Sunday, June 5, 2011


I never thought much about culture growing up.  I’m from a small town where ethnic diversity consisted of white people, black people, and one half-Filipino kid that went to school with us.  College was an eye-opening experience for me.  I went to school in Richmond, VA which, despite its history as the capital of the Confederacy, is a surprisingly diverse place, both ethnically and culturally.  In college, I had an opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds, cultures, and countries.  The undergraduate social work curriculum also placed a lot of emphasis on diversity and cultural sensitivity.  The class that made the biggest impression on me was one called “Oppressed Groups.”  It made me realize that not being discriminated against was something I had taken for granted.  For example, I remember being surprised when my Korean-American roommate told me about a sales associate who was rude to her at 7-11.  “I think maybe she doesn’t like Asian people,” she said.  This was a completely foreign concept to me.  I’d never had to wonder if the guy at the store was rude to me because of the way I look.  If someone was rude to me I’d always assumed it was because they were just a rude person.  

By the time I finished graduate school I had started to lament my lack of culture.  I became more interested in my own ethnic origins.  I’d always known we were primarily “Spanish,” but I started looking into what exactly that meant.  (I’m about 25% Spanish; my maternal grandfather’s father came from a place called Orense in the northwest of Spain.  My paternal grandmother’s father came from somewhere close to Madrid, the Spanish capital).  I started talking to my family and asking questions about our cultural background.  What I learned was disappointing.  My maternal great-grandfather came to the country to find work.  He changed his last name to sound more American.  While he continued to speak Spanish at times he never taught his children the language and never talked much about the home he’d left behind.  No one knew much at all about my paternal great-grandfather.  He didn’t change his last name but at some point it lost its original pronunciation and transformed into something distinctly American-sounding.  

I felt cheated; my ancestors had abandoned their culture and passed nothing on to me!  I went on a request to recapture what I’d lost.  There was very little actual Spanish culture to be found nearby but I discovered a very rich local Latin American culture (a lot of Latin American people live in the area because there are so many military bases nearby).  I spent years trying to immerse myself in Latin culture.  I took a few Spanish classes and practiced speaking Spanish whenever I had the opportunity.  I became interested in Latin music.  I even started dating Latin men.  In the end, though, I still felt like I was trying to be a part of someone else’s culture.  

One day about a year ago, I was chatting with a coworker who had become sort of a mentor to me.  We started talking about culture and I told her how I felt about being “culture-less.”  She empathized with me and said she used to feel the same way.  Then she took a trip overseas to visit some friends.  They began talking about culture and she said to them something similar to what I’d just said to her.  Their response was, “Well of course you have a culture.  You are DEFINITELY American.”  After telling me this story she said, “You’re completely American too, Melody.  You just don’t realize how distinct American culture is because you haven’t spent time much time in other countries.  Once you do, you’ll realize just how American you are.”
It’s not that I had never realized I am American; it’s just that I’d never thought about “American” as being a culture.  I guess I was so identified with my culture that I didn’t recognize it as a lens through which I experience the world.  Because I’m American I value independence and believe it is very important that a person be able to take care of him or herself.  As an American therapist, when a patient has a dilemma I say to him, “You have to decide what is best for you.  Then I help him to identify his needs and to explore which option is most likely to meet them.  Not everyone would agree that “what’s best for you” is a priority.  Perhaps in more collectivist cultures the primary concern would be how to best represent the family or how to best serve the community.  Individual needs might not even be a factor.  I believe that being able to put individual well being first is a privilege, but even that belief is influenced by culture.  

There are so many facets of American culture: individualism, a focus on achievement, a belief that anything is possible, extreme impatience.  For Americans, what do you think defines our culture?  For non-Americans, I’m particularly interested to know how American culture is perceived in other countries around the world.  What does American mean to you? 


  1. "What does American mean to you?"

    As a Canadian, that's a really loaded question. :p

    I think the conceit is something that really stood out for me growing up close to the border. The disregard for what not is American was really prevalent. The pride in country was a positive. Rampant desire for all things.

    Of course, those are stereotypes, but they're just as much stereotypes as the individualism, et al.

  2. My grandfather came to this country and never spoke another word of French, he was an American now- that was his opinion. My grandmother his wife came from Ireland didn't go back home to Ireland for 35 years after coming here to the US. They were leaving places and circumstances that were difficult for a better life, they didn't want to look back. It was very common for that generation to do this. I hear what you're saying however. I was very disappointed to be cheated out of a second language! French is wonderful isn't it?

    As for my generation, just in my immediate branch which includes me and my two brothers families we now have come to include thru marriage and birth- Korean, African American, Filipino to our European/American heritage. Our current holidays and get together's can be amusing and overflowing with various traditions; the food is something else!
    For me this is American culture- the melting pot of my family.

  3. We are American. I have hosted 2 exchange students who wanted to revel in our culture and they loved every minute of it.

  4. I'm Canadian.

    We have a stereotype here that American's don't really know much of the world. When we are in the U.S. we usually just say we are from Canada because we assume American's won't know where our province is. However, Canadian's are very reserved and I am always impressed and pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of (most) Americans when I visit.

  5. I really enjoyed your post and the question about culture, because I grew up in Canada but recently lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil for two winters. Living down there got me to thinking about my culture compared to theirs.

    Canada and the US have some cultural differences, but we're more the same than different. in relation to a culture like Brazil, our culture is mostly the same; our culture is North American. I love Canada and the US and I think our emphasis on freedom of choice and individualism have produced an wonderfully powerful creativity; it's amazing what has come out of this way of life.

    But on the downside, what I learned by being in Brazil is that the focus on the individual in North American culture is not necessarily creating happy people. In Brazil the personal ego is less 'self' oriented and more aware of 'other' than we are. It took me a while to understand this, but I found myself endlessly wondering, "Why are these people so happy, so alive, so 'normal'?"

    What I realized over time is that Brazilian people live with an awareness of the well being of other people high on their list. Family, friends, are the most important things in life, rather than "What's in it for me?" approach of North American culture. Even walking down the busy streets in Sao Paulo, you realize that being respectful and courteous with other people is more important than getting where you are going. A simple trip to the grocery store would leave me feeling uplifted and good about myself and humanity, just from the natural respect and dignity I would encounter as I walked amidst the crowds of people.

    I got off track there in terms of your question about American culture. Anyway I enjoyed your post, and thanks for the inspiration and opportunity to share on this topic.

  6. Wow guys, thanks for all the feedback! Craig, I like what you said about Brazil being less "I" centered. I've done a lot of thinking about whether individualism makes people happy.


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