When you are passing through a different culture as a tourist your ignorance is expected, tolerated and forgiven. But what if you intend to stay? Do you adopt or do you adapt?
Bridge Ices Before Brain Freeze
It is the winter of 2019 in the USA. Once again I notice every one of those “bridge ices before the road” signs when I approach a bridge and I chuckle to myself. I have noticed those signs every winter since that first winter of my arrival many winters ago, but I did not chuckle to myself during that first winter. Nor the second winter. I didn’t chuckle because the sign puzzled me. When I arrived in the USA a winter with snow and ice was a novelty. And so was that sign. Why, I wondered, would there be a strip of ice between the bridge and the road? And was there a strip of ice between the bridge and the road if you crossed the bridge from the other side?
Whatever the reason, I already knew that ice could be a driving hazard, and I always felt relieved once all four wheels of my car were safely on the bridge, on the other side of that potential strip of ice. (A clear case of cultural ignorance is safety bliss.) For some weird linguistic reason I fixated on “before” as in “place” and not as in “time”. Not once did I wonder where ice would form first in time. Instead I wondered why ice would form right there just before the road.
Did I ask a winterized American what the sign meant? Of course not. When you are an alien, even a legal alien, you try hard to hide your ignorance. And, boy, there are many signs, not only road signs, that can trigger your ignorance when faced with a different culture.
When you are passing through a different culture as a tourist then your ignorance is expected, tolerated and forgiven. But when your intention is to stay in the culture, well, then ignorance can quickly take the bliss out of every novel experience. Until, that is, you learn to anticipate a brain freeze, to calmly endure a brain freeze and to patiently wait for your brain to thaw into understanding. Which, given time and experiences, it will.
Brain Freezes Before Enlightenment
After my first novelty-winter of snow and ice the hot and humid summer caught me by surprise. In my ignorance (again) I had believed that this place could not be hotter than the African summers that had melted me to skinny adulthood. My first summer in the USA introduced me to a second type of heat, namely wet heat. (No, it is not an oxymoron. Think hot water.) I was used to dry heat, heat that was so hot that your sweat (perspiration if you are a lady) dries quickly on your skin. Now I was trapped in a wet heat zone. Trapped is the correct description because the heat felt like an invisible fog. The air was so thick that I swallowed rather than breathed it. And it was so heavy with moisture that my sweat (not perspiration, for I am not a lady) could not evaporate.
Air conditioning, delicious air conditioning built into every building made it worse. (Air conditioning in every building was another novelty because back home only office buildings had air conditioning.) It felt fantastic walking into these fridges masquerading as rooms. But not walking out. Open an external door and there, lurking, was the hot invisible fog, a spongy physical barrier. Unaccustomed, or unacclimatized, as I was (and still am) to this rapid shift from fridge to oven, I would be soaked under a clear, albeit humid-hazy, sky.
Where I grew up a swimming pool was an appropriate antidote to heat, but here it seemed unlikely to be effective — I was already soaked with none of the expected benefits.
Why, I wondered, would anyone choose to live in a place where walking outside feels like taking a stroll in a swimming pool? Come to think of it why are all the swimming pools hidden under plastic covers even though it is hot as hell? Surely, these Americans are truly strange. That’s what I thought during my first USA Early Summer leading up to my first USA Memorial Day. Of course, I had forgotten something very basic about culture.
Culture is simply the way we do things here. (I have no idea who first coined this definition of culture, but I like it.) During my first months in the USA I had forgotten that there are (almost) always reasons for the way we do things. As a newcomer to this way of doing things, I thought it weird that swimming pool covers stay on until Memorial Day (end of May) and go back on after Labor Day (late August or early September). “What about other hot days of the year?” I asked a newly acquired American friend. She politely pointed at all the trees around us and at the polluting pollen covering every surface. “See all that yellow stuff? Swimming pools don’t like it. But it’s gone by Memorial Day. See those leaves on the trees? They fall after Labor Day. Swimming pools don’t like them either.”
