Thursday, August 19, 2010

Who are Americans and Why do we do Stuff Like That?

Culture. It affects the way we see everything. Most of the time we're a product of the culture we were raised in. We adopt different norms and values if we belong to certain subcultures such as a religious faith or if we identify with a different culture. But culture is so much more than what we do...

Or what we eat...

Or even what we wear...

I found this following article on American values fascinating. At times I resisted/resented the grouping of all Americans as one homogenous group (see #5 haha), but when I reflected on how I interpret so many of the things I've seen and experienced in the past 5 years, I realize how much of these statements ring true. When they don't, it's because I do value something different--and those differences did at times make me out of step with what the "mainstream" valued. It's long, but I hate going to a site to read something and then posting back at the blog. I'm lazy that way.

The different behaviors of a people or a culture make sense only when seen through the basic beliefs, assumptions and values of that particular group...For example, when you ask Americans for directions to get to a particular address in their own city, they may explain, in great detail, how you can get there on your own, but may never even consider walking two city blocks with you to lead you to the place. Some foreign visitors have interpreted this sort of action as showing Americans’ "unfriendliness." We would suggest, instead, that the self-help concept... is so strong in Americans that they firmly believe that no adult would ever want, even temporarily, to be dependent on another. Also, their future orientation...makes Americans think it is better to prepare you to find other addresses on your own in the future.

Americans no longer believe in the power of Fate, and they have come to look at people who do as being backward, primitive, or hopelessly na├»ve. To be call "fatalistic" is one of the worst criticisms one can receive in the American context; to an American, it means one is superstitious and lazy, unwilling to take any initiative in bringing about improvement...People believe every single individual should have control over whatever in the environment might potentially affect him or her. The problems of one’s life are not seen as having resulted from bad luck as much as having come from one’s laziness in pursuing a better life. Furthermore, it is considered normal that anyone should look out for his or her own self-interests first and foremost.

In the American mind, change is seen as an indisputably good condition. Change is strongly linked to development, improvement, progress, and growth. Many older, more traditional cultures consider change as a disruptive, destructive force, to be avoided if at all possible. Instead of change, such societies value stability, continuity, tradition, and a rich and ancient heritage—none of which are valued very much in the United States.

These first two values—the belief that we can do anything and the belief that any change is good—together with an American belief in the virtue of hard work and the belief that each individual has a responsibility to do the best he or she can do have helped Americans achieve some great accomplishments. So whether these beliefs are true is really irrelevant; what is important is that Americans have considered them to be true and have acted as if they were, thus, in effect, causing them to happen.

Time is, for the average American, of utmost importance...Americans seem to be more concerned with getting things accomplished on time (according to a predetermined schedule) than they are with developing deep interpersonal relations. Schedules, for the American, are meant to be planned and then followed in the smallest detail...Americans’ language is filled with references to time, giving a clear indication of how much it is valued. Time is something to be "on," to be "kept," "filled," "saved," "used," "spent," "wasted," "lost," "gained," "planned," "given," "made the most of," even "killed."

The international visitor soon learns that it is considered very rude to be late—even by 10 minutes—for an appointment in the United States. (Whenever it is absolutely impossible to be on time, you should phone ahead and tell the person you have been unavoidably detained and will be a half hour—or whatever—late.)

Time is so valued in America, because by considering time to be important one can clearly accomplish more that if one "wastes" time and does not keep busy. This philosophy has proven its worth. It has enabled Americans to be extremely productive, and productivity itself is highly valued in the United States. Many American proverbs stress the value in guarding our time, using it wisely, setting and working toward specific goals, and even expending our time and energy today so that the fruits of our labor may be enjoyed at a later time. (This latter concept is called "delayed gratification.")

Equality is, for Americans, one of their most cherished values. This concept is so important for Americans that they have even given it a religious basis. They say all people have been "created equal." Most Americans believe that God views all humans alike without regard to intelligence, physical condition or economic status. In secular terms this belief is translated into the assertion that all people have an equal opportunity to succeed in life. Americans differ in opinion about how to make this ideal into a reality. Yet virtually all agree that equality is an important civic and social goal...Americans have an aversion to treating people of high position in a deferential manner, and, conversely often treat lower class people as if they were very important. Newcomers to the United States should realize that no insult or personal indignity is intended by this lack of deference to rank or position in society. A foreigner should be prepared to be considered "just like anybody else" while in the country.

