Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Power of Perspective

Bill Bryson uses his distinct blend of insider-outsider perspective to extend cultural truths, both critical and praiseful, in a way that is entertaining and curiously non-offensive to this American reader.  Freedom of speech is something we hold dearly in America, and as we’ve seen time and time again in this course, humor makes truths go down more easily. Bryson’s wit and American citizenship give him license to criticize us all he wants. But if he’d been born in England instead of simply resided there for a few decades, I’d be more inclined to read his commentary on the defensive. Instead of laughter, my reaction would be more along the lines of, “If you don’t like it here, then go back to your island!”

My summers spent working in a British fish and chips restaurant called Go Fish! in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, exposed me to foreigners’ surprising observations about American culture, some of which were easier to stomach than others. Rehoboth Beach—nicknamed “the nation’s summer capital” for the vacationing D.C.-ites it attracts—welcomes scores of young men and women from Eastern European countries like Russia, Serbia, and Bulgaria every summer to fuel the local economy’s high demand for seasonal labor.  My workplace was no exception: both summers, I made up one-half of its staff claiming U.S. citizenship.  Tired observations confirming American stereotypes abounded, like remarks about the sheer size of many American patrons of our fried fish and chips restaurant. (Deep-fried cheesecake is on the menu.) Even though there was no denying the truth in this observation, I felt a patriotic drive to say something in our defense—I’m pretty sure my retort was something as impressive as “well, we aren’t all fat!” But when Bill Bryson says it, I laugh because it’s true.

The more memorable observations by my Bulgarian and Russian friends were the ones pinpointing cultural trends had escaped my notice, like the fact that Americans thank one another constantly.  In the restaurant business, servers thank customers for gestures as simple as handing back menus and stacking plates, and customers often thank servers just as liberally every time they dutifully refill drinks and query about meal satisfaction.  Once I began counting the appearances of this polite formality in everyday exchange, the numbers were staggering—enough to qualify it as a conversational tic.  The other striking observation was about our society’s wealth of “hot moms.”  I chose to take this one as a compliment, because I’m fairly sure that’s how Miroslav meant it.  

Displacement from America during my semester abroad in Newcastle, England gave me the opportunities to pick up on cultural contrasts myself.  I never realized the extent of the glaring impatience of Americans and, by extension, me.  The standard quality of restaurant service in England is glaringly different from ours, as Bryson acknowledges. His article about the remarkable inefficiency of the furniture ordering and delivery process in London speaks most directly to my initial reaction to British restaurant service: it seemed like they were trying deliberately to take their time about things. Fortunately, I had made an English friend at the restaurant the summer before my journey abroad who explained that Brits are quite content to wait around for their check long after they’ve finished their meal.  (Her tips in the American restaurant suffered at first as she adjusted to the difference.) British people are also more patient about waiting in lines—their cultural attitude of benign acceptance toward ‘queuing’ stands in contrast to our more visibly harried demeanor.  But my genuine admiration for their capacity for waiting is blighted by my annoyance with the relative inconvenience it causes me, an American not used to waiting, on their turf. Unlike Bryson, I am American through and through—I will never have his license for critical cross-cultural commentary unless I obtain dual citizenship. Negative observations about English culture sound like enlightened self-deprecation coming from him; from me, they will always sound unpleasantly self-righteous. 

Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty is filled with incredibly specific impressions and stories about individuals she has encountered. This focus is certainly distinct from Bryson’s, whose column demands more collective social observations. Cultural generalizations may serve to illumine truth, but if relied on too heavily, they threaten to blight attention to the beautiful intricacies of individuals.  Kalman appreciates people for their idiosyncracies—their jaunty hats, strange habits like collecting air from different places in jars, strange talents like the ability to balance a hanger on the top of the head, and interesting names like Fountile or Rudolph. The title of the work reinforces my interpretation of its content: in this strange world of ours, no collective truths are absolutely certain. Broad cultural observations are themselves products of subjective personal perspectives. My range of reactions to the observations of America leveled by Bryson and my Serbian friend confirmed that evaluating the truth in broad cultural generalities involves a more isolated evaluation of the individual perspective. 

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