Monday, October 18, 2010

American Oddities

I’ve begun to have a little trouble finding blog topics about Canadian cultural characteristics. But, I think that is because I have stopped noticing what I perceive to be oddities of Canadian culture. That’s just it—I’ve stopped noticing. If I were to draw a graph of my transition between Canadian and American culture, I would be at the midpoint. A recent trip to Michigan confirmed that now I am noticing what I perceive to be oddities of American culture.

Last month, Sarah and I took a trip to Michigan to go shopping (which is quite a Canadian thing to do). We stayed near Frankenmuth at a hotel with my parents. It was a good halfway point for us all to meet and spend the weekend catching up and shopping.

The hotel was located near a busy highway. I looked out the window of my room and saw a giant billboard with a photo of a rifle advertising “SAVE BIG—BUY USED Over 2,500 used guns in stock.” As much as I dislike the stereotype that Americans are all gunslingers, I could see why any visitors to the US would believe this, considering this billboard and several other similar signs I saw in eastern Michigan. There was a time, not so long ago, when I wouldn’t have even noticed a gun store advertisement, or if I had, it wouldn’t have seemed unusual to me.

Our hotel rooms had refrigerators, and my parents had brought bottled water and cans of pop. We all watched some late-night tv together before going to bed, and on my way back to our room, I was cleaning up and put the empty water bottles in the recyc. . . .oh, there was no recycling bin in either of our rooms, only trash cans! As much as I dislike the stereotype that Americans don’t recycle as much as they should, I was surprised to be in a hotel where each room did not have its own recycling bin. The last several hotels I had been in were in Canada, and recycling bins are a standard amenity. I couldn’t bring myself to just throw the bottles away, so I left them on the counter. There was a time, not so long ago, when I wouldn’t have even noticed the lack of a recycling bin.

By the third day of our weekend excursion, not only was the weather rapidly deteriorating, as we got further into the fall season and the rain was falling, but my dad’s mental state was rapidly deteriorating as he had reached his shopping patience limit. So, during one of our final shopping stops, my dad stayed in the car while my mom, Sarah, and I went in to shop. When we finally emerged from the store an hour and a hundred dollars later, I was surprised to see my dad sitting in his SUV with the engine running. . As much as I dislike the stereotype that Americans are gluttonous SUV drivers on a mission to destroy the world, I didn’t know how long the vehicle’s engine had been running, and I was horrified. I even briefly glanced around, embarrassed that someone might see me getting in this car that had been destroying the air for our children and our children’s children. Such idle idling would not be tolerated in Canada. There was a time, not so long ago, when I wouldn’t have even noticed cars idling in a parking lot.

The most striking reminder of how foreign my home state now feels was during breakfast at the hotel. A breakfast was included with our stay, and we were happy to take advantage as the food was fresh, diverse, and tasty, and the breakfast room was large, clean, and bright. We were staying at the hotel during a busy weekend when high school athletic teams were traveling for competitions, groups of older women were on overnight shopping trips, and medieval re-enactors were participating in the nearby renaissance festival. As I was getting through my second coffee and first banana, I paused and tried to discern what was gnawing at the back of my mind. Something was slightly uncomfortably different, but I couldn’t identify what in particular. I spent some time observing what was going on around me in the busy breakfast room. First, the noise level was quite high as all the breakfasters were loudly discussing their plans for the day with apparent disregard for their very public surroundings. I wondered if they almost were hoping everyone around would be listening in. Those who were not brashly sharing their itineraries were looking around the room with furrowed brows, evaluating the other guests. I even inadvertently made eye contact with a couple of people who were staring directly at me—I quickly moved my gaze; they did not. I realized that I was feeling uncomfortable because no one was keeping to themselves. I stared down and my coffee and thought very hard about how this same situation would be different in Canada. First, Canadians generally would be much quieter in their conversations. Second, Canadians wouldn’t be staring relentlessly at those around them. They might glance around with curiosity, but during my two years in Ontario, I had clearly become intolerant of the type of intense eye-boring I was getting from the Americans.

Of course, everything I am saying here is a generalization based on generalizations, and perhaps my observations are distorted by my preconceptions. I might as well also make a comment about the marked lack of “eh” and “sorey” expressions floating around the room, eh?

Despite my newfound discomfort, I got up and went back to the breakfast bar to get some biscuits. A guy who was seeking similar sustenance arrived at the biscuit bin a split second after me and displayed an inordinate amount of irritation that I was in his way. I smiled nervously at him and said, without any real justification for doing so, “oh, sorry.” Expecting my unnecessary apology to be reciprocated in turn, I was a bit taken aback to instead be presented with another loud sigh and eye roll.

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