Cultural Travails – A Visitor to the United States
I recently visited the United States of America as part of my post-doctoral cultural anthropology project.
Editor’s note: It’s possible to take the following article as something other than the funny and provocative piece that it is intended to be, but we assure you it’s all meant in good fun, exaggerating stereotypes for effect.
Many people do not know about this exotic and remote country. First, it is in the continent of North America. It is a large country. Everything is large. The distances. The buildings. The cars. And the people. They are usually very large. This is because they eat a lot. Second, they are not interested in the rest of the world. Most are aware of Canada, Mexico, the UK and occasionally, France. I forgot Eye-raq and Eye-ran. But that’s it. Their only source of information is a TV channel called CNN. They blindly believe whatever the persons on CNN say. Third, they believe an entity called God has a profound focused interest in them alone and that He (or She) is on their side, forever blessing them. I have found similar inward-looking traits in tiny tribes in Laos and Burundi.
Anyway, I flew from London to San Francisco. After reaching my hotel and freshening up, I decided to see how the locals live and went out on the streets; a place called El Camino Real is the main artery for traffic and crime. I looked about with keen interest. No one was around. No one walks in America. I was alone. At least two police cars slowed down and the large gentlemen inside rolled down the window and looked at me keenly. I smiled at them and greeted them with the traditional Indian Namaste. They went away, after speaking into a black rectangular machine called a walkie-talkie. This behavior was similar to that displayed by the religious police in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
I went to dine at Whole Foods, Los Altos. The cheerful gentleman behind the counter offered me large quantities of animal flesh of various kinds. I pointed at a vegetarian item which promised satisfaction for $6.99 or something. He asked me to wait. In a few minutes a huge Komatsu forklift was brought in. Then the young man sat at the wheels, lifted the item on it and delivered it to me. It was a very large, very heavy Burrito, I believe, and would have taken care of the nutritional needs of several individuals in Somalia for several years. Yet they expected me to eat the entire item just for lunch. I did not wish to discourage the cheerful young man and started eating. After several hours, I could eat no more. I had doubled in weight, and staggered out into the sunset. My jaws hurt and my stomach had bloated. I began contributing to global warming.
Anyway, I then attended a business meeting. The individuals on the other side were friendly but they had noticeable accents. I brought this to their notice – “You have an accent,” I said, with a gentle, understanding smile. They did not like that. In fact, they said – “No, YOU have an accent.” Discussions were tense after that. Americans believe others have accents but that they don’t. But they are generally hospitable and open. I have seen both these traits in Southern Chile and rural Bulgaria.
I then traveled to New Jersey. It is a state with only roads. No one actually lives there. The locals keep driving from one place to another. Many spend their entire lifetimes there – studying, marrying, divorcing, getting heart attacks and finally expiring, while in a car. As a cultural anthropologist, I can only report my observations and not comment on them. I did find a correspondence in behavior with tribes in Mali, Mauritania and Slovenia. Indeed, the Vietnamese boat people on the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia spend their entire lives on boats. There is an uncanny similarity.
I went to Boston. I liked the city. The people are helpful and well-mannered. They still talk about a Tea Party that took place more than 200 years ago. They have a keen sense of history and commemorate every possible thing with statues and plaques. This is similar to what I have seen in Fiji, Chad and northern Norway.
After that, I flew to Atlanta. This is another nice city in the Southern United States. According to local religious beliefs, if one dies and needs to travel to heaven, he must do so through Atlanta in order to rest in eternal peace. They have an underground – but most of it is over ground. It is fast, clean and efficient. The people of Atlanta eat a lot and are amongst the largest in the United States. They are fond of pork and a local meal called grits. They have deep accents and it is not easy to understand them. I visited the Coca Cola Museum and the Georgia Aquarium. The museum was very interesting and it was not hard to understand why Americans genuinely believe their country is the center of the world. This is similar to beliefs held in villages in the Mountains of Peru and a hamlet in Murmansk, Russia.
At about that time, a folk singer called Michael Jackson died. I was impressed by the local customs of extended public grief, hyperbole about the departed soul and a complete rejection of any other newsworthy item elsewhere in the world. It was quite enchanting. They spoke about his childhood, his family, his music, his cars, his toothpaste, his jeans, his haircuts, his addiction to prescription drugs and so on. There was nothing about him that they did not talk about. I found this custom very interesting and similar to others I have observed in remote groups in Mongolia and Papua New Guinea.
I was in a thoughtful mood when I left the United States. As a cultural anthropologist, I am very interested in the behavior of primitive tribes and their perspectives. I believe there is fertile ground for many studies here. Dietary, religious, social and economic behaviours in the varied tribes of the United States are unusual. I said a silent prayer hoping that the advent of modern civilization would not adversely affect their quaint traditions.
photo by raleene on Flickr