Leaving America and Learning how American I am

Growing up in the States I never really thought much about what it means to be an American. Patriotic waving the red, white and blue? Eating hot dogs and hamburgers? Attending ball games? Ah the cliché images.

 I was born in America but my parents weren’t. My mom born in Canada and my dad emigrated from Chile after a 3 year pit stop in Mexico, when he was 28. I grew up hearing his childhood stories of stealing watermelons in the countryside, jumping on the back of micros (buses in Chilean Spanish) just as they speed away holding on for dear life,  “borrowing”  horses for the afternoon and riding with his friends, almost always getting themselves in trouble and plenty of  handprints left on his bum. His childhood seemed idyllic compared to American suburbia and the need for parents to always keep a watch on where their kids are because are world isn’t as “safe” as it was. (Aside from culture, it was an generation gap too). Naturally, I took a bit of pride that I wasn’t “Super” American and didn’t/don’t feel the need to wave flags every chance there is to show my patriotism to my country. I disliked the pledge of allegiance in schools avoiding it every chance I got.    All to say, I’ve never really understood what it means to be an American, let alone a Chilean or a Canadian. Or Spanish. 

That is, until I packed up my bags and moved.

Life has it’s ways of teaching us lessons as we learn about the world and ourselves and moving outside the land of dreams has shown me just how American I am.

American in the way I think about the world, my beliefs, my expectations,  how I interact with people and what I think is possible… 

American dream

American dream

Here are a 6 examples of things I’ve noticed that are different between Spain, Basque Country and the USA:

Customer service: 

Is something I never really thought much about in the States until moving to Spain where it’s noticeable lacking. In the USA we pride ourselves on friendly, helpful, and sometimes over the top customer service. Businesses know customer service needs to be a priority to help their business and ensure repeat customers.  Walk into any retail store and you’ll be greeted with smiles and “How are you today? Can I help you find something?” which if you’re not used to it, can seem a bit fake and over the top. I have my days in the states where I want to just duck in and duck out without any one acknowledging my presence but I’m starting to appreciate greetings and service with every day that passes here. 

It’s easy to generalize Spanish and Basque shop assistants but it would take more than my hands and feet to count how many times I’ve walked into a store, went unnoticed and had to interrupt a conversation between shop assistants to make my purchase.  Customer service is often minimum to nil, which is hard to get used to and I’m not if it’s a matter of living here longer to get used to it  or just rewiring my brain of my expectations, because es lo que hay. It’s how it is. 

Alas, life isn’t black and white and recently shop keepers have caught me by surprise by saying, “if you if you need help with anything, just ask.” 

I’ve also recently had a bad experience with a phone company who, when I added more credit to my phone, misheard the number, didn’t double check like they typically do and credited someone else’s account. When I realized a few hours later  and went back in a few days later, I was greeted with hostility as I tried to explain my situation in Spanish, of course. Though my mom couldn’t understand the conversation, she got the gist and was surprised at how unhelpful this woman was. As we walked out, my mom said to me, the woman could have said something along the lines of, “Sorry” or try to offer a solution rather than go into defense mode, customer is wrong attitude. I couldn’t agree with her more.  This is just a typical example of how it is. No respect for the customer who is providing them business… 

Then again, customer service isn’t perfect either in the States. Some companies are better than others but on the whole the USA has got Customer service!

Anything is possible, you just have to DREAM:

They say America is the land of dreams, a place where all your dreams can come true, a place where if you work hard enough all you touch can turn into gold. Well, maybe not gold but between the principals of which our country was founded, the  spirit of Manifest Destiny and the constant Hollywood stories, having dreams and chasing them are a big part of American culture; a part of the American dream.  Sometimes it’s easy to think that the era  of America being the land of dreams is long gone but I’m realizing just how ingrained it is in how we are taught, how we think,  what we do. We believe that anything is possible.

Anything that you stive for can be yours, it’s just a matter of effort, maintaining focus and consistency, keeping your eye on your dreams…(and sometimes a little luck).

