Growing up I never considered my home country to have much of a culture of its own. Elementary school textbooks described it as a "melting pot" of other cultures, or more accurately, a "salad." However, much to my chagrin, America does indeed have a distinct culture of its own; and it's one of those things I never realized until living abroad. I have collected several points to ponder regarding American's unmistakable culture.
A Puritan Culture
America was founded on Puritanism--a conservative Christian doctrine expounding the depravity of mankind and infinite sinfulness inherent in all things sexual. In other words, all souls are forever dangling over the fiery pits of hell because of inbuilt moral corruption. Thanks a lot, Adam and Eve! Like it or not Puritanism flows
through the veins of America, and it doesn't take a trip to Utah to realize it. Although the culture has come a long way to counter its Puritan upbringing, elements of Puritanism remain shockingly present--especially outside those liberal metropolitan areas.
* Premarital sex is a sin.
* Masturbation is a sin.
* Homosexuality is a sin.
* Lust is a sin.
* Drunkenness is a sin.
* Women are inferior to men just as Eve was inferior to Adam (She's the one that picked the apple after all).
* Ideologies counter to the above are heretical witchcraft and must be quelled.
* Gay marriage is banned. Despite the legal separation of church and state, marriage is "only between a man and a woman." Gay Americans can fight and die for their country, but they can't enjoy all the benefits of full citizenship. Why would anyone fight for sub par citizenship?
* Women did not receive the right to vote until 1920. This means women have been able to vote during 89 out of America's 233-year history. That's 38% of America's history.
* Lucy and Desi slept in separate beds.
* Mike and Carol Brady slept in the same bed; however, such portrayals went counter to the "Hayes Code," a Puritanist moral standard long enforced upon Hollywood. Thank God that's changed.
* Most states ban public drinking. Why? Are we that out of control? In Japan, I can buy a beer from a vending machine and drink it on the street.
* "In God We Trust" is printed on the money, and "...one nation, under God..." is in the the pledge of allegiance. Once again, so much for the separation of church and state.
* People swear on a bible in the courtroom promising the Puritan God that they will tell the truth.
* Adult magazines and media like "Playboy" and "Hustler" were widely labeled the banes of American society. Well, I guess few societies revere porn as highly as Japan.
* Manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol was banned from 1920-1933.
* The FCC continues to censor radio and television broadcasts despite the lack of censorship on the public Internet. Nudity and the word "fuck" (a sexual reference) are the top no-nos.
* Are there any nude beaches or hot springs (onsen) like those in Europe and Japan? Personally, it took me a very long time to warm-up to the idea. It must be my American culture.
* Do you see many transsexuals on TV? In Japan, transsexuals rule show business. Imagine how a cross-dressing TV commentator would be accepted in the USA.
I vote for a rename of America. Call it "Puritanica."
A Culture of Individualism and Fear of All Things Red
Puritanism wasn't all bad, however. They might have been extremists when it came to moral purity, but they also stressed hard work and rugged individualism--solid tenets with which to establish a viable democracy. The individual is the supreme king in American culture, and its archenemy is the red devil Communism and his sidekick Socialism. American culture fears all things red as they represent the ultimate enemy of individual freedom. The very idea of American democracy was forged by hatred for the ruling British monarchy, so any political system surrendering power of choice to the state must be bad.
Consider these examples:
* Laws vary by state. If you don't like the rules in California, move to Texas or Nevada. You can do just about anything you want over there. Compared with other countries, US states enjoy surprising autonomy.
* The Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693) share a striking resemblance with the Red Scare (1947-1957). Senator McCarthy must have been a Puritan.
* Zombie movies are widely considered analogous to Communism. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead brims with capitalist imagery that subtly critiques excessive consumerism as it is literally ravaged by all-are-equal, freedom-less zombies.
And the granddaddy of them all is that socialist healthcare debate:
Did you say "socialist"!? Oh my God! That Obama guy is a...<gasp>...communist! Burn the witch! He must've conjured the devil's magic to win the election! Even though most first-world countries with half a brain have since socialized healthcare, America refuses to see the light. Instead of building a socialist healthcare system based on the learnings and mistakes of other countries' systems, Americans exercise their right to yell in the streets bitching and whining about lost individual freedoms. We don't have to reinvent the wheel on this one, guys. Take a look at other nations' healthcare systems. Anything is better than what we have now.
I was recently laid off from my job in Japan. Amazingly, I'm still covered by the national healthcare system because Japan has deemed this a basic human right worthy of socializing. Incredible! Do you mean I actually get something in return for paying taxes?
The only absolute human right granted to Americans is the right to bear arms. It's such a damn shame that all that tax money goes to blowing up distant desert nations instead of curing domestic calamities. As an American it is indescribably frustrating knowing that my country's citizens pay taxes to kill their own children in hellhole nations as opposed to educate them and keep them healthy. I think I'll stay over here for now.
