4 Things Foreigners Will Never Understand About America
I moved to America from Australia almost five years ago after a long immigration battle, and these days I feel like I'm finally assimilating. My accent has mutated into a weird Ausmerican-hybrid mess that sounds like a drunk person pretending to be Hugh Jackman. I go to the gym regularly to strengthen my arms enough to carry those horse-trough-sized soda cups at the cinema, and I'm sketching out my first "bald eagle ripping open my skin to reveal an American flag" back tattoo.
But there's still a lot about this great country that I don't understand, and I have it on good authority that I'm not alone. Some aspects of the USA are so weird that they leave foreigners scratching our wacky national-costume hats in confusion, no matter how much time we've spent here. For example ...
Huge Damn Lawns
Americans love lawns like Internet arguers love the word "fallacy." A healthy lawn alone can add 11 percent to the value of a home in this country, and driving down most American suburban streets is like traveling across the back of a giant, furry, green monster that has houses all over its skin and also roads or something and oh god this is why they kicked me out of metaphor school.
You don't want to know what the swimming pool represents.
It's not that other countries don't have lawns, or that Australians only seed their gardens with spider eggs or something. But with few exceptions, it's only Americans that surround their homes with lawn-oceans so big that they need to own a special type of car with razor blades attached to it just to keep the stuff trimmed. Where I come from, you own a riding mower if you just inherited a soccer field and don't know what to do with it yet. Here, keeping a razor-car around is completely normal, and so is spending half your weekend driving one.
And in America, lawns are hardly ever surrounded by fences or hedges or a barbed-wire demilitarized zone, like they would be in normal countries. Instead, you and your neighbor's lawns must fade into each other like the memories of the shots of cheap whiskey you drank last night. Then your good American neighbor will inevitably mow his lawn right up to the edge of your property, leaving your property's much longer grass sitting there like a topographic map of your own failure.
Why Is It Like That?
Lawns were first brought to America in the 19th century, but it was a bunch of turf-crazy suburban planners that really caused this country to embrace them. These planners began urging people to build gardens with lawns that touched their neighbors: unlike the British upper-classes, who surrounded their gardens with "inhospitable brick walls" to keep out their poverty-stricken neighbors, Americans were told to combine their front yards as a sign of New World egalitarianism. Perhaps because talk radio hadn't been invented yet, this strangely communistic idea took off, and Americans have been mingling their outdoor carpet-gardens ever since.
If Lenin were alive, he'd totally be out mowing that shit.
But to be fair, "not being like the British" isn't the only reason a person might want to possess a huge fucking lawn. The stuff is great for American activities like backyard football and barbecues, and, apparently, the smell of a freshly mowed lawn makes people feel relaxed and happy. Maybe that contributes to the ...
You can be stuck in the middle of the ocean with an American, floating in shark-infested waters on a raft made entirely of lashed-together seals, and also you're gutshot and the Russians are dropping bombs on you. And I guarantee you that in this situation, when you're there trying to stutter out some dignified last words and prepare yourself for the end, your American companion will cheerily blurt out something like: "Oh, don't worry. Everything will turn out fine!"
"I can talk to the sharks and work things out. I know a guy."
Americans probably don't realize how crazy optimistic they are until they're forced to hang around gloomy foreigners, who are clearly all just miserable because because they don't realize how awesome it is to be born into the greatest, most wonderful nation on Earth. While Americans' optimism about the country's future is declining, people in this country remain incredibly optimistic on a personal level. Sure, the environment and the economy are going down the drain, but everyone somehow figures they'll be OK, regardless.
Why Is It Like That?
The attitude reflects the continuing reign of New Thought, a religious movement that started in America in the 19th century and is still madly influential today. New Thought emphasizes positive thinking and self-empowerment: it is your thoughts and attitudes, not luck or external circumstances, that make you healthy and rich. It's still popping up today in things like the "Prosperity Gospel" strain of American Christianity, which teaches believers that God will make them happy and rich if they really, really want him to.
"I want you all to get huge mortgages. Go crazy with those things."
New Thought has its benefits: people who believe they're in control of their life, rather than at the mercy of outside elements, do tend to be more well-adjusted. But it can also lead to dumb shit, like blaming people for their own misfortunes (which, after all, are in their control). It's nice to be around positive people, but it isn't so nice to be told that you were bitten by that shark because you attracted it with your negative self-talk.
