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Monday, June 14, 2010

Is America the Strangest Country of All?

How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. You can never go home again.
--James Agee, A Death in the Family
Sorry, Mr Agee, that is clearly not true. Many of us expats come home again after having gone about as far as possible "away from ourselves."

But, fair enough, we do not come home to the country we remember--especially if our notion of home is that of a teenager's.

I have already given a shout-out to one such expat, Peter Hessler, who lived abroad for many years as a young adult, mostly in the UK and China, and then, when he was nearly 40 years old, came back to the US to live. He settled with his wife, Leslie Chang, in the relatively obscure town of Ridgway, Colorado.

Writing about their experience of reverse culture shock for this year's "Journeys" issue of the New Yorker, Hessler said one thing that didn't surprise me and something else that really got me thinking. First, the not-so-surprising:
If I told somebody in a small town that I'd lived overseas for fifteen years, the initial response was invariably the same: "Were you in the military?" After that, people had few questions. Leslie and I learned that the most effective way to kill our end of a conversation was to say that we were writers who had lived in China for more than a decade.
I tend to think that there is nothing especially American about getting a cool reception after years of being abroad. In England, people often joke about expats retiring to the seaside towns of Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton where they can talk to each other about their adventures living in Britain's former colonies--as no one else can bear listening.

Japan of course is even more severe on its long-term expats. They accuse them of buta kusai (reeking of butter)--meaning they have drawn too heavily upon Western influences and are, therefore, tainted.

But Hessler also said something incredibly interesting--which I've been thinking about ever since. He reported that of all the adjustments he had to make in reacclimatizing to life in the US, the one that took him most aback was the American habit of telling personal stories to strangers about themselves and the places they had lived: "In a small town, people asked very little of an outsider--really, all you had to do was listen." This of course was in sharp contrast to most Chinese he had known, who will engage in small talk on matters like food and money and the weather but will avoid personal topics like the plague.

Doesn't that make America is the strangest country of all? My experiences of living in Britain and Japan conform to what Hessler says about China--English and Japanese people do not reveal their private selves easily; they believe in the need for personal boundaries.

So what makes us the U.S. the outlier when it comes to narcissism? Here are three preliminary ideas:

1) Heterogeneity. Because we're such a mixture of backgrounds and cultures, it is hard for people to place each other instantly in terms of social class, education, and other factors--hence the need to "sell ourselves" with some sort of elevator speech about where we came from and our key life experiences. (Whereas in England, people can often tell a lot about you just by hearing your accent, and in Japan, the ultimate homogeneous culture, there are certain across-the-board assumptions you can make about people before they've even opened their mouths.)

2) Mobility and the possibility of constant reinvention. As mentioned in a previous post, it was 19th-century Americans who embraced the expression, "seeing the elephant": it originally meant traveling West and striking it rich. Since the birth of the nation, people have been rewriting their stories--and hoping to come up with a better one than the one they were born with.

3) Cultural narcissism. Ever since America became the world's great imperial power in the middle of last century, Americans have come to think of their stories as far more interesting than anyone else's. And, as popular reality shows such as American Idol keep telling us, the audience we care most about consists of our fellow Americans. (As a side note, is it any wonder that the US invented celebrity culture? Fame and fortune in this society accrue to those who are willing to have their stories on display all of the time--who no longer have anything close to resembling a private self.)

Gloomy weather today, isn't it? Since coming back to the U.S., I can't tell you how often when, finding myself the earpiece for someone I've never met before, I've longed for a nice, short, superficial chat about the weather.  

Question: Can you think of any other reasons why we Americans are so caught up in our personal stories that we only want to talk, not listen?


Dustin said...

It strikes me that Britain, Japan, and China are all societies with strong, deeply embedded social hierarchies, where few people one encounters throughout the day are social equals. Though America still has its hierarchies, they're much less rigid and even less conscious -- as a general rule, we feel free to approach most fellow Americans as social equals, regardless of our relative wealth, social position, or professions. Where it might be inappropriate to share your personal stories with your social superior in Japan, and quite pointless indeed to do so with your social inferiors in Britain, where the concept of inferiors and superiors is detached from day-to-day consciousness as it is in America, such sharing seems more appropriate, and more comfortable. And perhaps more functional, since it allows others to "locate" us in the absence of overt social ranking.