I had an intriguing discussion with a bright young man from Sweden. Sweden is about as socialist as you can get, and the USA is about as anti-socialist as you can get. Yes, it's true that Swedish citizens pay one hell of a tax rate, but they sure get a lot in return. For example, college education is free in Sweden. I can't even imagine an entire country of college-educated citizens. My country won't pay for my healthcare or college education, but at least I ain't no scumbag communist!
A Culture of War
A nation founded upon such staunch individualism suffers from an unfortunate side effect--paranoia over witches, communists, or terrorists that no doubt threaten individual freedom. Therefore, regardless of the existence of the UN, the US continues to wage expensive international military campaigns to ensure domestic freedom. Are these really necessary, or is cause being confused with effect? Maybe this violent paranoia is actually causing the anti-Americanism we're trying to squash. Maybe 100% withdrawal and cooperation with the UN would actually lead to a natural tranquility. Maybe if another country touted the largest economy title, the world would dub them the global policemen. Sadly, the list of nations never invaded, attacked, or occupied by US forces is getting shorter and shorter.
Three dominant stereotypes constantly reverberate amongst Japanese I encounter:
1. America is a dangerous place.
2. Americans like war.
3. Most, if not all Americans have a gun.
This is what the world thinks of us. Maybe the media is to blame, but that doesn't make it any less sad.
A Culture of Big
They say that everything is bigger in Texas; but after having lived in Japan, I've come to realize that this picture is painted across the entire United States. I've already penned another article (Life in Japan - Why Americans Are So Fat) exploring America's weight problems in more detail, so I'll simply restate the broad generality that everything in the US is big--the people, the cars, the houses, the refrigerators, and the land.
Why? Well, first we go big because the US is blessed with the space to do so. The entire country of Japan is smaller than the state of California, so space comes at a massive premium over here. America has the legroom to stretch.
Secondly, America is a young country, so many American cities were built upon the foundation of modern infrastructure technology--namely, the car. Massive, urban sprawls like Los Angeles don't exist in Japan because Japanese cities were established long before America was even discovered by the West. America with all its glorious space has sadly proved difficult to connect just by giving everyone a carbon-emitting automobile. Squeeze over half the US population into the state of California, and maybe you'd have Japanese-style interconnectivity. Cars are not very practical in Japanese cities, so luckily the country is blanketed with railway infrastructure. That's not hard to do in small island nations, but one hell of a challenge in the vast US empire.
Last, American culture places higher value on quantity over quality. In Japan it's not uncommon to see fruit individually wrapped and polished. Pay $5 for a single pear and enjoy the fruity perfection on your 5-minute walk back to your 150 square-foot apartment. 6 years ago this idea would've sounded bizarre as I loaded a $5 flat of Costco strawberries into my SUV. Sure, they're not wrapped all pretty and some berries may even prove freakish or sour, but I got a whole flat of them for only 5 bucks.
It's not necessarily a bad thing, and love it or hate it, it is a pervasive element of American culture. Your dollar goes a long way at a place like Walmart. You can clothe, bathe, and feed an entire family for an astonishingly low price; however, you can also just as easily chronically overeat thinking you're getting incredible value for your money. Thus, it's not hard to fathom why America has the largest economy. Its capitalist genes gave birth to quite the consumerist culture.
A Culture of Immigration
Erecting a massive capitalist economy like America's takes a wealth of labor capital, and the country made a very smart decision by hosting an "open door" immigration policy during the heyday of its economic construction. America is an immigrant nation, and its culture has been forged by this distinct upbringing. Consider the irony that Einstein himself was a Jewish immigrant who moved to the US just years before the onset of World War II. The world might be a very different place today had he been refused entry, and left to die or work for the Nazis in war-torn Europe. Instead, the US took everyone in and gained both the prosperous strengths and tragic weaknesses of such diversity.
Chinese migrant workers constructed the nation's early railroad system. Africans forced to work as slaves were the very reason America's early agrarian economy flourished. Immigrants from all over fought and died in the Civil War, thus healing a nation torn asunder. America was founded upon the toil and ingenuity of immigrants in search of future betterment.
Unfortunately, however, immigrant nations like the United States suffer from resilient plagues: cultural ignorance, racism, and intolerance. You would think that living together for so long would have soothed the tensions by now. Regrettably, many discordant controversies to this day are labeled racial skirmishes and accordingly inflated by the national and local media. How proud I was the day my home country elected a non-white president. But what a tragedy that he has to interminably comment on childish battles flagged as racial antagonism. He's a father pulled away from his true purpose and incessantly distracted by quarreling children. How far the nation has come, but how far it still has to go. As long as we find ourselves inflamed by racial fanaticism, the media will continue to exploit its bottomless marketablilty.
Being an American in America and trying to grasp the essense of one's own culture is like trying to look at oneself without the use of a mirror. Living abroad is the looking glass through which you can see the distinctiveness of your own culture. Living in Japan, I've never felt more American in my entire life. Therefore, I can't encourage others enough to travel the world and peer through the cultural looking glass. You may be surprised at what you see.