never had a King, Queen or Pope overruling our nation. We also are very comfortable with our civic culture and how we had laws that are unique on a state to state basis [ one that is unique to Europeans is the diversity in death penalty laws state to state which is virtually non-existant in thought within EU countries].

To clear up some misconceptions, there was also a critique to the idea of our American "melting pot" which was discussed. The idea of assimilation [which recently has been criticised and there is a cultural shift against it in America] and everyone thus melting into one American people is true in some cases and somewhat false. The large waves of Poles that fled to America would take great measure to change their names - like a Michałski to a Michaels - to eliminate a Polish connection [ which seems tragic when thought about today ], but this same assimilation can not be attributed to a community like the Black population of America that simply could not freeling melt into society with a cultural change. This results in what Professor Weaver defined as a Mosaic theory of America and less of a melting pot. One thing that I recall studying in high school that complicates this theory, however, was the great shift west during the huge land increases of Jacksonian America. This idea, simplified greatly, observes that Americans pushed West out of necessity for inexpensive land and new opportunities. Every "layer" that pushed the boudary even more, therefore mixed more types of people together, ultimately creating the common American. Even so, both theories defend something that is uniquely American either way, and really cannot be compared with other places on Earth. It is this romantic west that is also, curiously, much celebrated in Germany. Apparently the author Karl Mein is famous for his novels about American Indians that sparked an obsession with indians in German entertainment. This is something I still may see ripples of even today.

Now this may raise the question - what about places like Canada? Many Americans when asked who is most closely related to us with not say Great Britain [the country that has the deepest roots in our history] as our closest relative, but Canada instead. Canada is very different from America [which is probably a breath of fresh air to the Canadians who always hear that they are America's little sibling, eh?]. Some very vital differences include that facts that Canada has a progressive social welfare system [something America doesn't have which baffles Scandinavians to no end], the Canadians have the Queen of England on their currency, they are a Brittish commonwealth, and they also have no death penalty. Canada is actually more related to South Africa and Australia than the US, and once again, America is identified as a land that is completely unique in the world.

Another critique on America is our consistant pride and hype about our equality that we strive for. Our optimism in this particular core democratic value is one that makes Europeans think of us as blindsided, and possibly denying our differences that exist before our very eyes. Now, discussing the influx and situations on diversity in Europe is an entirely different topic, and one that I am eager to observe, but this optimism that as Americans we believe that there is a positive, cohesive future for ourselves is what really causes other nations to scough at our overzealous intuition [ afterall, having a direct connection to the non-profit sector, and a future in potentially public policy, I can only represent this American stereotype, since everyday I think who can I help and what can I do to make a difference. ] Compared to Europeans, the generalized American believes less in Fatalism, and in effect we have a greater culture of volunteerism and celebrate risk-takers who strive for a proactive society.

This celebration of risk takers leads to possibly the most unique ideas I could pull from Professor Weavers lecture. It is the idea that as Americans we deeply connect our identities to what we do. Just looking at the modern English language and its emphasis on the verb to do, over the verb to be can be one observation. After all, Americans would never vote for someone that campaigned "Vote for me and I'll keep it the same." This statement is a joke compared to our recent campaing of Change and mavricks, and that is from both political parties! Even American propaganda and comercialism has grabbed a hold of this idea: "Don't just stand there, do something." or a "Just Do It" slogan under a swoosh on our shoe boxes. Being in Washington DC, Professor Weaver told us to just walk around and look at all of the statues around DC and notice that a large majority are men on a horse. [there is one of Joan of arc representing women] These statues represent our cultues that highly esteem the man of action, often with the man on the horse with a sword in a swift motion. In concession are the many European statues that commemorate leaders in stability like poetry and the arts. There are many exceptions to this view, but it does propose a unique idea. On the idea of to do, Americans love the story of someone that has beat the odds and grown from hard work and personal accievement. After all, this is the American Dream, and this differs from the European past of to be and gaining power because of heritage and lineage. Americans like to believe that there is no caste system, and Europe still seems to have undertones of a fatalistic society and destiny. Even in our Christmas songs, Americans have eternalized rudolph the red nose raindeer who, when broken down, is nothing more than a freak with an obnoxious red nose that ultimately gets to lead the rest of raindeer with Santa. At least with the Finns, they just like rudolph on their plates with some lingonberries [sorry, lame joke]. To connect myself to this idea, I have even stated earlier my personal mindframe as an optimistic American : What can I do today to help?