Peter said...

Very interesting thoughts. It may be that external reputation counts more than personal history in more traditional societies. In the UK people used to want to be formally "introduced" rather than walk up and talk to someone. And lower social mobility - and geographic mobility - means people would often already have some idea of the reputation of a new acquaintance, or at least their families or professional background. I was reading George Eliot's Middlemarch recently, for example, and there is some discussion about a Dr Lydgate among the townspeople. Someone says they have heard he is of "good family in the north" and this counts for a lot.

D said...

I don't think that it is always, or even usually, that Americans are caught up in themselves, but that we don't have the sense of something to hide or something that needs be hidden. We don't expect everything we say to be spread and perhaps damage us. I am talking about this in comparison to Japan.

You hit on something I find very, very, true. I don't know that it fully describes it, but yes, Japanese tend to be more private---and in some ways MUCH more individualistic than Americans. If I may inject some personal anecdotal experiences, I find this true even in marriages. Things that an American couple would expect to be open and discussed are "secret" and "none of the other person's business." I find this to be common in "mixed" marriages I know of, including my own. This is not at all easy to deal with.

We do consider others as equals to a great degree. Whereas this may lead to too much familiarity at times, after so long in Japan I often find it refreshing. I can just talk to someone. I can make "friends" easily. Here, I hear so much superficial chat about the weather that I immediately tune out. I suppose were I back in the US, I might feel the opposite.

I remember the first time I lived in Japan in Toyama in the early 90s and visited Tokyo. In the subway, an American (I guessed from his accent) came directly up to me and asked me for directions. I found that immensely satisfying.

(In Japan, I don't find this to be restricted to folks from the US to any great degree, as British, Australian, and other people seems very open and easy to talk with.)

Finally Woken said...

Well, depends on what you consider "personal", actually. In many Asian countries like Indonesia, people will find it strange if you talk about weather, but think it's very normal to ask about how much money you make, or why you don't have kids yet.

Asking questions is considered as being polite, showing interests in the conversation, and honouring the other party's present.

However, and here's the confusing part, you're not supposed to show and tell, because it will be considered bragging. So it's ok if someone ask you, but it's not ok to start telling it yourself.

ML Awanohara said...

All four of these comments have gotten me thinking. It seems that working out what's personal and what's not is one of the hardest things about living abroad. And for those of us who have lived abroad for a long time, it's one of the hardest readjustments to our native lands...

Similar to D, I remember a particular incident when I was living in London. I was sitting at a table with a reserved Brit having trouble making conversation. At the next table was an extremely animated group of American tourists. How I longed to be at their table instead!

But then when I came back here, I longed for some of that British reserve.

So I guess that goes to my point about us long-term expats being permanent malcontents!

Finally Woken, I'm so glad you reminded me of the Asian habit of asking the most personal questions such as why you aren't married or don't have kids yet. That's something most Americans wouldn't do, thank God.

And you also make a good point about bragging: oversharing in the Asian context can be seen as showing off. Old-school Japanese are perhaps the most extreme example of this. They tell you about "my ugly wife who can't cook"--when she is in fact very beautiful and can make a delicious meal.

But I think the main point of my post was to figure out whether Americans are the outliers in terms of cornering strangers and making them listen to their personal stories. It's a pretty bizarre social custom when you come to think about it--as Peter Hessler noted in his New Yorker piece.

I think Dustin is right when he says it has to do with our democratic tradition. Americans are taught to believe there is no one in the room who is better than he or she is. Still, does that give them the right to hold other people hostage to their life stories?

As Peter says, we are a new society, which means we can shed the old-world customs of paying homage to our social superiors. You can really see that in the Hessler example. I mean, here was a man who'd seen the elephant--he'd been living in China for years and a series of acclaimed works describing what it was like--but virtually no one he encountered in Colorado had questions about what that elephant looked like. On the contrary, they wanted simply for him to listen as they confided lots of personal stuff.

Fortunately, he didn't mind listening--but I wonder if he'll feel the same way once the novelty wears off?

On balance, I think I prefer some (albeit not extreme) reserve. I like getting to know people over time. Then, when we reach the point of being able to share our personal stories, it really means something to both of us.

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