Proud to be an American?- Part 1

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Living overseas among various nationalities exposed me to some of American stereotypes. Some of the stereotypes made me wonder whether or not I’m proud to be an American after all.

Never in my life had I felt so boxed in by American culture, so labeled. Sometimes people told me that I wasn’t like “that,” insinuating that “that” was the essence of American error.

Want to hear what other people think of Americans? Well, here are a few things…

We are impulsive.
We make quick decisions without weighing the pros and cons or how our decisions affect other people. This probably has a lot to do with personality, but there is a trend in favor of this stereotype. Why? Is it because we’re used to having things easy? Do we always give ourselves the option to give up when things get harder than we had anticipated?

We are loud.
This is another stereotype that depends on personality. I did notice a trend with Americans overseas. We were usually the loud ones, laughing, talking, unafraid that the everyone within shouting distance knew our business.

We are scared to be real.
We hold surface conversations and act like our lives are going smoothly. (Personally, I think this trend is starting to change with a generation that values authenticity.)

We are violent. (And everyone owns a gun.)
Hmm. Well? Look at the video games we have access to, even children. Look at Hollywood. We might freak out at nudity (reinforcing another stereotype), but without flinching, we watch people’s heads being blown off. There’s a lot more behind this idea, but I’ll let you unpack this one for yourself.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Culture shock in my own country

A few ways I’ve been shocked by my own culture in the last months:

  • Other kinds of foreign language. I approached some people in Aldi, excited that they were speaking another language… only to discover it was a butchered version of my mother tongue.
  • The politeness of complete strangers, even if they’re not trying to sell you something!
  • Efficiency.
  • The constant busyness. Without lifting a finger to plan, one can manage to walk into a new week with a full schedule.
  • The availability of, well, everything. If I can’t find it on a garage sale, I’ll pick it up at Wal-Mart or simply order it from Amazon.
  • The quietness. No noisy neighbors at night.
  • Menu prices. They’ve already made my eyes pop out more than once.
  • Not needing to carry tp with me everywhere I go.
  • The evasion of temperature extremes. Cold? No problem! Turn on the heat! Hot? Easy peasy. Turn on the air conditioning!

Little by little, I’m acclimating to my own culture… A journey that will probably continue until I leave it again.

Happy birthday

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The way he oohs and aahs over simple pleasures. The way he slobbers out motor sounds while he drives his cars and tractors across the carpet. The way he points at things with an excited gasp, expecting you to look in wonder. The way he giggles with Eskimo hugs. The way he “dances” when he hears bouncy music. And the way he sings in church– “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.”

We met only a few months ago, but he has already managed to steal my heart.

Happy first birthday, Albert Harris.

Do you want to know the apricot tree?- Part 3

The uneven cobblestone streets wound down into the old medina. It was my last big shopping trip before I left the country. I wasn’t going to rush. Not many people were out today- was it a holiday? Who cared?

I had already bought a neat little set of tea glasses and stopped to chat with the rug seller who invited me into his shop whenever I strolled by. Then I paused in front of a shop to look for a piece of jewelry someone had asked me to look for. Earrings with a ship anchors on them.

“Can I help you?” The idle shopkeeper was suddenly at attention.

“Yes, do you have… do you have… Do you have earrings with-” How in the world was I going to describe an anchor?

“Yes! Here are the earrings! I have this kind, and this kind-” His hands flew as he pointed out his worthy merchandise. “Do you want camels? I have camel earrings!”

“No. I want… I want earrings with something from a ship. Something they throw into the water.”

He covered his confusion by pointing out more undesired sets.

Then I spotted a keychain with a ship anchor. “There! I want earrings with this! What is this?”

He shrugged and grinned. “Something from a ship that they throw into the water.”

I rolled my eyes, but he urged me into his shop to look at other things. After a quick glance around, I was ready to go.

But he had spotted the set of tea glasses sticking out of the cloth bag I had draped over my arm. “Are those colored?”

“No. They’re just normal.”

Uninvited, he pulled them out of my bag. Carefully, he opened the box and seeing the set of shining but very normal glasses, he said reverently, “They’re nice.”

I agreed as I took the box back from him.

He was still staring at the box as I replaced it my shopping bag. “How much did you pay for them?”

The moment I had been waiting for had sneaked up and caught me unaware. Almost. But not quite.

“Do you want to know the apricot tree and who planted her?” I didn’t say the words loudly; I was too preoccupied with saying them correctly. But they hit their mark.

The storekeeper took a step backward before bursting into hearty laughter. It was several moments before he was able to respond. “You are not a foreigner. You are a North African! You speak North African!”

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Do you want to know the apricot tree?- Part 2

There was coffee with milk, mint tea, several types of bread, cookies, brownies, chocolate pastries, hard-boiled eggs with salt and cumin, strawberries…

We three roommates beamed at each other across the table. We had pulled off a luscious North African tea time. Our two guests were relaxed and carried on a lilting conversation that didn’t seem to notice our limited vocabulary.

“Eat! Eat!” We urged as we refilled coffee glasses and set plates of food in front of them.

The topic turned to people who ask too many questions. I shared my story with the woman at the store. Our guests burst into laughter, amused at how annoyed I still was, days later.

“What should I say when people ask me that?” I hollered over their laughter. My teacher had taught me the phrase, “Is it your market?” but I had only ever heard sassy children use that with each other. It hardly seemed appropriate to be so blunt with another adult.

Still laughing, one of the ladies said, “Do you want to know the apricot tree and who planted her?”

Captivated, we asked her to repeat the phrase over and over. As foreigners, we probably got more than our fair share of nosy questions. Having a bit of good-natured ammunition would be refreshing. Our guests assured us that no one would take offense at such a remark, but they would get the hint to get their nose out of of your business.

We practiced the awkward words and intonation until our pronunciation was acceptable by North African standards.

And I filed that helpful tidbit in my mind for easy access.

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Do you want to know the apricot tree?- Part 1

Just a quick trip to the store and I would be back in a jiffy. Humming, I pranced down the flights of stairs and onto the street that baked in the warm March sun.

“Peace be upon you,” I greeted the storekeeper.

“And upon you.”

A woman was in front of me at the counter. She turned to me with an intrusive stare. “Is she English?” she addressed the storekeeper.

“No, I’m American.” I answered for myself and then looked away to avoid further questions.

Some North African women could smell evasion. They went around, rooting out people who dared to hide anything from them. Her eyebrows lifted. “You speak Arabic?”

“Yes. I live here.”

“How much do you pay for rent?”

Really? All I need is two eggs. I bit back a smart reply that would probably be effective. It would also probably be rude. So I cleared my throat and tried to dance around the question. “I live with two other girls.”

The storekeeper was smirking. I could feel it more than I saw it. But despite our months of trust-building and extraordinary civility, he refused to come to my rescue. Then again, maybe I had rescued him.

The woman hung on like an un-oiled tick. “But how much do you pay?”

Aspirated, I gave her an amount.

She gasped. “What? All of you pay that together?”

A gusty sigh escaped before I could stop it. “Noooo. Each of us pays that amount.” I had yet to acquire the linguistic ability to defend myself and my private information around women like her.

“Oh.” She glanced at the ceiling as she did some quick math. “That’s not very much.”

Glad you think so. Now, could you please finish?

When she had vanished, carrying with her the essence of satisfied control, I stepped up the counter, deflated. “Eggs.”

“How many?” The store keeper was still smirking.

“Just two.”

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I had no time to hate

I had no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample I
Could finish enmity.

Nor had I time to love; but since
Some industry must be,
The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.

(Emily Dickinson XXII from Life)