3 Things I Learned About Americans By Not Living With Them

categories: Uncategorized

9/11 American Flag

If you take a short, two-week trip out of your home country, you’ll most likely come back with many photos and stories about how differently people do things “over there.” You’ll notice the different body language, how the Japanese bow instead of shake hands, or, how Italians have wine with lunch on a work day. Indeed, I had the same experience myself the first few weeks I started living in Tokyo. Over time, however, I began to assimilate, and all the little cultural idiosyncrasies that were uniquely Japanese suddenly became my own.

I lived in Japan for five years and returned to the states just a year ago. One thing that really surprised me was that after coming back, I became attuned to how differently people do things “over here” as opposed to Japan. I had been away for so long, that I hadn’t realized that cultural differences were all relative, and that we’re just as weird to the rest of the world as the rest of the world is to us. This knowledge was a wonderful gift, because it was only then that I began to realize just how unique we Americans are and learn to appreciate that uniqueness.

When I came back from Japan I realized that Americans are:

Straightforward

When gift-giving in Japan a common phrase that one should say is: Tsumaranai mono desu ga, dozo. This phrase, roughly translated, means: “This is a boring/insignificant item, but here you go.” The idea behind this phrase is that one should be self-effacing when one gives. Also, by saying that the gift isn’t very good (even if it is indeed very good) it releases the receiver from having to give a “thank you for your gift, gift” in return.

One thing I’ve noticed about Americans is that we are often very straightforward, and prefer telling the truth than couching our language in niceties. When giving a very good gift, we’d feel no hesitation about saying that gift was indeed very good. One plus of this American-style candor is we have to worry about other people’s ulterior motives less because the language is less ambiguous. One drawback to this deal is that we get more braggarts than normal.

Casual

The moment you meet someone in Japan the second or third question you’ll get is “How old are you?” Age is a big determining factor about how people address each other when they talk. If someone is older than me, for example, I will use more honorifics in my speech. If they’re younger, I wouldn’t use any.

Although we used to address people as Mr. Ms. and Mrs. in the US, that custom has gradually faded away–to the point where these titles are used only to address our teachers in grade school. Although there are probably a myriad reasons for this, my guess is that Americans are a very casual people, and whatever formality they may have carried over from the old world is quickly being shed. Plus side: Americans are more friendly and open. Minus side: Americans are Crude.

“Big”

If there’s one thing that I heard Japanese folks say about the US, was how “big” everything was. The houses are big! The roads are big! The cars are big! The meals are big! And the people are…well, they’re big too. Japan is such a densely populated place, and because they’ve had to squeeze a bathroom and bedroom in a space that would be little more than half the average US studio apartment, I can see where this whole “Americans are big” thing comes from.

America is such a huge country geographically that it’s no wonder everything started getting “big”. I’m not sure what the deeper implications of this are but I believe it has made Americans “think” big, and thus the disproportionate number of entrepreneurs out there taking risks. The downside to this bigness, however, is that Americans consume more resources per capita than any other country on the planet.

I wouldn’t make these observations without seeing the same qualities of frankness, informality, and “big”ness in myself. It’s a part of my culture and is thus a part of me. I just needed to be outside of my own culture long enough to really see it.

What about you, what are some things you’ve noticed about your own culture when traveling?

Share this:

by Kenji Crosland

Kenji Crosland is a writer for TeachStreet. TeachStreet is a website dedicated to providing online and local classes, including foreign language classes like Arabic and Japanese.

16 Responses to “3 Things I Learned About Americans By Not Living With Them”

Juan Haffer

Says:

It is quite odd how much one can change after going to another country. In a way it can mess you up as you can come back as 3/4 American [or what ever your home country is] and 1/4 of the country that you had visited. Now, you’re not so much the citizen of any nation, as you’re not 100% American but you are defiantly not 100% like the people in the visited country.

Angie Gonzalez

Says:

Very interesting! I think this is one of the biggest rewards from traveling: getting to know yourself and your own culture through comparison and contrast with other people and cultures. It makes you realize that some things you thought were wrong or right may be just different, and that pretty much anything you do–eating, talking, feeling, singing, loving–can be done in many different ways… It sure makes you lose a little bit of your own culture, but hopefully you will let go the things that are not worth keeping from your background.

KenjiCrosland

Says:

That’s very true. Although It’s been more than a years since I’ve returned to the states, I don’t think of myself as %100 American anymore. I am more conscious of the parts of me that are American and have learned to embrace them, however.

