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