The individualism that has been developed in the Western world since the Renaissance, beginning in the late 15th century, has taken its most exaggerated form in 20th century United States. Here, each individual is seen as completely and marvelously unique, that is, totally different from all other individuals and, therefore, particularly precious and wonderful.

Americans think they are more individu
alist in their thoughts and actions than, in fact, they are. They resist being thought of as representatives of a homogenous group, whatever the group. They may, and do, join groups—in fact many groups—but somehow believe they’re just a little different... just a little special, from other members of the same group. And they tend to leave groups as easily as they enter them.

Privacy...does not even exist in many languages...In the United States, privacy is not only seen as a very positive condition, but it is also viewed as a requirement that all humans would find equally necessary, desirable and satisfying. It is not uncommon for Americans to say—and believe—such statements as "If I don’t have at least half an hour a day to myself, I will go stark raving mad."

Individualism, as it exists in the United States, does mean that you will find a much greater variety of opinions (along with the absolute freedom to express them anywhere and anytime) here.

In the United States, a person can take credit only for what he or she has accomplished by himself or herself. Americans get no credit whatsoever for having been born into a rich family. (In the United States, that would be considered "an accident of birth.") Americans pride themselves in having been born poor and, through their own sacrifice and hard work, having climbed the difficult ladder of success to whatever level they have achieved—all by themselves. The American social system has, of course, made it possible for Americans to move, relatively easily, up the social ladder.

...In the average dictionary, there will be more than 100 such words, words like self-confidence, self-conscious, self-control, self-criticism, self-deception, self-defeating, self-denial, self-discipline, self-esteem, self-expression, self-importance, self-improvement, self-interest, self-reliance, self-respect, self-restraint, self-sacrifice—the list goes on and on. The equivalent of these words cannot be found in most other languages. The list is perhaps the best indication of how seriously Americans take doing things for one’s self. The "self-made man or women" is still very much the ideal in 20th-century America.

Americans believe that competition brings out the best in any individual. They assert that it challenges or forces each person to produce the very best that is humanly possible...competition being fostered in the American home and in the American classroom, even on the youngest age level. Very young children, for instance, are encouraged to answer questions for which their classmates do not know the answer.

...But many U.S. Peace Corps volunteers teaching in Third World countries found the lack of competitiveness in a classroom situation equally distressing. They soon learned that what they thought to be one of the universal human characteristics represented only a peculiarly American (or Western) value.

Americans, valuing competition, have devised an economic system to go with it—free enterprise. Americans feel strongly that a highly competitive economy will bring out the best in its people and, ultimately, that the society that fosters competition will progress most rapidly. If you look for it, you will see evidence in all areas—even in fields as diverse as medicine, the arts, education, and sports—that free enterprise is the approach most often preferred in America.

Valuing the future and the improvements Americans are sure the future will bring means that they devalue that past and are, to a large extent, unconscious of the present. Even a happy present goes largely unnoticed because, happy as it may be, Americans have traditionally been hopeful that the future would bring even greater happiness. Almost all energy is directed toward realizing that better future. At best, the present condition is seen as preparatory to a latter and greater event, which will eventually culminate in something even more worthwhile.

Since Americans have been taught (in value 1) to believe that Man, and not Fate, can and should be the one who controls the environment, this has made them very good at planning and executing short-term projects. This ability, in turn, has caused Americans to be invited to all corners of the earth to plan and achieve the miracles that their goal-setting can produce.

"Don’t just stand there," goes a typical bit of American advice, "do something!" This expression is normally used in a crisis situation, yet, in a sense, it describes most American’s entire waking life, where action—any action—is seen to be superior to inaction.

Americans routinely plan and schedule an extremely active day...Americans believe leisure activities should assume a relatively small portion of one’s total life. People think that it is "sinful" to "waste one’s time," "to sit around doing nothing," or just to "daydream."