Professor Weaver made a very unique bridge from this concept of doing to another controversial aspect of American culture, and that being our culture's outlook on the elderly. Even thought we are often bashed for having a dependance on "old people homes" and retirement complexes in America, only 5-6% of Senior Americans live in one of these options, one reason being their great expence. However, 85% of American elderly do live separate from their children, which is pretty remarkable. Professor Weaver alluded this to the fact that once you are a senior citizen, you are no longer doing. In a culture that celebrates productivity in the self made man, the outlook of todays senior Americans could be that burdening their children is only counter-acting the values of accieving and doing that they worked so hard to instill into their children. I thought this was very interesting to think about, and connects all the way back to America after the world wars.

In regards to school and education, Professor Weaver prepared us for a much different student to professor relationship in Germany. For one thing, the commuication and direct contact between students and professors outside of class is apparently much more limited than the exemplary public schools and private schools in America. Also, the behavior in the large lecture setting could apparently been seen as rude in comparison to American classes, with students talking and frequently questioning and challenging their professors. This is something I will have to see for myself, but the idea of being direct and critical could speak a lot about the Germans and how they think. With this accepted norm, constantly challening and being critical of everything is a way to become engage within the topic or idea at hand. Americans tend to be very different from this, and we tend to have a higher sensitivity to critique. With Germans living everyday with neighbors like the French, and eight other countries, there are constantly different ideas to learn. America may be diverse, but this form of critical diversity is something we lack. In fact, less than 18% of Americans had passporst last year (and to think how many people got them just for easier travels to Canada). This could all stem from the very domestic mindframes of Americans and our collective fear of the outside and its views, as well has a fear of the language barriers that we can face abroad.

In America's defence however, Americans are very comfortable with people having very integrated backgrounds - for example, our commonplace practice to define ourselves as a hyphenated American. This culture simply doesn't exist in Germany, at least not yet. Germany has faced an influx of diversity and immigrants over the past decades after the wars and the fall of the Berlin wall. Even with the changing face of the country, there is not a gerneral concensus of "Turkish-Germans" ect. Germans are Germans, and foreigners are foreigners living in Germany. The view of Germans on Turks is something that is prevelant in todays current events on Germany and I am interested to see what I can learn while in Germany, since it will be a crucial issue in the nation within the next decades to come.

Because of America's generalized European roots, there is a unique trend in training for CEOs and business employees for when they travel and work abroad. For areas like Asia and the Middle East, many companies provide indepth training to prepare their workers for the culture of their new work enviroments. Oftentimes, however, western European travel requires some language training and that is all. This is a great misconception after many of the things that I have mentioned that the only real differences between American and Europe is a language barrier. Right away there are some outstanding differences that separate the US from the coutries of the EU. For one thing, our nation is comparably very young. America also did not have any feudal period, but at the same time, Europe has not experienced an immigrant culture until in modern times in the same way America has. Finally, and most obviously, our nation has been isolated from the rest of the world with the great protection and barriers of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This is why the events of september 11th had such a shocking impact on the American psyche.

Discussing the American psyche could have allowed Professor Weaver to talk for two or more hours after his great hour long lecture. I truly enjoyed the many ideas that he discussed and would have loved to have heard more. I will try to be as observant in Europe this year. For those that actually read this post - since I figure it will result as something for my own personal reading only - probably deserve for me to air mail them some German chocolate first class for their efforts. There is a lot of excitement to be going to Europe at a time like now. With Obama as president there is a lot more curiosity and definitely a lot less negitivity when discussing America. I am excited to go as part of the 26th CBYX scholarship group and represent this new face of America that has the world looking upon it in a different light. The lecture had truly made me excited to learn more in Europe, and we were all bid a bon voyage from Professor Weaver onto our sojurns, as he called them, in just a few days.

1 comment:

  1. wow chris. I actually read all of that and that I must say it will be an amazing thing to learn about. I know you will do wonderfully integrating your values and beliefs into German culture. It is true that Americans believe all of Europe is the same, when it clearly is not. I hope you will be able to bring to light to some American falsities that some of your German neighbors will have of us. :]