Oh well. It’s easy to pass judgment on unfamiliar behavior without bothering to understand it. It’s also incredibly stupid to do so. I should have known better than to judge a culture by its covers.
Blame it on cultural brain freeze. Until that first summer in the USA I had not heard the term brain freeze nor experienced it in its pure physical form. My kids had. They were of an age when adopting, not adapting to, a new culture was as easy as pie. Or as easy as slurping a Slurpee. (For my foreign readers, I must point out the need for the capital “S” in Slurpee. Slurpee is a proprietary name that has now become generic, something that Americans are very good at doing, turning proprietary names into generic terms. And if you don’t know what a Slurpee is, then I suggest you live a little.)
The first time I happened to be present when my kids each slurped a Slurpee, they both gleefully shouted, “Brain freeze!” I must have looked puzzled, because my son shoved his Slurpee in my face and said, “Make your brain freeze, Dad!” Being the doting father that I think I was, I willing slurped. And unwilling grimaced in pain. Geez!
I immediately sympathized with all elephants. Even though I once had to run from a herd of them (but that’s another story). Where I was born my Mother Tongue was different to my Father Tongue. My mother spoke Afrikaans and my Father spoke English. In Afrikaans an elephant’s trunk is called a “slurp.” Now, come to think of it, slurp is a better name for that thing hanging from an elephant’s head than the word “trunk”. Trunk is something you store and carry stuff in; slurp is the sound you would make if you drank through your nose.
With that thought my brain freeze thawed, and I was enlightened. Or was I?
Same path, different expectations
On that Brain Freeze day, as I looked at my son’s happy face through my watering eyes, I realized that there is a big difference between adapting to a new culture and adopting a new culture.
As an adult with a nicely solidified culture of my own, I had to adapt to this new culture. No wonder my brain freeze left a painful frown. My kids had not yet formed an attachment to any specific culture. Thus they found it natural to adopt a new one, even this one. No wonder their brain freeze left a huge grin.
Let me give you an example. My family and I once walked in fading light along a river trail somewhere in the USA. In the gathering gloom I pushed passed bushes, ducked under branches, and broke free of clinging cobwebs. How does this description make you feel, amused or apprehensive, intrigued or fearful? Yes, it depends on your frame of reference. In other words, it depends on your experiences, on your history.
At one stage during the walk I turned to my young daughter and asked, “What if elephants suddenly come charging through?” Even though she was born in Africa, she rolled her eyes.
Why did I think elephants in the USA? Because I had once stumbled onto a herd of elephants in the African bush after earlier that day being charged by a lioness. Which is why, to this day, I imagine lions and elephants where none are expected.
My history means I imagine very different outcomes from the endings my daughter anticipates even though we often walk the same path.
On my path, bravely, without adult American supervision
The first few weeks in a strange country are the most exciting. And the worst. The cultural bull is everywhere and one must tread carefully, back-stepping and fast-stepping and side-stepping, until the strangeness shades to sameness. What helps, or at least what helped me, is to remember your roots. And to remember that your roots are now making you feel groundless, because your roots are still in that other country and not in this one, if you know what I mean.
One thing that moving to a strange country does is to you lock you in the moment, as the now fashionable saying has it. You become hyper-aware of your surroundings and of the people ‘right now’. Everything is new and everyone seems interesting or scary ‘right now’.
Let me tell you what I found the scariest, apart from big men walking around with their pants sagging enough so that you can see their underpants, if you are lucky, and much too much more, if you are unlucky. What I found scary, and still find disturbing, is boys and girls and men and women, in other words everyone, of any age, wearing their baseball caps on backwards. (I have seen men in suits and ties wearing what seems to be part of the obligatory dress code — a baseball cap. But at least they know which way the damn thing has to point its visor flap.)