Such a "no nonsense" attitude toward life has created many people who have come to be known as "workaholics," or people who are addicted to their work, who think constantly about their jobs and who are frustrated if they are kept away from them, even during their evening hours and weekends.

The workaholic syndrome, in turn, causes Americans to identify themselves wholly with their professions. The first question one American will ask another American when meeting for the first time is related to his or her work: "Where do you work?," or "Who (what company) are you with?" And when such a person finally goes on vacation, even the vacation will be carefully planned, very busy and active.

America may be one of the few countries in the world where it seems reasonable to speak about the "dignity of human labor," meaning by that, hard, physical labor. In America, even corporation presidents will engage in physical labor from time to time and gain, rather than lose, respect from others for such action.

Americans (are) extremely informal...Americans are one of the most informal and casual people in the world, even when compared to their near relative—the Western European...American bosses often urge their employees to call them by their first names and even feel uncomfortable if they are called by the title "Mr." or "Mrs."

Dress is another area where American informality will be most noticeable, perhaps even shocking. One can go to a symphony performance, for example, in any large American city nowadays and find some people in the audience dressed in blue jeans and tieless, short-sleeved shirts. Informality is also apparent in American’s greetings. The more formal "How are you?" has largely been replaced with an informal "Hi." This is as likely to be used to one’s superior as to one’s best friend.

Americans... have always preferred the first approach. They are likely to be completely honest in delivering their negative evaluations. If you come from a society that uses the indirect manner of conveying bad news or uncomplimentary evaluations, you will be shocked at Americans’ bluntness.

Americans are not trying to make you lose face with their directness. It is important to realize that an American would not, in such case, lose face...There is no way to soften the blow of such directness and openness if you are not used to it... Indeed, Americans are trying to urge their fellow countrymen to become even more open and direct. The large number of "assertiveness" training courses that appeared in the United States in the late 1970s reflects such a commitment. Americans consider anything other than the most direct and open approach to be dishonest and insincere and will quickly lose confidence in and distrust anyone who hints at what is intended rather than saying it outright. Anyone who, in the United States, chooses to use an intermediary to deliver that message will also be considered manipulative and untrustworthy.

Americans have a reputation of being an extremely realistic, practical and efficient people. The practical consideration is likely to be given highest priority in making any important decision in the United States. Americans pride themselves in not being very philosophically or theoretically oriented. If Americans would even admit to having a philosophy, it would probably be that of pragmatism. Will it make any money? Will it "pay its own way?" What can I gain from this activity? These are the kinds of questions that Americans are likely to ask in their practical pursuit, not such questions as: Is it aesthetically pleasing? Will it be enjoyable?, or Will it advance the cause of knowledge?

This practical, pragmatic orientation has caused Americans to contribute more inventions to the world than any other country in human history. The love of "practicality" has also caused Americans to view some professions more favorably than others. Management and economics, for example, are much more popular in the United States than philosophy or anthropology, law and medicine more valued than the arts.

Another way in which this favoring of the practical makes itself felt in the United States, is a belittling of "emotional" and "subjective" evaluations in favor of "rational" and "objective" assessments. Americans try to avoid being too sentimental in making their decisions. They judge every situation "on its merits." The popular American "trail-and-error" approach to problem solving also reflects the practical. The approach suggests listing several possible solutions to any given problem, then trying them out, one-by-one, to see which is most effective.

Foreigners generally consider Americans much more materialistic than Americans are likely to consider themselves. Americans would like to think that their material objects are just the natural benefits that always result from hard work and serious intent—a reward, they think, that all people could enjoy were they as industrious and hard-working as Americans.

But by any standard, Americans are materialistic. This means that they value and collect more material objects than most people would ever dream of owning. It also means they give higher priority to obtaining, maintaining and protecting their material objects than they do in developing and enjoying interpersonal relationships.


(Robert Kohls of the Washington International Center is the author.. The whole text is here. I deleted sentences and passages for the sake of space, not because I disagreed or was attempting to slant the article).

