We were standing in the parking lot of our Grenada apartment complex. As the Canadian couple next door put their little baby to sleep and the Iranian family two doors over came home from a long day of studying, a friend asked me a strange question.
“What is American culture?”
A pregnant pause followed. Do we 311 million Americans even know?
My friend was American, but our neighbors are not. The medical program my husband is attending attracts talent from the four corners of the Earth and our little apartment building is a it’s perfect microcosm. The British lady runs the office, the Canadian shrugs off the marijuana that the Trinidadian tourists are smoking while the Korean who married the Chinese girl chats pleasantly with everyone while waiting for the school’s shuttle. The smiling Iranian couple take their yappy Pomeranian puppy for a walk while the blonde Bosnian girl quietly takes out her trash. Then there are the Americans — us.
Not one of these people has asked me to define or explain American culture. It was only the girl from Kentucky who wondered.
Somehow in this globalized world, others have acquainted themselves with American culture while we have continued to fix our gaze inward.
What are the first things that come to your mind when you must quickly define American culture in a conversation? My immediate thoughts turned to the taglines of politicians.
“Equality!” Obama shouts.
“America is a land of success,” Romney declares from the campaign trail.
“There’s too much commercialism,” an exasperated mom says in the Walmart aisle as her child grabs for the latest toy.
“America isn’t what it should be,” Ron Paul insists.
Amid the ruckus that our own Americans are creating, I whisper, “I am proud of my America.”
Living two years outside the country teaches you a few things about what you are and what you are not.
As most foreigners will be quick to tell you, America is commercialistic. It is the land of convenience, Starbucks, drive-thru dining, iPhones, constant contact and workaholics.
It is also the place where every foreigner wants to end up. It is, more than anything, the land of the innovator and the pioneer. Why do you think we have the Starbucks, drive-thru dining, iPhones, constant contact and workaholics? It’s because Americans want something, so they and their ancestors came to a new land to get it — their own way. They want that pursuit of happiness they were promised centuries ago. Each of my neighbors in my little apartment melting pot will be practicing medicine in the United States one day. They want to come because America will give them a chance.
How would you respond if asked, “What is American culture?”
I simply said, “Opportunity.”
It still had better be when we all return.
Sarah Cooper-Glenn is a journalist from Sparks. She currently lives in Grenada where she is a global politics and travel writer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website, SarahGlenn.Net.