I didn’t realize how crucial dreams and believing in ourselves is such a part of American culture until I moved abroad and  realized the way I think about life and my world is quite different than Spaniards, Basques and other Europeans.   I’ve always had the belief that  I can do anything, from what my parents instilled in me, schooling and proving to myself that dreams can be accomplished if I believe in myself!

Anything is possible, you just have to believe

Anything is possible, you just have to believe

Sometimes this spirit of being able to do anything is a bit overwhelming too, especially being from the Bay Area; the land of entrepreneurs.  When I was home for the summer and unsure of my next step I felt a bit down and disappointed in myself when I’d read the newspaper and hear about some  younger- than- me Joe, Jim or Tom trying out there simple but innovative business idea… 

I imagine there are entrepreneurs in Spain and Basque Country but they definitely seem to be the minority… and it’s hard for me to know how it is in the rest of the States, when I  come from the region of,  “if you can think it, you can do it!”

University degree doesn’t equal career:

You see in the good ole USA, it’s common for fresh out of high school students to have dreams of  a career only later to study something completely different, graduate and then wonder, what the heck am I going to do with a history degree? Psychology degree?  Or like me, an Anthropology degree?

No problem. History majors may not end of working as history teachers  nor are all psychology majors on track to becoming psychologists, in fact quite the contrary. What you study may not necessarily “relate” to your your first, second or third job or career. There are many reasons for this, some require more schooling (aka: Anthropology if I want to be a true “anthropologist” cue Master’s and Doctorate degrees… ah, no thanks), there aren’t available jobs in your field or you changed your mind and realized you don’t really want want to be a biochemist after all. It’s not easy when we have grandeur ideas that what we study will manifest into a perfect career but there is a lot of flexibility with having a 4-year degree. These days simply having a degree can open more doors for you than not having one, regardless of what it is you studied.

In Spain, it’s a bit different. What you study is what you do. In fact, high school students have the privilege,  are required to take a test to determine what they can and can’t study. You want to be a doctor? You need a high score. You had dreams of being a lawyer? Guess what, think again if you didn’t score within the bracket. Yup, a test determines what you can study and ultimately the career you can have.

In the States, we might have very competitive and Ivy league universities but if you get decent enough grades and try really hard you can be anything you want. Or if you’re like me, who studied anthropology, worked as a nanny, traveled, and found work teaching kiddies about where their food comes from + managing a farmers market without much prior knowledge, seems well, like complete craziness to Spaniards. It’s assumed since I work in a high school in Basque Country that I must have a degree in Education. “Ah no, not really, NOPE!” Want to switch careers or divert from what you studied like I did?  It’s a strange concept, not to mention a complete luxury to most Spaniards and Basques and a Belgian friend told me it’s the same in Belgium. What you study is what you do and it’s strange to switch careers or study something else…I’m guessing in most places in Europe it’s similar.

I’m quite grateful that in the States we’re more flexible and open to possibilities (whether due to circumstances, need or want)! I can’t imagine being stuck in a field or not being able to study something simply based on a silly test score!

Being Proactive:

Now maybe this is more of a personality trait vs. a cultural trait but I’m curious to see what you think…

One of my most recent examples is back in November, I gave my number to a Spanish gal who has a friend in my town. She gave me her friend’s number. When I’d remember I hadn’t gotten in contact yet I was either out of town or away from my phone. A few months later, I receive a message from my American friend  asking me, “When you going to call A, she’s waiting for you to get in contact with her.” Wait a minute. Why is she waiting on me to contact her. We’re both adults. We both live in the same town and both are capable of calling or texting the other. 

But why is it my responsibility?  Why did this woman go through the effort to tell her friend, to tell my friend for my friend to pass on the info to me when she could have just texted me directly? Sounds like way more work, right?

In the end we met up, get on great and occasionally meet up when we both have time…but I wonder, if I wasn’t proactive, we both would have missed out on this opportunity to get to know each other!

I also have had plenty of students ask to leave there last class early because they had a exam in an hour or two and needed time to go home and have lunch. My response to the teachers who allowed them to leave early was, “Why didn’t they bring there lunch in a Tupperware? If they know they only have a limited amount of time, why aren’t they prepared?” Seems obvious to me, that you have to think ahead and prepare yourself to make sure you can get what you need accomplished but seems teachers don’t think in the same way I do. Or the teachers have become accustomed to this reasoning that they don’t question their students or try to teach them different values.