When I went to university in Australia, the most popular sport-related activity on campus was the circus club. I never actually saw anyone on campus playing sports, but there were plenty of people who juggled and did weird flips everywhere. If someone at the university had tried to organize, say, a soccer game, I would probably have assumed they were just really bad at juggling.
How do you keep dropping it? There's only one ball!
And that's the norm for most of the world: if sports are around in college, nobody pays that much attention to them, and you're usually expected to pay for them yourself. The idea of getting into a good college for free just because you're really good at lacrosse or basketball is like being invited to join Mensa because you have really dreamy eyes.
Obviously, things are different in America. The college-football Rose Bowl game was the fifth most valuable sporting brand in the country in 2007, worth more at the time than the Kentucky Derby and the NBA finals. College basketball is also ridiculously huge. Americans just love watching awkward adolescents doing sports with each other, even though very few of these players go on to have professional careers, and even fans admit that college athletes just aren't as good as professional ones.
Why Is It Like That?
Mostly, it's because of geography. America is just so damn big that wide swathes of the country have traditionally been left without enough professional sports teams, particularly in the Southern states. In fact, 24 U.S. states have no major sports teams at all.
"How else am I supposed to fill the empty void where my soul should be? Heroin?"
College sports grew up to fill this geographical gap. Compared to the 30 teams in the NBA, for example, there are hundreds of college basketball teams to choose from, and that really helps when you don't want to drive 300 miles just to sit in a stadium surrounded by people with next-state-over accents.
And while they're at those college games, Americans can eat some deep-fried chocolate-covered pork rinds, to celebrate their ...
Pride in Ridiculously Unhealthy Food
Before I start this entry, I want to say that I don't judge anyone for not eating healthy food. If I could get away with it, I'd stuff french fries into my face three meals a day and wash them down with those little shots of mayonnaise they give you at Five Guys. And the mustard too. I also don't want to pretend like Australia (or any other country) is full of people who eat nothing but braised kale. But America is the only place where you will regularly see things like this:
Shown actual size, probably.
Yes, other countries have unhealthy food. Foreigners might eat deep-fried Mars bars as a novelty, or overstuff themselves in breakfast-eating contests. But those populations don't unashamedly, publicly glorify this stuff in their everyday eating lives. Instead, they behave like normal people and eat their whole-sticks-of-butter-dipped-in-Nutella at home. Alone. While crying.
Americans, on the other hand, waltz into public spaces and order Meat Mountains or Krispy Kreme cheeseburgers in front of every damn person there, without so much as an embarrassed glance around them or some nervous vomiting. It's disgusting. It's irresponsible. It's glorious.
Why Is It Like That?
I think it's partly about good old American freedom. The more health-food activists and Michael Bloomberg fight against America's 20,000-calorie meals and instruct everyone to eat lettuce-wrapped carrot sticks instead of pizza crusts made out of cheeseburgers, the more Americans do the opposite, just out of spite.
"Restrict soda sizes? That's it, now I'm going to go eat a whole cat. Just a whole fucking cat."
Take the Nevada burger restaurant called the Heart Attack Grill. The owner is constantly running gimmicks to convince you that you shouldn't eat his restaurant's unhealthy meals, serving up dishes like the "Triple Bypass Burger" and offering free meals to anyone over 350 pounds. I'm sure you could write a book about the psychology of running a business while also claiming your food will kill your customers, but one thing's for sure: his customers love it. Two unofficial spokesmen for the restaurant have already dropped dead, one of them at age 29, and at least two patrons have collapsed at the restaurant while consuming fare like the Heart Attack Grill's 10,000-calorie burger. Because fuck you, guy who's advising me not to eat his food because it will kill me! You can't tell me what to do.
And maybe this is also a symptom of this country's boundless, wonderful, shark-denying optimism. Americans are so cheerful about their future in general, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch that many of them could think that a lifetime of consuming Double Downs won't be detrimental to their health, because meh, everything will magically work itself out just fine. They might be wrong, but you've gotta admire that attitude.
For more from C. Coville, check out 4 Modern Countries With Surprisingly Backward Technology and 5 Innocent Gestures That Make You Look Like a Dick Overseas.