02 December 2009

St Petersburg Expat Answers Questions About Americans

Let's suppose you left your country nine years ago... How would your thinking change?  How would your viewpoint remain the same?

Well, I am that man ...and here I reveal how I look at things after 58 years in America, and 9 in St Petersburg. 
I am New Jersey-born of British parents... a hyphenated Scottish-American.  My mom and dad valued well-spoken and written English, my sister and I attended good public schools, and I completed college and graduate degrees.

Questions and Answers

What is important to Americans?

What's important to a people has a lot to do with their priorities, what they think is essential and what think they don't need to worry about. 
It's hard to isolate one characteristic from another as they are woven into a nation's fabric.

Many Americans seem to be in a hurry. Why?

Yes, Americans are sometimes consumed by considerations of time. Let's compare TV programming.  In the US, shows start and stop  on the hour or half hour, and a one hour music show is considered sufficient. 

Here programs are sometimes at uneven times, such as 7:50 one day, 7:55 the next day, and musical concerts can go on for around three hours on New Years, Victory Day, other big holidays. 

You can't set your watch by the radio or TV in St Petersburg, unless it is displayed on a screen.  Russians don't worry if the Mayak radio signal is right... what's give or take a few minutes. 

Americans say, Time is money and Take care of the minutes and the hours will take care of themselves.
  We are always in a hurry.  Since childhood I have been an exception to this typical American behavior, finding few things more pleasant than taking my time, even dawdling.

Time urgency, also called hurry sickness,
infects perhaps half of all Americans... They get up with an alarm clock or two, and race the clock all day.  They 'let the urgent crowd out the important'¹

¹ Charles E. Hummel, "Tyranny of the Urgent", essay 1967

Americans are considered sort of pushy, or worse, aggressive.  Is it fair to describe them this way?

Well, at least in New Jersey, we are competitive.  Some people would say we're aggressive.  We like to speak up, say what's on our minds, and are not afraid to argue. 

If we are unhappy, we often complain... and take some action to fix things.  Russians tend to suffer in silence, but if they get to the point of complaining, they still are unlikely to take constructive action.

I admire those who are competitive, self-assured, and eager to make things better.  As I have gotten older I have become more competitive, aggressive for my own interests, and I hope (at the same time) more kind towards others.  I see no conflict in being all three.

In July 1973 my London cousin Shirley arranged for me to meet her friend Moira.  We visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, strolled around... and I started holding Moira's hand.  (It was I who was holding her hand... not she holding mine... or a mutual thing).  At her door I tried to kiss her goodbye.  She became angry.  "You are typical of Americans...  so aggressive!"  I was surprised by her reaction.  I guess Americans are aggressive and results-oriented even in dating!

Rob, I'm sorry, but why are Americans so fat?.

Few Americans walk much, things are set up for their physical convenience, and besides...they "Just don't have the time" to walk.  In America, you take your supermarket cart to the car, drive home, and push a button to open the garage door.

At our wedding the bagpiper played while we paraded to the reception hall just off Main Street, Flemington. 
Although it was a hot day,  I think people enjoyed the stirring music and fresh air, but some people found the exercise a little much.

We Americans like to wear track gear , but it seems to have no relationship to our fitness.  I know people in the USA are hefting more weight than any other large country.¹ 

 ² The World Health Organization rates Kuwait eighth, and the United States ninth in fatness.  Pacific Islanders are the fattest.

This slackness is an example of a disconnect between thinking and behavior.  Most people believe exercise is important, dress the part, but are inactive.

I hear stories of large tables, large plates, and All You Can Eat

We haven't been back since 2004, but I remember the restaurants served way too much food, served on large plates placed on large tables. The refined restaurants emphasize quality, but for the typical American  a meal at a diner or pizzeria results in an overload of food and calories.

Many Americans go to restaurants at least three times a week.  This is linked to  their busy 
lives, 3 women working more and longer than before, and the low price of some restaurant food.

  3 American employees work more hours than in any other industrialized nation, an average 47 hours a week.  The self-employed work up to 70 hours a week.  Also, unlike the typical university student in Russia, young people are often encouraged to work parttime while keeping a fulltime academic schedule.  Americans on average have 14 vacation days a year.

One of the images many Americans hold dear in their minds is a family saying grace (a prayer of gratitude to God) before their home supper.  With the longer work week, and Cell Phone Generation values, this image reflects just a memory for most people. 