Mind your manners

Mind your manners

The more I communicate in Spanish, the more I understand how manners are  integrated within a language. Spanish is direct. You tell it like it is.  Everyday things such as going to a coffee shop and ordering a coffee is more direct than English. You can order a few ways but one of the most common is,  Me pones un café. directly translates to “put me a coffee”  or as we would say, “I’ll have a coffee” but it’s uncommon to insert please and thank you’s as much as we do in English. It’s not that they’re intentionally being rude but please and thank you’s are used in other contexts and different situations.  Recently, I  overheard a customer say, Me pones un café, por favor,  My ears went on alert. What? Did I just hear a please? Can’t be! I pondered for a minute and wondered if I had been rude for the last 8 months and then shook my head and said to myself, Nah, I’ve been speaking like the locals speak. It’s not that you can’t say please but and thank you when ordering but it’s not used as frequently as it is in English. We’re always blanketing our statements, “Can I have this” Is it possible to have, It would be really wonderful…, where here you can just ask without all the sugar coating. 

GIve me a coffee

GIve me a coffee

I should mention that within Spanish grammar there are polite and informal ways of expression depending on who you’re talking to and the situation. It’s not that the language is free from manners but it simply differs to English when they are used. 

I also find sometimes on crowded streets, I’ll make an effort to move out of the way if I see someone is in a hurry or needs to get by and every time I secretly wish for a “Gracias” but never get a thank you. I don’t know why I keep thinking I’ll get a different response.

During my mom’s 2 week visit, I had a set of new eyes observing the various differences and my mom was quick to notice the difference in manners. Despite asking me on Day 1 how to say Excuse me, she soon realized that when it may be obvious to say Excuse me or can I pass goes unsaid here 

For example: While at the bus station with only 5 minutes till departure  my mom ran off with her luggage to use the bathroom. She tells me, I walked in, two woman were standing near the doorway and blocking the entrance of the empty stall yet not moving out of the way to let me pass to enter the open stall, so instead of saying Perdona, perdona, I just barged in, pushing through with my luggage without saying anything, just as I’ve seen everyone else do here. The women seemed unfazed. When in Rome…

Wow, mom you learn quickly! Now that I’ve been here for a while, some things I just accept and others I keep expecting a different answer (don’t ask me why). Having her fresh eyes was great perspective. Screw manners. Just barge through. Like they say, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!

Picking up after myself: 

At a young age, my parents instilled in me that I must pick up after myself. Make a mess, clean it up. We learn this in school too. Barney the purple dinosaur even has a “clean up” song to encourage children to clean up after themselves…

Seems Barney’s theme song never made it to Spain.

Leaving your mess for the cleaners to clean!

Leaving your mess for the cleaners to clean!

My third week in Andalucia I experienced my first Botellón  where friends gather in a designated area, often a main plaza and bring their plastic bags full of bottles of alcohol and mixers, plastic cups, ice and snacks to drink in the street. Despite being illegal in most cities and towns, the tradition continues with most police turning a blind eye. We drank until 3am and when it was time to move on to our next destination  (night was just beginning), I naturally started cleaning up our area, picking up bottles and plastic wrappers to throw all our trash away. I quickly realized this seemed strange to my Spanish friends. Dejalo. They said, Leave it.  Ah well. Ok. As I looked on and saw a sea of garbage.

Four hours later when we were walking back home, I noticed men in neon yellow uniforms, hosing down the streets and picking up everyone else’s garbage. hmmm. No wonder no one seemed concerned about picking up their trash when they know someone else will do it for them!

Have you felt more American (or identified with your nationality) while/after living abroad than before you moved abroad?  Can you relate to these situations or themes?

Do you have any to add to the list? I would love to hear your thoughts!

