What's it like in America?

Living in Vanuatu alongside those who have never been to my home country, I find myself answering lots of questions about American culture.

It reminds me of the article, "Body Ritual among the Nacirema," an essay that satirizes the way anthropological essays are written about "other" cultures. In it, it puts perspective in how we as Americans live our lives. It's interesting to look at everything with a different lens, so I've gathered some commentary about America that I've had to explain to my friends, coworkers, and host family here in Vanuatu.

Note: There are some generalizations about American culture here, as well as Vanuatu culture. Every human being is different and they all live their lives as such! Also, this is not a commentary saying that one country is better than the other, it is simply explaining differences between the two.

  • I'm not scared to be living here in Vanuatu all by myself. In the five years before coming to Vanuatu, I lived on my own, in a house by myself. In America, most people live off on their own after they head off to college. When you head off to college, you're now away from your family and you will live with roommates whom you've never met before and after you graduate, you will be on your own, seeking work and living the "adult life" (that is, life that is not dependent on your family).

  • I won't be taking my island animals back to the states with me. It costs far too much money to bring them to America (up to $2000 USD) and my lifestyle in America isn't conducive to owning pets. Here, your dogs and cats wander freely, roaming around neighbors' yards and eating scraps. In America, if I go away from my house overnight, I need to find someone to babysit my pet. Also in America, we pay extra money for "cat food" or "dog food" and I can't just give it leftover chicken bones and rice from my plate like I do here. Maintenance of a pet is too costly and time-consuming for me. I'm not a big pet person, either. In America, people let their cats and dogs sleep inside the house every night. They have to sweep pet hair off the ground. However, dogs and cats don't have fleas, because people buy medicine for them to keep them clean before they can live inside the house with humans.

  • I haven't met the president [or Michael Jordan, or Selena Gomez, or any celebrity or well-known American figure]. America is a really really big place. My city, Chicago, is ten times the population of your entire country! There are so many people and it's spread across a really big area of land, so there are lots of people I have never ever met, even though they're from my country. Also, politicians and celebrities are really well-guarded. Even if they were on the same road as me, they would have people guarding them to make sure no "regular people" come in contact with them.

  • People from my country come from all over. My grandparents were born in countries like Switzerland and Poland. But I consider them American, because they grew up in America. Even people today who live in America were born in other countries, but they grew up in the USA, and we consider them American, because that's where they've spent a majority of their life, and that's where their family is. People in America look different, because there is a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds and origins. Some of these people are first-generation Americans, and some, like myself, have family who have spent generations in my country. There aren't Americans who are "more American" than others. There are over 327 million people in America, over one thousand times the amount of people in Vanuatu, and those Americans have different stories and backgrounds and skin colors and hair colors and eye colors but they're American nonetheless.  It's quite strange that our movies/tv/media doesn't reflect it very well, but America is not just "white people."

  • Really, though, the USA is big! People are really spread out. I have family who live in California, and I'd have to go on a plane four hours away from my home to go see them. My mom drives to work every morning and it takes about an hour to get there. That's like one side of the island to the other, every single morning! You really do need a car or a transit pass to get places, because everything is really spread out.

  • Speaking of driving places, I have a driver's license. I'm not a professional driver or anything, but when I was a mere 16 years old, I got a license that allowed me to operate a motor vehicle. Lots of my friends got their licenses at age 16...it was a little strange in my neighborhood if you couldn't drive at that age. Sometimes people get their licenses and don't use them, though. They just want it in case they ever do need to use a car.

  • My parents are both still alive. I'm 30, and my parents are about twice my age, and yes, they're still alive. My grandfather died only recently, over the age of 90. It's not uncommon for people to live that long. Some of my friends, even those older than me, still have grandparents who are alive. I'm 30, but I'm unmarried without kids. I know most women in the village who are my age are already on their second, third, or fourth child, but I don't have a husband yet. In America, there is a trend of people getting married and "settled down" later in life. Life expectancy is longer. Some people choose to get married much later in life: one of my aunts got married for the first time ever and she's older than my parents, but that's okay! People in America have different kinds of families, some with children and some without. Some people get married and they never want children, they only get married because they love each other and want to be with their partner.

  • Speaking of love, dating in America is unique in that we get romantic or sexual with (sometimes) complete strangers! We could meet someone in a park, or a store, or a bar, and we flirt with them, and we decide we like to hang out with them. We could be dating that person for months without knowing or meeting a single member of their family. It's possible we just know this person and their job and a little bit of their background, and we get intimate with them, or move in with them, or get married to them before we find out anything about their family. There are just so many people in the United States that it's not uncommon to meet someone that none of your friends or family have ever met before.

  • And sometimes, straight people are only friends with the opposite sex, without anything romantic happening between them at all. My male friend may sleep over at my house, or I may talk on the phone with him for hours, or we could go out for dinner together, but it's not romantic. It is very common for teenagers and adults to have these relationships with friends of the opposite sex, and for nothing romantic to grow from them.

  • We can live next to total strangers. We don't know our neighbors, even if we live in the same apartment building as them. Maybe I only see my neighbor once in a while, and I'll say hello, but I don't know their name, or their family name, or anything about them. I don't know where they're from. They live 30 feet away from my door, but I know nothing about them. In America, it's an individualist culture, so it's very common to know absolutely nothing about people you interact with regularly.