Fast restaurant food, packaged items served at home, and inactivity... all lead to a nation of overweight people.  This trend is spreading the globe.

We used to say... If you want to see America 10 years from now, look at California.  Now I say,  If you want to see the world 10 years from now, get a hint by looking at America.

Not only large portions and large people, but large containers for grocery products. Right?

I guess large meals go hand in hand with the American size mentality.  Detergent is sold in huge boxes compared to those in Russia, where the box is the size of a small magazine.  Toothpaste comes in large heavy tubes.  "Buy more, pay less!"  Also, it's easy to drive home with a huge box of washing powders.

What are Americans thinking when they say,  "the United States is the greatest country in the world!"

Well, Russia is nearly twice the size of the United States.  Many countries have better health care.  Other lands have more freedom and less repression... the Scandinavian countries, Finland, Australia,  New Zealand, and Canada for starters. 

America is the greatest country in its ability to apply initiative and resources to get things done.
  Americans are the most charitable people in the world.  Much of the United States is wonderfully beautiful. 

I am happy that I grew up in a country that sees cultural diversity as good.  I enjoy telling  how Americans are quick to be kind to strangers, a rarity in Russia.  But I reject the ignorant bragging of some people in the States.

It seems strange that only the United States refuses to use the metric system.

Americans rejected the metric system... good!  Why should we have to be like the rest of the world in everything?4

4 Only Liberia, Myamar, and the US have the British Imperial System.

Are there phrases or words which reflect the American way of thinking and living?

Yes, I can think of a few.  Hi! Why? Goodbye!
                                               I miss you.  I kiss you.

We say 
Hi!  way too often.  We need the social assurance of frequently greeting each other.  Russians don't. 

Why? is typical of Americans... they want to know more.  In Russia, you are expected to keep your trap shut... for example if the doctor prescribes a medicine.

I always ask my cardiologist...Why?  After a few visits she took Larissa aside and asked if I didn't trust her.  Larissa explained that Americans are inquisitive. They want to know why about nearly everything.

I think it's good to ask Why.  It's the way societies should take.  But this and other questions make some Russians angry (just the asking, not necessarily what you have asked about).  As seen on bumper stickers in America... QUESTION AUTHORITY.  I like that.

What about I miss you, I kiss you?

Why? (Just joking).  Russians learn this phrase when they first arrive in New York.  It's good for them to know, because Russians by habit do not express sentiment much, even in private.  Also, it's practice for pronouncing short i's correctly, so they stop sounding like spies. 

Americans  often say in public,
I love you!  It's sort of a nervous mannerism at times.  It's hard for Russians to say, so they rhyme... I miss you, I kiss you!

I know you have a lot of readers in America, so maybe you don't want tough questions.

Well, if we as a people ask Why so much, I guess I should give some straight answers.  What do you want to touch on?

I read recently that Americans hate atheists more than any other group.  Why?  How are they dangerous?

In Russia, the people are mainly non-church goers, and many are atheists.  In the US 91% believe in God.4  In their subconscious minds, it's a way to say they are acceptable as Americans. 

4   Pew Religious Survey June 2008

Why Yankees loathe atheists strikes at the heart of the American psyche.  Patriotism and religion are linked.  If you don't believe in God, you can't be expected to be faithful about anything, including your country.  Logically this statement doesn't pass the test, but we are talking about the emotional attitude of the American people.

The lyrics and inspiring music of "God Bless America",  represents the good side of this thinking.

Irving Berlin was born in 1888 in a Russian village. His family fled after a pogrom by the Cossacks, arriving in America in 1893.  He remembered his mother often saying, "God bless America" as she was grateful that they were able to come to America.  They had nowhere else to go as fugitive Russian Jews.  In 1918 he wrote "God Bless America" but didn't introduce it until 1938 for Kate Smith to sing... 

God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans white with foam,
God bless America,
My home sweet home.

Talking about patriotism, many Russians criticize the US for not opening a second front earlier than 1944 to help Russia in the Great Patriotic War.  Is this valid?

Well no, it's entirely wrong.  Most Russians never hear about the North Africa and Sicily campaigns. The British and Americans landed in North Africa in October and November 1942 and pushed on to Sicily by July 1943.  The main purpose of this action was to take pressure off the Russians on the Western Front.

Our next post will tackle touchy and difficult questions...

American foreign policy
purposeful ignorance and
acceptable truths

US gun culture



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