Thursday, February 25, 2010

From California to the New York Island

Yesterday I answered questions in the weekly random dozen and one of those questions has stayed with me. It was this- ‘Are you more of a NY or California type?’ And I guess I should say that its really the answers to that question that have stayed with me. Its funny that most people who played along instantly thought California=sunny beaches, laid back people and warm weather all the time and New York=busy crowded streets and loud aggressive types.

I’ve never lived in California but its true the first thing that popped into my head was sunny beaches. I have lived on the East Coast and currently am just a hop skip and a traffic jam away from New York City but the question didn’t even say NY City…just NY. Pretty much everyone read it and immediately thought city.

I think one of the lessons living in an international community has taught me is not to make assumptions about people based on stereotype. I’m not at all criticizing anyone from yesterday. I get it...for the most part people were thinking of the weather and based their answers on that or the idea that Californians are laid back and New Yorkers aren’t. I will just point out though that Northern California is known for some pretty good skiing and the Hamptons are not too shabby if we’re talking beaches. And I’m pretty sure that Silicon Valley houses more than a few driven types and Warwick NY is sleepy town USA.

The question made me pause yesterday. I thought about it before I answered and I'm not so sure I would have a few years ago. As Americans living in England we were sometimes on the receiving end of a few stereotypes. I attended a field trip with my daughter's 8th grade class shortly after arriving in the UK and a speaker from a middle eastern country informed the students he wouldn’t want to live in America because it’s not safe to go out after dark. You might be shot-everyone owns a gun right? The kids were bewildered. They laughed. This was not the America they knew unless you count paintball and water cannons. My husband took part in some team building ‘events’ during a work conference with people from all around Europe and his team insisted he take the golf shot because 'he’s American and don’t we play a lot of golf'?

And no one has a passport?

And everyone is really loud?

And they all dislike George Bush?

And they don’t know anything about politics outside of their own country?

Those are a few that come to mind. Of course we weren’t innocent either. We had the notion like most people I think that the Brits are all reserved and not terribly friendly and the food would be not so great and the weather would be dismal. Oh wait. That bit about the weather was mostly true. And I guess in most stereotypes there is a kernel of truth, which is how they got to be stereotypes in the first place.

I find myself giving more thought to my interactions with people these days, taking in what I know of their background, pronouncing observations less broadly. We were often called upon to ‘defend’ Americanisms…to point out that yes, some Americans are loud, especially tourists on the tube in London which could sometimes make me cringe and want to fake a British accent, but not all Americans are loud. Some are gentle and soft spoken. And plenty have passports we’d say, as we pointed out that a flight from NY to California requires no passport yet takes several hours and does indeed cross a few time zones. And obviously not everyone dislikes George Bush because he was elected President of the United States. Twice. And as for politics…well, America is a great big country and I think we can agree that just keeping up with our own political nonsense is a full time job these days. In fact lately Americans seem to be tuning in more closely than ever before.

We had to face our pre-conceived ideas about the British too. The day after we moved into our house in the UK my British next door neighbor arrived at the front door with a cake. It was wonderful as were most things we ate over there. Ask me about English cream, sausage and mash, sticky toffee pudding and scones with clotted cream and jam. My across the street neighbor took me shopping in Windsor my first week in the village…just a fun day out to show me the route and the best places to go. Are the British more reserved than Americans? In general yes. Are they unfriendly? No. Some are, some aren’t. Just like Americans. And the Dutch. And South Africans. And so on. I remember quite clearly a misunderstanding I had with a German friend. She became quite angry and later apologized. She explained with some embarrassment that it was her English (or lack thereof) that was at the heart of the matter. She interpreted something in a way it wasn’t intended yet she hadn’t wanted to tell me she really didn’t understand what I was saying. She worried so about her English. She didn’t want me judging her. And the whole time we were talking all I was thinking is wow, I wish I spoke three languages like she does.

The world is huge. That sounds so simple and in essence it is. We don’t all approach life or hardship or celebration or work or leisure in the same way. Even within America there are ‘cultures’ and when I read the question yesterday I found myself thinking about what I know about California and New York. About people I’ve met who call those places home. About how California and New York are different in geography, cuisine, fashion and climate yet people are people. Maybe there is a California type and a New York type and also everything in between. Yet for every person who ‘fits the type’ there is another who breaks the mold.

'Some people weave burlap into the fabric of our lives, and some weave gold thread. Both contribute to make the whole picture beautiful and unique." Anonymous


  1. I love your quote at the end of your post! It is interesting at how we stereotype people. I have so enjoyed getting to know different folks in blogland from all over the US. Enjoy your snow. Love & blessings from NC!

  2. Great post. I agree with everything you've said. I remember all of the stereotypes I heard about the French before we traveled to Paris and the French Riviera last year. On the contrary, we found everyone to be so helpful and friendly and nobody appeared to hate Americans.

  3. What a beautiful thought! And so eloquently expressed. Thank you.

  4. Great thoughts. Being a Californian I can attest that it isn't all sunny and beaches, and it isn't all traffic and smog. There are lots a inbetween, but they aren't as amusing as those pervious stereotypes. We as humans hang our hats on stereotypes because they are easy. Thanks for making us think!!

    Great post

  5. I totally agree with this post. I've done my fair share of breaking and understanding cultural stereotypes since getting here. It's been interesting some days and heartbreaking others. I never thought I'd get upset about some of the things people would think about me before getting to know me just because i'm American. But they do, and I did, and we're better friends for it now.

  6. Excellent post, Joyce. You know I was just messin' with ya about your "lengthy" answer on that particular question because you are always joking about how you over think things. I was just playing along with you.

    I think if I were to answer that question yesterday, I would have said that I am a little NY and a little California depending on the day, the circumstance, my mood, etc. And if I didn't think about my answer at all, I would have just said NY because I'm partial to that area. What can I say, I love that city.

    Thinking about it on a deeper level, you have made some excellent points and I think it's wise to really be careful about stereotyping. It's just too easy not to. And this international move has definitely impacted that whole topic.

  7. It is great to be reminded to abandon judgments and just get to know people for who they are and not who we think they are!

    Blessings, andrea

  8. Very well said! When I answered I wasn't even thinking of the people but of the I would love to visit both places. I am sure they both have their beautiful spots!
    until next time... nel

  9. Very thought-provoking post, Joyce, and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and enlightening us, or at least me, a bit more about other countries and cultures.
    I live in SE Ohio and many people assume that most of us are hicks, hillbillies and illiterates, which is so far from reality. Though, on the rare occasion that I have listened to a local radio station on Saturday morning, I have to be honest and say that I wonder myself! Oh my! :-)

  10. That's a really deep post! Isn't it funny how a lot of us (myself included) zeroed in on the beaches and NYC instead of thinking about the whole state? That would be like saying everyone in the south takes their babies to WalMart in just their diaper! ;)

  11. I remember cringing this past weekend in Jamaica over one of those loud cultured Americans who was leaving a less than great impression about our country. And then I realized that it was up to me to provide the counterbalance to that.

    Great post.