in my culture…

Studying abroad leads you to many conversations that start out like this, “Well, in my culture in the United States…”  It is an interesting experience to be on the other end of questions from Argentines and French folks and to trade back and forth our impressions of each other’s cultures, habits, and why we think we live the way we do.  Studying abroad, I can’t help but find myself in these strange, awkward conversations trying to explain and at the same time tease out what is my own culture, making grandiose generalizations about the United States, something I never do at home.  Still, in this election time with all the polarizing dialogues, which the Bachmann controversy is presently putting in the spotlight, it’s a positive exercise to reflect on what we all DO have in common in our culture.
Last night, over a pizza at Café las Ciencias and a group project measuring and calculating equivalent ad valorem tariff rates in the U.S. and European Economic Community, one of my group members from France started telling me about the two gals from the United States in her building that were on vacation.  These gals went out every night until 5 or 6 am to “boliches,” or dances, and slept until two or three in the afternoon; they got up only to go to the gym and eat and begin the cycle all over again.  She said she didn’t understand why they find doing the same thing over and over again interesting.  Of course, I pointed out to her that people within the United States or any country are very heterogeneous, which for me is a positive, and that this kind of lifestyle or relaxation past, say, 22 years of age for me and many others holds no appeal.  We also started talking about why it is that many more Europeans vacation to destinations all over the world than Americans, who tend to be more highly represented on cruise ships and at beach front resorts.
This led me to an interesting observation, which I believe to be true.  We, the United States people, live in a culture of extremes; we like to live or believe we live intensely.  In part, our advertising culture trains us into this thinking.  These gals who go out to the boliches probably work very hard at their regular jobs to afford a week blowing off steam in South America.  Most Americans I know work very hard because they don’t have another choice, the standards for even basic jobs like store clerk in our country seem to demand much higher levels of productivity.  We work hard until our eyeballs hurt, then all we want to do when we are finished with our jobs is plop down in front of the television.  When we vacation, often we elect to go to a tropical beach with piña coladas and back massages before we go to a crowded city like Jakarta, for example. 
Before you accuse me of lacking patriotism, this is not at all saying Americans our lazy, simply that we vegetate intensely because we work at a more frantic pace.  The distance between our utility from relaxing and our disutility from work grows ever higher as we cling to our extremes.  Just as the basic assumptions behind utility tell us that higher utility comes from a consumption basket with more variety than a basket full of two of the same good, I think we could be happier if we all leveled out a little, myself included. 
Moreover, over a medium run, extreme work habits shunt our creativity and our productivity, and certainly the stress can shorten our lives.  A couple years ago, I read in a book on Simplicity (the popularity of these books in the U.S. and even the fact I was reading this is evidence that we work and do too much) that one will be much happier if one learns to love – not dread – all the things that one has to do.  One always has to make sure he or she gets a meal, cleans, makes the bed, sees that the laundry is done, lives below one’s means, and goes to a job or is in some way productive.  The secret to happiness is to love what you are going to have to do anyway. 
So whenever it takes me 20 minutes to get through the checkout lane because the clerk is taking her time here in Argentina, I am not stressed or flustered – because no one else is.  I have something to read or my iPod, and I know it takes me just as long at Wal-mart, only I wouldn’t notice because I’d be busy being rushed or complaining.

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