  • Since we live in an individualist culture, we don't care about our appearances as much. I mean, we do care about appearances, but we don't worry about a mistake we make bringing shame upon our family or our community. If I make a mistake, it's my fault, and I am to blame. And people in my society don't blame my family or community for that fault, they just blame me. I have to own my mistakes and take responsibility for my actions, and people in my culture don't understand if I were to blame others or the situation for some wrongdoing that I've done.

  • Another thing about my individualist culture: people in America like to stand out. People will wear outlandish clothing or do crazy things to get attention. Everyone wants attention on themselves instead of blending into the collective. The ideas of being unique and different and challenging the norms are all valued. Patterns and "the way things are" are challenged because my culture believes that change is good and better and progressive.

  • We're wealthier in America. But also, in America, everything costs money. Basically, your daily life will cost lots of money. You have to pay for land to live on, or a house. People rarely keep gardens; you must buy your food at a store. You pay for electricity, heat, air conditioning, energy, and water. It used to be a requirement to have medical insurance, or else you'd pay a tax penalty. If you work, you need a car, or a public transportation pass, and those cost money. In Vanuatu, your family provides you land and a home, sometimes built with local materials that are essentially free. You can drink rainwater, and energy is sourced from a one-time purchase of a solar light. Local medicine is mostly free, and trips to a doctor or hospital are paid as-needed.

  • University education is really expensive. Like really expensive. Some universities cost $30,000 USD a year for tuition. There are many that cost even more, and the price keeps going up. But people will borrow money with "loans" which they can apply for. Companies will give people money, but they expect you to pay it off over time, and if you don't, you'll get in big trouble with the law.

  • As a woman, I can wear whatever I want back at home. I can wear pants or dresses or short shorts while walking around town. I'm allowed to publicly swim in what is essentially a bra and panties. Schools, offices and other places have dress codes, though, and different levels of formality. For the more casual school dances, "tea length" dresses were appropriate, but for prom, almost everyone wore floor-length gowns. In an office, it's typically inappropriate to wear sandals or open-toed shoes. Both women and men dress pretty conservatively in an office environment, and loud patterns are not very common. For weddings, women typically wear heels or very nice flat shoes, and men wear suits; anything less than that is far too casual and seen as disrespectful.

  • America participates in many wars around the world. However, in America, on our soil, these wars aren't taking place. Our wars are fought on foreign land.

  • In Chicago, people have guns. You can carry guns around if you have the proper paperwork. There are signs on buildings that don't allow you to carry guns in certain buildings like schools or stores, but otherwise, it's assumed you can bring your gun with you. Many people have guns, so break-ins are not done as casually, since the robber has the potential to get shot.  Not everyone has guns, though, because there are people who are scared of them and think they are unsafe. People have different opinions on gun ownership, and it is debated a lot.

  • Americans like to travel. Sometimes they travel inside the USA and sometimes it's international. Often, they are just traveling to travel. It's not for a work trip or a school trip or to see family, it is simply out of curiosity to see something different.

  • Some Americans have never seen the ocean before. They've never seen it, swam in it, splashed in it, bathed in it. The USA touches two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, but there are people who aren't anywhere near a shore and haven't traveled, so they haven't even seen it before.

  • The stars aren't this bright in America. Or, at least in Chicago. Ambient light makes it hard for me to see the stars back home. There's no way I could get the view of the Milky Way like I do here in Vanuatu, unless I lived in a rural area.

  • There are snakes in America. They're scarier than snakes here because we have poisonous snakes. We also have poisonous spiders. And other animals! There are cougars, crocodiles, bears, coyotes, wolves, and other wild animals that can kill you, depending on where you live. Usually they're just in the wild, though, so they don't affect your everyday life.

  • I mentioned before how many Americans don't keep gardens, and therefore they buy food at stores. I can get taro, manioc, yams and a variation of kumala in America, even though they don't grow in or around Chicago. We import a lot of our foods, and we have lots of variety available, and at all times of the year. I can eat mangoes January through December, and the same goes for pineapples and avocados. Seasons don't affect our produce shopping, unless you buy organically, but many Americans don't. We also don't know much about our food. We don't know where the cow we're eating came from, and we don't know what country our avocados are from. We just buy them and don't know much about it.

  • Since there's so much variety available to us in America, I don't have a typical dish that I eat in America. In one week, I could eat pasta, pierogi, cheeseburgers, grilled salmon, vegetarian chili and mashed potatoes. There are lots of stores that have lots of variety and are open at all hours, so food is easily and readily available. Everyone has a refrigerator, so people buy food ahead of time and will eat it over the course of a week or a month.

  • We can buy things online. There's a store called Amazon, where you can find anything you could ever want or need on the internet. You use a credit card, which is a card that promises your bank that you'll pay the bill, and you enter the numbers on a website after you choose things you want to buy, and then someone just brings it to your door. Sometimes it takes a week to deliver, but sometimes they will come by the very next day. You can buy food, flashlights, pillows, clothes, soap, and more.

  • We get mail delivered in America. Lots of bills arrive in the mail in mailboxes outside your house, and every home has an address where mail is delivered. Packages and letters and postcards can all be delivered to your home. Lots of times, the mail is "junk," because companies will send unsolicited advertising or coupons to you. Friends will send pictures or personal letters, and at Christmas time, my family sends out photos to our friends and family, and they do the same to us, and we collect them all and hang them in our home. 


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