Tag Archives: culture

But I’m Sure You’re Nice!

or:  America – The Country You Love to Hate

Europe According to American Sterotypes


I understand. It’s like that pretty girl in high school who didn’t notice you because you were too short and normal, maybe even geeky. She never gave you any pause, and you still hate her even though you’ve long since left high school and moved on to a successful career making iPhone apps.

This is how it sometimes feels to be an American, like I’m part of a snobbish beautiful family everyone loves to hate. Usually this jealousy is shown in good humor, but sometimes with only a guise at proper decorum.

The other day I was talking with a new friend from Down Under. She was an engineer and we’d hit it off talking about scienc-y things as we both had similar backgrounds. After having spent a good deal of the afternoon together, a Chinese girl came to join the conversation.

“Where are you from?” she asked.
“The US.”
“Yes, but where in the US?”
[blank stare – she had no idea where that is. Even many Americans only know Minnesota as ‘one of those states between New York and California].
“It’s in the north, very near Canada. Very cold.” I answered.
“Ooh…” the Chinese girl said – maybe/maybe not understanding the picture.
“That’s why she’s normal,”  my ex-pat friend added, as if my proximity to Canada made me nearly a Canadian, and thus more palatable.

I assure you that I’m no more Canadian for living in the north, than I am Mexican, for having lived in California. I’m as pure-bred American as they come.

It baffles me the liberty with which the rest of the western world insults or bad-mouths Americans – to their face! Even ones they would also call friends.  So often it’s ‘Well, you know, American’s are big bullies who only act in their own interest, but I’m sure you’re nice!”

Thank you, but if it weren’t for us (and assume here I’m talking to a European, as I usually am) you’d all be speaking German! That’s right. Who pulled your butts out of WWII?  (This answer of course only works for a non-German. There are other appropriate responses for my dear Deutsche friends – like but not limited to, “Who financed the rebuilding of your entire economy after it was blown to smithereens?”)

It’s like insulting members of your own family. Ya, we all have some boisterous annoying relative we wish would change their name, but you’re going to insult me, based on their bad behavior, to my face? I would never, after having already established an amicable relationship, tell my new Aussie friend that “Man, You Aussie’s! I can’t trust you criminal bastard children with anything! But I’m sure you’re nice!” [Let us not judge our Aussie friends from their criminal colonial origins…] Nor would I tell a fellow French ex-pat “You’re all so lazy! When’s the last time you had a full length working day? – but I’m sure you’re not like that!”

Country stereotypes abound for every nation, not just the US, but I would never judge an individual based on his country of origin! And I would certainly never make such comments about his home to his face! So why is it okay to do so to Americans?

I only ever feel like this among western ex-pats. I usually don’t get anywhere near that kind of country-based antagonism from the locals. On their part it’s mostly interest and mystification. There are still few enough westerners in the area that the novelty of interacting with one hasn’t yet worn off — at least as far as non-professional interactions go. Also – I think they are less likely to separate the foreigners by country of origin. It’s usually more ‘Westerner’ vs. Asian.


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Filed under life in china

The Culture of Smell

There’s nothing quite as delicious, comforting or cozy as the smell of fresh-baked cookies straight from the oven.

Or not.

We were at a potluck the other day with some friends. One of the ladies had come with a tin of freshly baked scones. Delicious no? She shared an entertaining story of their trip over.

She and her daughter had just finished making the scones – just pulling them out of the oven – when it was time to head over to our get together.

Picture that it’s evening,  you’re hungry,  you have a tin of freshly baked scones in your lap and you’re stuck in this hopeless rush hour Beijing traffic. What do you do? Why you pop open the tin, and take the edge of an otherwise irritating situation with a bite of scone.

Which is exactly what the two of them did. About ten minutes into the ride however, the taxi driver looks back at them in his rear-view mirror and exclaims in great disgust and irritation,

“Would you PLEASE put a lid on whatever you’re eating! I cant’ STAND that smell! It’s horrible!”

Freshly baked scones! Who on earth would take issue with freshly baked scones!

China, like many other countries, is a place where ones olfactory nerve will be readily assaulted by simply walking down the street. No doubt foreigners in the US often think similarly.

Here many street vendors sell a preserved tofu and if you’re unlucky to walk past you’ll be assaulted by its reeking odor (pictured).  People not uncommonly joke that it seems as if a lot of asian cultures eat just about anything. And all of it has a very foreign smell.

The idea that someone would eat preserved tofu (and obviously I have no proof that this taxi driver does, but there’s no reason to assume he doesn’t.) but complains about the homey goodness of fresh scones is pretty hilarious.

Just one more example of the effect of how culture trains the senses. I’ve never seen any Chinese avoiding the corners with the street vendors selling the stinky tofu – or smelly fish.  I’ve also never heard of anyone in the US complaining about the stench of a bakery in the morning. What you might have assumed was universal is … well maybe not so much. Have we just trained ourselves to like the smell of fresh-baked bread?


Filed under food