My first time on my own, that is, without adult American supervision, at a Wal-Mart store in the US of A, well, how can I ever forget that? The cashier asked, “Paper or plastic?” Proudly, I held up my (first) American credit card. She looked unimpressed and repeated, “Paper or plastic?” That’s when the packer, obviously an alien from south of the border who understood me at a glance, smiled and held up a paper bag in one hand and a plastic bag in the other. (I have since learned to say “Porcelain, not paper” in a coffee shop, or else they would hand me a paper cup. For Pete’s sake! I am not a kiddie at a birthday party!) And then the cashier, still looking unimpressed with me, fired “have a nice day” at me.
I have since discovered that if you cannot say, “have a nice day” in the USA, you will struggle to find a job that requires you to interact with members of the public. Saying, “have a nice day” (even in a way that sounds like a threat or an instruction) is obligatory. It is this obligatory nature of “have a nice day” that has come to spoil my few shopping moments. (What right does anyone have to tell me how to live my day? I would much prefer an unimpressed, but more honest, “Right, you’ve paid. Now fuck off. Next!”) And then there are those people, often female, who smilingly tell me to, “Have a good one!” One day I know I will lose my self-control and demand to know, “A good what, if I may ask? And are you, young lady, willing to show me one?”
I left Wal-Mart still smarting and packed the plastic (not paper) bags in the boot. (Not in the trunk, because where I come from elephants have trunks. Oh, I have already explained that.) And then I opened the car door to find that someone had stolen the steering wheel. (Why was I not surprised? Just the sort of thing that happens in Africa.) When I realized that the steering wheel was still there, but on the other side of the car, the left-hand side, I felt so embarrassed that I acted as if I had planned to open the ‘wrong’ door all along, just in case someone was watching me.
In those early days I found myself ‘acting cool’ quite often, because in my fear and uncertainty I imagined that all the little incidents of not getting it, of not fitting in, would add up to disqualify me from earning the fabled green card.
Those early years, the years you must survive if you want to be accepted, can be like the length of a piece of elastic — you can never be sure that you have measured them accurately. I would go for months feeling relieved that I had indeed survived the strangeness of the ‘early years’, only to find that the lift doors will not close, no matter how many times I press the button to the first floor. Then a smiling American would get into the elevator with me and press the button for the second floor, the doors would close and we would feel the earth move under our feet. The American would step out when the doors opened and say, “Have a nice day” while I would think, “Oh, get lost.”
Where I come from, the earth is at ground level and the first floor is the first floor above ground level. However, where I am now, there is no ground level and hence no Ground button. Before you enquire about my apparent laziness for not being willing to take the stairs to rise one level above ground, I will have you know that I have had to return to ground too often after finding a locked door at the landing in the stairwell to assume that stairs are there for going up. (And if you think the sentence too long, well, now you know how I felt by the time I entered the elevator on the first floor going up to the second floor.) And then people wonder why so many Americans are obese. Before you ask, yes, I am becoming one of them as well. I plan to fit in in all respects even if that means there will be much more of me to fit in. (For the record, if you want to go down stairs then the doors to the stairs will open, easily, else the Fire Chief will be annoyed.)
Ped Xing is often more funny-peculiar than funny ha-ha
Once you cross over (the border, that is) you do not have to practice mindfulness. You will just do it. It will be your natural state, at least during your early months. Because of the interesting strangeness around you, you will be in the moment, in the here and now. Until the novelty wears off. Once the novelty wears off, you drift once again into living in the past or in the future, but not in the moment.
When that moment arrives, the moment when you are no longer in the moment, if you follow me, you will start reminiscing. That’s when you risk becoming just another “whenwe.” (Work it out for yourself. I believe you can.) Or you begin your sentences with, “when I was your age, back in Africa, . . .” Knowing bullshit when I see it, I want to avoid making those two boring mistakes. (However, I believe it is every parent’s constitutional right to say as often as they like, “When I was your age . . .” I practice my rights as often as possible, but I leave out the whenwe back-in-Africa bit. Sometimes.) And so, to avoid those two mistakes, I started writing a book. Because that’s what people like me have done since the dawn of parchment. When we whenwe others into rolling their eyes and turning away from us, we turn to writing.