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Passing of a Legend

David and Eunice Simonson arrived in Tanzania in 1956 or so, ready to spend the rest of their lives there working with the Maasai people. He was originally from eastern Montana, she was from North Dakota...back when Africa must have seemed so vastly unimaginably far away. For over 50 years they preached the Gospel, not only in words but in all the work they did--education, health services, building, and church. They were part of a breed of missionaries that are so rare now--those that came to live their lives intertwined with the people they came to serve, those that never intended to leave, and the epitome of the saying "Go and preach the Gospel--use words, if necessary." The Maasai Girls' School, Operation Boostrap, and the hospital in Arusha all owe their beginnings to the Simonsons. If you have ever booked a safari through Serengeti Select, or stayed at the Tarangire Safari Lodge (and if you haven't you SHOULD) have experienced a taste of the Simonson family hospitality.

We were so privileged to know Dave and Eunice when we lived in Arusha. By that time, Dave's health was failing, but he still gave off such an air of strength and stubbornness! Eunice is impossibly gracious and humble, so kind, but you know that same inner strength had to be there to do what they did. They raised 5 children in Arusha and we counted two of them as our friends there. They may have moved to the other side of the world, but they were so blessed to have 3 of their children and attendant grandchildren live in or near Arusha. When we were preparing to move to Tanzania, I read Jim Klobucher's book The Cross Under the Acacia Tree. I suspect there is a lot of legend as well as fact in there, but I took so much courage from their story. If that woman could cross an ocean and go live in the bush with little children way back in the 50's, with no phones, no computers, no skype, no travel allowance, then obviously I could do what I was planning to do! They lived lives of service, compassion, and integrity, with complete trust in God's plan for them.

I know he was welcomed into Heaven with the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant." No one could have worn those words better.
(picture of David and Eunice from Lutheran Mission Cooperative here.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What Are We Doing?!

So we're back in the Jing. Bags are unpacked and 500 pounds of American stuff is put away. The air con works (most of the time) in the house (but not at all in the car). I've made doctor visits, vet visits, and dentist visits. We've had Kro's Nest pizza for a "Ican'tbelievewe'rebackinChinaandohLORDIneedsomegoodpizza" fix and to Yao for a "Ican'tbelieveIdidn'ttellayiwhattocookandohLORDIneedsomekillerChinesefood" fix. I bought school supplies, signed forms, attended back to school meetings, and wait--actually went back to work myself! Oh, yeah--so did Mark!

It was a tiring summer. We were coast to coast and drove A LOT. At every stop we caught up with friends and family and ate too much. Everyone planned tons of great stuff to see and do. By the end, if I am completely honest, we were pretty tired and tired of being guests--it's hard to be on vacation for 7 weeks! We were looking forward to being home.

Except look at this nutty group. This is what we leave behind--and they're just a sampling. It really is hard to leave family, even though we'd really only see them once a year anyway because of distance and busy-ness. It just feels so far away here. Sometimes it doesn't feel like there's anything permanent in our lives. My kids will never be able to point and say, "there's the school I went to" or share crazy stories about the time when...They won't drive past the house they grew up in, in the town they know like the back of their hand. They won't bring their children to the park or the lake where they spent so much time. They have no pictures of Christmases with extended family. People come and go and loss is hard, people. You know it's hard when kids ask, "how long will you be in Beijing?" as one of their "get to know you" questions. I don't think any of Ava's cousins will lose their closest friend at the end of 1st grade, then 2 more in 2nd grade, and look forward to losing the 3rd at the end of this year.

We have been so blessed--when I look through our pictures, I see us at the Lincoln Memorial, in the Rocky Mountains, on the edge of Ngorongoro Crater, in the shadow of the Pyramids, and on top of the Great Wall. We have met fantastic people, eaten crazy food, and seen strange and beautiful sights. I just miss same-ness and consistency. I miss small towns. I miss the people that have made up the fabric of my life for 40 years, the very people my kids just won't know all that well. I know that my kids will have more choices than I did. They know of more possibilities and chances and opportunities in places they can't imagine. But, if one chooses to say, "been there, done that, and now I'm putting down roots here forever" I'll understand.