Jenn Pedde

Says:

What a great post kenji!! I’ve actually been working on one of my own the past few weeks about re-assimilating into America after living in Korea for nearly 3 years. Glad to hear someone had roughly the same experiences!

KenjiCrosland

Says:

@Angie
I feel that I’ve kept the good stuff from my American culture, yes 😉

@Jenn
Glad you liked the article and happy that it helped yours along a bit!

Dan Ryan

Says:

It is amazing as well how aspects of another country can not only leave an impression, but also become lasting, ingrained parts of you after you leave. I lived in Tokyo for two years in the late ’80s. I had a very small studio apartment, with my own bath. Ever since, I have preferred small, somewhat cramped living spaces. In fact, I when I am in the spacious “big” American homes of others I often mentally note the waste and inefficiency of having all that square footage. I don’t know if that sounds odd or if anyone can relate. Also, the way American crowds move in shopping malls and outdoor public spaces is different. In Japan, there is a natural flow, an order and purpose to the way people move. Here in the States, people shuffle, start and stop in front of you. It’s very, I don’t know, rude. People don’t move right in America. I suppose that’s why I want to move back to Japan for awhile.

KenjiCrosland

Says:

@Dan
Now that you mention it, people do move well in crowds over there. Perhaps it’s a Tokyo thing, it being so crowded that they’ve established a set of (conscious and unconscious) “rules” to keep people from stepping on each other’s toes. I haven’t lived in any other crowded cities so I’m wondering if the same hasn’t happened elsewhere.

William

Says:

Interesting choice for only 3 examples.

I found myself chuckling. But I can get the idea that reverse culture shock is a huge thing to deal with (something that one’s family does not usually get),

The other one I would say is that in the US everyone seems to have their hand out wanting tipping. That is why I loath traveling through the US anymore. Canada is bad enough but the US seems positively mercenary compared to Asia. Yeah Maybe I have been here too long….approaching 11 years now.

Interesting reading

KenjiCrosland

Says:

Ah yes, tipping. There was one embarrassing moment when I was in an Oregon diner with two Japanese guys. Because we were all talking in Japanese I believe we temporarily forgot we were in the States and didn’t tip! I’ll be sure to tip double if I come by that place again.

Sarah Mitchell

Says:

Hi Kenji,

I could relate to you post. I’ve lived outside of the USA since 1990 and have been resident on 4 other continents in that time. The thing I realized after living away is that America and Americans lack cynicism. It’s absolutely why so much innovation comes from America. The country has a positive attitude. The people living there feel positive about their ability to affect change. You don’t see it in other countries.

KenjiCrosland

Says:

Hi Sarah,

It’s heartening to hear that Americans lack cynicism from your perspective. Although I feel I’ve seen a fair share of it here in the US, it is quite possibly less severe here than abroad.

Agagooga

Says:

Interacting with Americans, I realise they talk a lot. Though you wouldn’t notice that in Japan, as they seem to talk a lot too…

Sharron Clemons

Says:

Hi Sarah,It’s heartening to hear that Americans lack cynicism from your perspective. Although I feel I’ve seen a fair share of it here in the US, it is quite possibly less severe here than abroad.

Nona Mills

Says:

It is amazing as well how aspects of another country can not only leave an impression, but also become lasting, ingrained parts of you after you leave. I lived in Tokyo for two years in the late ’80s. I had a very small studio apartment, with my own bath. Ever since, I have preferred small, somewhat cramped living spaces. In fact, I when I am in the spacious “big” American homes of others I often mentally note the waste and inefficiency of having all that square footage. I don’t know if that sounds odd or if anyone can relate. Also, the way American crowds move in shopping malls and outdoor public spaces is different. In Japan, there is a natural flow, an order and purpose to the way people move. Here in the States, people shuffle, start and stop in front of you. It’s very, I don’t know, rude. People don’t move right in America. I suppose that’s why I want to move back to Japan for awhile.

Writing Outside Your Niche | Unready and Willing

Says:

[…] 3 Things I Learned About Americans By Not Living With Them (Amateur Traveler) […]

Jessi

Says:

I found that American frankness was a huge bonus when I was completing an ESL teaching course in London. I received consistent good marks for being able to connect with my students. My UK counterparts usually responded with, “well it’s all right for YOU to be friendly–you’re American.”

I felt at liberty to capitalize on the good side of that stereotype and start conversations with elderly Cypriot gentlemen on buses, the English cafe owner who stopped charging me the sit-down price for my coffee in the mornings, and fellow teachers. My accent gave me an immediate free pass to drop pretense and engage.

Leave a Reply

Tags: , ,