(By the way, did you notice how smartly I turned “whenwe” in the previous sentence into a verb? Read it again. I am convinced that you cannot be classified as a proper American unless you know how to use any noun as a verb. And you get bonus American credits if you can make up your own nouns. Like I did.)
There were many moments when the curtain between my two worlds, the back-then and the now-here, would part and I would feel quite dizzy with where-the-hell-am-I? Why are there so many types of bread? (One day I walked out of a grocery store because I could not decide on which bread to buy. I longed for the three traditional options of my youth: whole-wheat, white and white-sliced.) Why can’t I make sense of this money? (Why is the twenty-five-cent piece smaller than the five-cent piece?) Why can’t the cashier speak English? (Oh, she was?) Why did I look right first instead of left before crossing the road? (That was close!) Why did that driver stop without hooting and without cursing at me when I stepped off the sidewalk? (Come to think of it, why did he not accelerate and aim at me like they do in South Africa?) And why do they have these Chinese road signs? (My kids, not needing to adapt because they had already adopted, were the ones who kindly explained that “Ped Xing” is not Chinese. It means “Pedestrians Crossing.” Why not use the international sign — a silhouette of a human walking?) And every morning for many months I would peep out from behind our bedroom curtains to check . . . yes! The car is still there! (What sort of place is this?)
This was a painfully funny period. Painful because all the jokes were on me and were only funny looking back from the comfort of having survived the early years.
While we’re on the subject of funny, I must admit that after all these years in the USA much of American humor is still lost on me. As they say in the classics, I just don’t get it. I’m not British, but I enjoy the British sense of humour. However, I am pleased to say, I’m making progress because I had an epiphany. There is only one ‘u’ in American humor, but two in British humour. Go check the spelling. We know there must be a ‘u’ in humor — that’s why ‘you’ find it funny. But the thing about humour that makes it really work is that the joker and the listener must both find it funny. If only one of ‘u’ gets it, then it isn’t even half as funny.
This is why I’m tempted to plead with Americans to put the second ‘u’ back in humor, so that we can both catch the funny ha-ha and not leave me stranded with funny-peculiar.
Dreamers dreaming of a phantasmagorical kakistocracy
Let’s skip the funny ha-ha for a moment and be mindful of the funny-peculiar. From the outside looking in, the USA has become, over centuries and for many, a phantasmagorical place. A place of fantasy created by our dreams of longing to live there and imaginings of what it would be like to be there. (All over the world there are people dreaming of getting into the USA and here in the USA there is a website called Escape Artist, dedicated to helping Americans escape from the USA. I ask you!)
The practical reality is that, yes, indeed, the USA is a phantasmagorical place, but more in the sense that it is so deceptive. It is constantly changing (technology leader) while remaining stubbornly stuck in another era. (The USA is in a select club of three Neo-Luddites who refuse to switch to the metric system. The other two countries? Liberia and Myanmar.) I am not sure that the USA is still an attractive fantasy, because since the rise of the reality star President, it is threatening to become phantasmagorical in a completely different sense.
Growing up in Africa I was inclined to believe that everything is different in the USA. By ‘different’ I assumed ‘opposite’ as with this most traumatic example: left becomes right, beginning with the ‘correct’ side to drive on, which made driving scary as hell. Well, truth be told, everything is different on this side of the Atlantic, as it should be. The USA is, after all, on the other side of the globe called Earth, and not only in terms of hemisphere. However, once I recovered my equilibrium of standing on the other side of the world, where summer is winter and day is night, I suspected that the differences were similarities in disguise.
For example, and this is a major example because it sets the tone for all citizens, whether we like it or not… for example, I left a country being run by a kakistocracy and I soon realized that the so-called leading country in the free world is also run by a kakistocracy.
