If there’s one thing Americans are known for collectively, it’s our need for independence. We don’t like to be told what to do or having to conform to a set cultural standard. That’s made us both unique and full of variety, but also caused a lot of strife between us. And social media has turned that into a regular circus show.
I’m not sure we can even point to a true American food. Hamburgers? German. Tacos? Mexican. Meat and Potatoes? Pick your European country. Pizza? Italian. Black Eyed Peas and Collards? African Diaspora. Immigrants come with their food cultures and Americans bastardize it with chemicals and industrial processing. Sometimes we come up with awesome weird combinations: Hey, what happens if we mix Native American cornbread with German sausages and then deep fry it? Corndogs!
I guess if anything is American, it’s the deep fryer.
For those of you that know my family, we take the American credo of independence and variety to a whole different level. Most families in the US are somewhat homogeneous. It’s up to the family to decide what they want to be, but that’s what they are. They’re a dance family or a church family, etc.
My family? Not so much.
My mom says our family’s motto is “Conformity is highly overrated.” She raised us to think for ourselves, questioned us if we did things similarly to her just because, and played devil’s advocate so well the devil is looking for employment elsewhere. For example, in the last presidential election, no more than 2 or 3 people voted for the same person. That means Trump, HRC, Johnson, Stein, write-in, and non-voters all sit at the same table together every week.
For those of us who spend most of our time in America, it’s easy to forget that what makes us unique, our variety, is a cultural decision that is not carried over pretty much anywhere else in the world. It’s especially hard for me as a contrarian raised by a contrarian.
Going to the Netherlands was an eye opener for me.
There certainly existed a set cultural standard for what it meant to be Dutch, from down to what you wore to what and when you ate.
So, if you’re going to ask me what I least like about the Netherlands, I think their (your) somewhat Stepford wives’ conformity was it.
This was best summed up by Joop’s mother, after days of trying to explain a certain cultural difference to her, which she was completely unable to grasp.* Her eventual response: “I don’t understand this whole cultural differences thing. There aren’t different cultures. There’s only one human culture!”
Joop of course groaned and said, “See, see! This is what I have to put up with! I want to move to America! I can do what I want there.”
With every cultural difference you come across, there are benefits and drawbacks. America's independence, if not tempered leads to isolation and possible implosion, while the Netherlands conformity can lead to stagnation. Take your pick. Or learn how to moderate your worse tendencies.
Like I said upfront, our desire for independence causes a lot of strife internally and getting laws passed that benefit everyone or are excepted by everyone is a pain. But if I want to, I can dye my hair rainbow, love a gay redneck, and wear nothing but plaid shirts and striped pants, and belong to an agnostic Muslim congregation, and I can find other people like me. I can eat paleo, or keto, or vegan. I can eat tacos every Tuesday, or even every day, or not at all.
Joop’s going vegetarian was not well accepted. Dutch eat meat and potatoes. They are very good quality and tasty meat and potatoes, but they are still meat and potatoes.
I basically brought a black uniform with me to the Netherlands. I still couldn’t completely wear Dutch clothes because I need color! But it was far more subdued that my average wardrobe. Walking into Joop’s school where everyone could where what they wanted, was like walking into an American school with school uniforms!
The positive side to this conformity is that the Dutch have much more of a sense of shared identity and therefore more social security. Joop said to me, if America really wanted to take care of healthcare, they would have to band together and decide that caring for everyone was the best.
My response: We do want to take care of anyone! It’s just we can’t decide the best way to do it!
Of course, for the Dutch, taking care of your people looks one way and one way only. Not so much in America. There are a million ways to take care of your people. I joke not.
Look at how we deal with healthcare: Religious healthshare groups, churches, workplace health insurance, family support, non-profit organizations in the millions, federal government insurance, state government insurance, free clinics, free dental buses, civic organizations…
I could continue.
It really can be a pain to track down all the programs for your needs, and sometimes as soon as you find it, it disappears. The red tape and bureaucracy needed to navigate this properly is financially infeasible. So people complain, and network, and join support groups, and give money to friends…until the correct help is found. Hopefully, before it’s too late.
It’s a mess and I have no ideas on how to fix it, or if it can even be fixed, or if we really even want it fixed.
All I know is Americans don’t like people telling them what to do and the Dutch don’t need to be told what to do because they already do it.
Anyway, that’s what I had the hardest time adjusting to there: Nobody told me what to do, but I was still expected to know and do it. Luckily, I had Joop. However, I still felt like I should have a sign on my back that said, "Sorry! Idiot American."
*If you're wondering what cultural difference I could never satisfactorily explain to Joop's mother: it was how no group of 25 American 4th graders would travel on foot a couple miles across the streets of Amsterdam with nothing but 1 teacher in the front and 1 parent in the back, in order to tend to their highly organized and identical garden plots. Now I given every American mother a heart attack and brought every American teach to tears...
I live in Athens, Georgia with my son, my husband, and an ever revolving list of exchange students, who are a never ending source of entertainment and writing material.