20 thoughts on “Leaving America and Learning how American I am

  1. Pingback: How do you deal with Naysayers? | Roamingtheworld

  2. Pingback: 6 Lessons I’m Learning Living Abroad | Roamingtheworld

  3. The education thing is typical of Europe. You pick a major and you stick with it–you can’t change it 5-6 times like you can in the US. Once you finish your studies, you pick a career that falls within that major. So if you pick something liberal arts related (languages, history, art history, or God forbid the useless philosophy) it is expected you will be a teacher. There is no other option. You majored in science? You end up with a science related job. It is both a good and bad thing that we have the freedom to experiment and play around in the States. Some people just take waaaay too long to “find themselves” and waste a lot of time (including their employers’) figuring it out.

    I had first hand experience with horrible customer service (NEVER use Orange for Internet). I also did not like the fact that people would push and shove you on the street/public transportation and not apologize for it. Quite a few times I got hurt and it drove me bananas that this was acceptable. However I did get used to it and now I never apologize when I’m in the States!

    And I wouldn’t say we dream big as much as the US is a very individualist society. Everybody around the world has dreams–it is not unique to the US. However in the US we are taught that we are individuals and we can do pretty much whatever we want–again both a good and a bad thing.

    • Hi,
      thanks for complimenting.
      There are good and bad things to a lot of flexibility. As for wasting time, I don’t know if I’d call it that but rather learning what you want and don’t want. In our ever-changing world, where the idea of a 30 yr career is changing to be more like having many careers in our working life- I see as a good thing.
      Life is full of possibility and interesting things to stay doing one thing. It depends on the person but I see it exciting that I could start doing one thing in my thirties and be working in a different field or variation of my field ten years later.

      Yes, I agree. People around the world have dreams, it’s not only in the USA. I wanted to articulate that in part by how our culture is and by how our university is provides us with the belief that anything is possible. How many people are teachers because it’s a stable job vs. because they enjoy teaching?

      I’ve met people here who have BIG dreams too but sometimes I’ve sense people are limited by what jobs they can do. There imaginations are limited based on what seems possible given how they have been trained to think. Maybe I’m generalizing too much…

  4. You totally hit the nail on the head!! GREAT POST! Now I LOVE the Spanish but when I am in Spain just about all of these things begin to grate on me as I experience them over there. Like customer service. not all places are bad but I remember very clearly how I stayed in an expensive boutique hotel in Malaga with a free breakfast bar. Dishes were dirty, the attendant didn’t get fresh coffee when it ran out, there was rotting fruit! We pointed these things out in Spanish, politely and asked for what we needed and we got a contemptuous sniff from the attendant who then disappeared! We waited and waited and she never came back! 😀 Que cara!! But there are things there I like BETTER than here, like their approach to social life, they put friends and family first. It’s a fun place to visit. Not sure if I could live there in and extended way because I miss things from here too much.

    • Hi Birgit,
      Thanks for the compliment!
      It’s a love/hate for me. I know I’m tired or had a long day when some of these silly scenarios just about throw me over the edge. I always try to remember if it’s similar in the USA because it’s so easy to paint a perfect picture of our own country when were so far away!

      Yes, it continues to surprise me how bad customer service can be. It’s like, HELLO, Do you not realize that I’m providing you business, which ultimately provides you a job?

      Agreed- there approach to the social life and making family and friends a priority is something to admire and appreciate it. Back home, we can easily get caught up in our hectic lives and have to “pencil” people into our lives. Crazy!

  5. I like this so much. It’s so true – I’ve seen a whole new perspective being American now that I’m seeing it through a Belgian’s eyes (and Dutch and French and German and Suisse…. – this place is so eclectic). Especially when they are totally off base with their view – mostly from watching extreme movies/tv – that it reminds me where we are. AND the manners – yes! We learned quickly too that there are just WAY more people here, so they’re used to living amongst crowds, so with all of the space in America, the ‘Excuse me/Pardon’s are more necessary.

    • Hi annie,
      Thanks for the compliment!
      It’s always funny to hear their perspective about the USA, especially when they haven’t been (to realize it’s not “always” like the movies). It’s also interesting because some ppl are curious about the states and want to see if for themselves and others have the attitude of, “why bother? there are so many “better” places to go!” and with that I always think, yup, stay ignorant of the states! It’s too diverse and cool for you. haha.

  6. It’s a small one, but I didn’t realize just how much I said ‘awesome’ until I moved abroad. Got a lot of flack for it from my friends from the UK!