(Oh all right, I will save you the trouble of looking it up. A kakistocracy is defined as government by the worst persons; government in which the worst persons are in power.) I am so tempted to play with this word kakistocracy, to chew it like bubble gum, to stretch it into different meanings, but I am sure you can do that for yourself. Enjoy.
The fact that the USA is a phantasmagorical kakistocracy did not stop us applying for American citizenship. Actually, the decision was made easier because our South African passports were about to expire and that applying for US citizenship was a damn side cheaper and a lot less hassle than to renew those old passports through a system that was rapidly sliding in the opposite direction of efficiency. The process of becoming a US citizen includes having to pass a citizen test by answering ten out of one hundred general knowledge questions correctly about America (history, structure and functioning). The official who administers the verbal test continues to ask questions until the applicant manages ten correct answers. Then the test is over and done with. Congratulations.
The official who interviewed me seemed to be very young. Too young to give this ceremony the gravitas I thought it deserved. Nevertheless, I took the oath when she told me to swear on the bible. (I did, with great difficulty, refrain from swearing the way we do in Africa.) And then she asked me the trick question, the one I had hoped she would skip due to my advanced years: Would I bear arms for the USA if called on to do so? Well, as a bit of a pacifist (more out of cowardice than conviction) I hesitated. I looked at her; she looked at me.
I asked, “Am I still under oath?” “Yes,” she answered. I hesitated. She looked at me; I looked at her. Then she smiled prettily and conspiratorially, and said, “Just aim at the trees!” Mentally, I apologized to her. She might be young, but she was already wise.
New sheriff in town (every town)
While we’re aiming at the trees, let me tell you how uneasy I felt on one of my first drives in what would later become my new home state. On the drive the American suburbs and American houses made me feel very uneasy, but I could not put my finger on it, even as the suburbs gave way to more rural housing. Finally, it struck me. No fences! I could not tell where one property ended, and another began. The lawns in the front yards simple blended into one common, open landscape. It felt naked and unsafe. What about security? What about privacy?
This was the first hint I had that law and order in the USA is not an oxymoron.
Later on that same day, when we arrived at a cabin in the woods where we were to spend the night, the owner suspected there had been a break-in. He telephoned the police. I sniggered, and I thought, “Good luck with that out here in the woods. In South African we can’t even get them to bother in the suburbs.” Soon a policeman arrived in his squad car. I frowned (in disbelief). It seems that Americans, unlike people in my homeland, do have adult supervision on call.
But who is the adult and who needs supervising? One day while walking back to my car from a stationery supply store I noticed a really fancy guy step out of an equally fancy pickup truck. He was wearing fancy leather boots, fancy blue jeans and a fancy cowboy hat. As he swaggered to the store, I noticed that he had a six-shooter dangling from a wide leather belt, bouncing on his hip. Oh, please! Was he really planning an old-fashioned take out? From a stationery store? (“Your pencils or your life”?!?)
Funny accent as proof of one of us
At the time of my writing there is still no Mexican Wall or Canadian Wall or Atlantic Wall or Pacific Wall or Sky Wall and so the USA remains a country of many mother tongues speaking one language, namely English. Of course, if you listen carefully and in public places, you can hear other tongues communicating with like-tongues. But when diversity confronts diversity, we all abuse the Queen’s English in our own unique ways in our quest to be understood. And the reason for the abuse is that we are thinking in our mother tongue and speaking in a foreign or “second” tongue.
On the other hand, if we share English as a common root, what happens to diversity? Well, because both parties are thinking in the same mother tongue, we focus on the diversity of accent, of course.
Keep in mind that accent has two meanings, namely how we pronounce and what we pronounce. That’s why having a different accent can cause you to have a diversity of experiences with the more-American sounding locals. In my case, I am pleased to report that my experiences have been mostly positive. Let me give you an example.
Once upon a time in Africa, on a ‘farm’ next to the Kruger National Park, I was charged by a lioness and had to run from a herd of elephants, all on one day. When I told this true story here in the USA to a group of Americans, one guy made the following wise observation: If I had told my story with an American accent, no one would have believed me.
