Thursday, January 03, 2002

I peeked in on the article Jill pointed at, with the "redoubtable Norwegians", and was rather surprised by some of the assumptions in it. I quote:

This permits the politically correct intelligentsia of the non-American Anglosphere to indulge in a bit of pseudo-nationalism, by pretending that "American" values are not for the most part also the values of the majority of their countrymen. Anti-Americanism, the more fashionable modern analogue of anti-Semitism, is a delight readily available to them. Meanwhile, their American counterparts can mouth the same opinions, but must appear self-loathing rather than patriotic.

Over the last 26 monts, at least 7 of those were spent in the United States, travelling as well as more settled. I was prepared to find a familiar world, where I would share the views of those around me. I am after all an academic, and I thought my values and ideals were heavily influenced by a kind of international intellectual set of thought which would be pretty much the same all over the world, and very influenced by American thinking.

I couldn't have been more wrong.
I kept stumbling, over and over, into what felt like an episode of X-files. Something was very, very wrong, while it looked familiar. From the many films, books, articles and television shows I have watched over the years, I never expected to be alienated from the way people thought, from the train of their logic, from their fundamental values, from the ideals which guided and governed the simplest decisions.

So there were a few simple culture crashes, like the young man who wanted to sell me magazines, and walked up to Me in a quiet street and started asking what I felt were intrusive, personal questions like where I lived, what I did for a living, what I liked. I told him clearly how offended I was by his questions, and that I did not appreciate being interrogated on the street - and he stumbled on, only to ring the bell of the house I lived in (my host told me later) almost in tears, upset over the horrible woman who wouldn't even be polite while he just tried to earn a little extra something.... She was sympathetic and comforted him while explaining to me later on... . because they knew that it's permissible to talk to people like that. I was upset and paranoid the rest of the day, wondering what the #¤%& that weirdo had wanted from me.

But deeper than that ran the differences in how the Americans I met (and these were the scholars) viewed marriage, family, fidelity, independence, freedom, responsibility - and more material matters like food, comfort, cleanliness (how to dispose of garbage: garbage mills in the sinks, now that shocked me!), not to talk of their pets - and very important to Norwegians: nature, physical activity, hunting, fishing, pollution, using energy and natural resources. When ever I thought we understood each other, I found out that I had made assumptions based on my own cultural sphere, and not theirs. There was an apparent understanding, rather than a real one.

Don't get me wrong - some of my best friends are American. I think it's a fascinating country, I want to explore more and more of it: but I won't ever again make the mistake of thinking that I share the American values. When I walked the streets of New York City, an alien, a legal alien, I knew what Sting meant:

Modesty, propriety can lead to notoriety
You could end up as the only one
Gentleness, sobriety are rare in this society
At night a candle's brighter than the sun

Takes more than combat gear to make a man
Takes more than license for a gun
Confront your enemies, avoid them when you can
A gentleman will walk but never run

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