    • Ha. I realize how much I say, “like” especially since I’m speaking Spanish half the time and learning and noticing their words that are the equivalent to our “likes” Haha

  7. Wow, you covered a lot of ground here! This is like four posts in one!

    You bring up a lot of issues regarding how travel really helps us to appreciate our own culture. Without traveling we take so much for granted and think the rest of the world is like us. Not so, as you elegantly point out.

    Your post reminds me how fortunate I am to be an American. So thanks for that.

    Very funny in parts too!

    • Ah thanks for reading, Ma!

      There is so much beauty in living abroad, if anything to make us appreciate what we have in our own backyards!

      You’re welcome.

  8. Aw, I’ve really enjoyed this post, and I could comment at length on all your points (mainly in agreement), but I’ll spare you 😉

    With regards to study and career paths, I’ve found Germany (my home country) really inflexible (close to the Spanish approach, as far as I understand it). The UK, however, where I spent most of my adult life, is much more enabling people wanting to change direction. The topsy turvy path I took wouldn’t really have been possible, had I not moved to the UK. And in the US, I could never have afforded to do what I did. As far as I’m aware, you pay horrendous fees for higher education over there, while in most European countries, it’s either free or at least within the realm of the affordable. If you look at it in another way, choices in the US can be just as limited, it’s just that the limitations are imposed by a different set of factors.

    And as for people not moving out of the way, I may have to kill somebody soon over this. You’ll read about it in the paper. I feel like a right mug for being so damn mindful of other people around me. But I’m programmed this way, not sure I can override my ‘politeness’ circuits…

    • I definitely agree that moving to Spain has reiterated my Americanness.

      One example I’ve felt recently is the importance of the family.In Spain, the family is supposed to be super important, right? Well, not in businesses, or so it seems to me. Mario’s company does not invite spouses to the office Christmas party, and no one puts pictures of loved ones on his/her desk. I find that odd and off putting, especially since the family is supposed to be so important here.

      Another thing I’ve noticed is the happiness (or lack thereof) when others succeed. In the US, it seems we realize that there’s enough success to go around, and when someone succeeds it’s not because he/she cheated. In Spain, envy is practically a national sport. (I’m not alone in thinking this; my Spanish family has shown me this, as they believe it too.)

      I do think that going abroad is a good way for any person to appreciate his/her home culture, and I’ve felt that too. I’m not uber patriotic, but I’m definitely more aware of the good when far away from home. (Still aware of the bad, though!)

      • HI Kaley,
        Thanks for stopping by!

        Interesting how family isn’t shown at work despite being so fundamental to the culture. I’m quite surprised!

        I hadn’t thought about cheating and success. How unfortunate that people make the assumption when people are successful they must have accomplished it by cheating! What a shame!

        I see the good and the bad being away. There are many things I don’t agree with in the States but considering how huge it is and diverse, I guess it’s only normal to not like how things are!

    • Hi Lady,
      Thanks for the compliment and glad you can relate. I’m glad to know this post resonated with you and that I’m not the only one!
      Yeah, my brain is definitely wired for being polite. I don’t think I’d actually want to change that about me but sometimes, sometimes I wish I could because then I wouldn’t be so frustrated when others don’t “seem to be polite” when it’s really just a cultural difference!

      And yes, it’s unfortuntately true that we pay outrageous fees. Despite having 3 friends in grad school, I don’t knwo if I’ll ever go
      1) There’s nothing that I’m buring to study/need/forsee helping me in my career
      2) I can’t fathom/accept/justify spending 100,000 grand on 2 years of education! It’s una locura!
      I value education and know it’s really important but is it worth that price? That’s the million dollar question!

      • Es una locura de verdad…
        Aw, I’ve just thought of another personal pet peeve cultural difference – what the heck are babies and toddlers doing in restaurants at midnight?!?!?

      • LOL. Seems like I may need a part 2. I’ve thought about writing this post a few times but forgot to take notes… I’m sure will think up a few more!

        Yes, you know you’re in Spain when kids are out and about at all hours.
        2. kids in bars
        3. dogs in bars… that would be health code issue in uSA

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