Since then I have used my accent and my lioness story to build my personal brand. (You are nothing in the USA business world if you don’t have a personal brand.) My attempt at brand building led me to meet a retired business professor who had a twice-weekly gig on a regional public radio network. He wanted to retire and asked the station to consider me taking over from him. When I objected that I had no idea how to do radio stuff, he replied that it did not matter as people just wanted to hear my accent. He was right because for the next 10 years, twice a week, I spoke my brand of English through local American radios.
(Another American ‘gentleman’ told me that if he had my accent, he would have ‘had’ many more women. No, it was not the reality star President who said that to me, but it was a harbinger of tweets to come. Now, with all due respect to women, I wanted to disagree with him. But I had once overheard a woman tell her friend that she loves listening to me on the radio. My head got bigger, my shoulders pulled back and my stomach shrunk, until she continued, “But I have no clue what he is saying and I don’t care!”)
I am shallow enough to admit that I enjoyed the warm (mostly) response that my accent triggered from many Americans, because I know, thanks to Albert Costa, that my funny accent (to Americans, that is) should have triggered lots of cold shoulders instead. At least, that’s what I understood from reading an article in The Economist magazine. If you don’t mind me becoming a little academic for a short paragraph, here goes.
Research conducted by said Albert Costa, of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain, with the help of a few colleagues, lead him to believe that speaking in your mother’s tongue takes less brain power than speaking a foreign language. (Duh!) However, when speaking in someone else’s mother’s tongue, you must use more brain power as you reason more carefully. (Duh again.) In other words, it makes one think and behave more rationally. (Oh.) And it is this hard work that creates a psychological and emotional distance from the person who is the target of your tongue. (Oh!) In other words (again), you could come across as cold and unfriendly. (Uh-oh.)
Yet, I have found the opposite to apply here in the USA. I have had the warmest responses from people who obviously do not speak with my tongue or accent, even as they visibly used more brain power to interact with me. Could it be that they have never heard of Albert Costa, of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain, and his colleagues? Could be, yes.
But I think that there is an alternative fact that explains their warmth towards me. In a land where everyone is an import, having a different accent is actually proof of being one of us.
In the land of I, dropping U until needed
During my early years in the USA I often made cultural blunders. One of my first offences was to wonder why anyone would drive around in a chicken coop. Imagine my relief when I realized that coop meant coupe. Relief? Yes, because ever since 1963 I have wondered why the Beach Boys would sing about a little deuce chicken coop.
These behavioural, with a ‘u’, offences against social conventions made me colour, with a ‘u’. That’s right. I also forgot to drop the ‘u’ in words which require no ‘u’ on this side of the Atlantic.
As I became socialized, as in culture, not politics, I understood why Americans drop the ‘u’. It is because of ‘I’. No, not me, but ‘I’ as in you. America is about individualism, not collectivism. And so in the land of I, you are not important. Until, that is, I need help and then I turn to you.
Thankfully, and to give them all the credit they deserve, there were many Americans who we, culturally challenged aliens that we were, could turn to for help. However, that is not the most amazing thing. What was and still is truly amazing is how many Americans reached out to help us before we had the courage to ask. Thanks to them I am often enlightened before my brain freezes.
However, when I am caught without kindly support in an alien cultural experience, which still happens, one that I have not yet adapted to, I adopt my Brain-Freeze strategy. I allow my brain to freeze in the moment while I wait for the thaw of understanding. Like my kids, I have learned to grin through any brain freeze that catches me cold.
That is why, today and every day, I am willing to drive on the wrong side of the road (safety first), why I drop the second ‘u’ in humor (sometimes), why I enjoy turning nouns into verbs (it’s fun), why I slow down before I cross a bridge (just in case), why I vote in a kakistocracy (it is best to keep the worst people in the same room), why I look left before I Ped Xing, and why I have a nice day (often).
But, and this is a Big But, I will never, ever wear a baseball cap on backwards. Not even to aim better at the trees.