It has been several years since my arrival in the United States from Slovakia. Despite leaving my beloved at home, I have assimilated pretty quickly and without any emotional problems. After all, I didn’t have a reason for not being satisfied with the conditions awaiting me. I was eager to get to know the Americans, or at least take a peek inside their world.
Back in Europe, the media sends people messages about Americans, though not all of them are true. For example, America is often depicted as a fat nation. There’s even that gossip that there is a very small number of pretty girls in America. So, before packing my suitcase I had lost several pounds to catch someone’s eye and to become some kind of rarity among the American girls.
Well, how surprised was I when I discovered thin, pretty girls and tanned bodies in tight jeans? It suddenly reversed the image I had about those girls and women. Certainly the fact that Americans have quite a number of overweight people cannot be denied, and obesity is clearly a special concern, particularly among the youngest. Still, there are overweight people all around the world. So, why point a finger at Americans?
Watching American TV shows about losing weight, exercising and low fat diets, however, makes you think that being overweight is a very common problem in America. Yet I wouldn’t join those who claim that one of the significant features of Americans is obesity.
The other gossip running around says that studying in America is not a big deal. The school system is, in fact, one of the easiest, and it all results in the conclusion that American students are lacking in intelligence. Some European students even believe that college graduates from America have less knowledge than those from other countries, and would have troubles succeeding in competition with European students. Also, from the Slovak perspective, the most important factor in education is money. Americans pay for their educations, so it is assumed that every student will surely be granted a degree, whereas students in countries with free education must work very hard to pass.
Now that I have lived in America for a while, and experienced both the American and Canadian school systems, I have an opportunity to support or refute these stereotypes.
My attitude has been clear and now even more evident since I have decided to complete my degree here. I agree that money means freedom, even in the school system, but I don’t believe that money can buy teachers, answers to exam questions or make a difference in evaluating students.
After the communist regime was over, Slovak television deluged the audience with commercials, TV shows and sitcoms from the western countries. We saw the American life as one single image – cars, parties, money and freedom. It served as propaganda. We used it to assure ourselves about carefree life on the American continent.
I am not afraid to say that some gossip about American people is just a matter of jealousy and grudge.
The East and West differ in so many things that before visiting America, Slovak travelers turn to travel agencies for advice on American life and customs. The agencies inform people about distinctions in using proper words, rules applied in restaurants and stores, and other social norms. Some of these teachings cover the most basic aspects of life. For example, one agency teaches that American store customers don’t have to leave a shopping cart in the store, but are allowed to take their groceries in the shopping cart outside the store and leave the cart there. They also tell us that there are assistants at the cashiers helping people load their groceries. By learning these things, it is assumed that immigrants can avoid misunderstandings in communication with Americans. We are also taught how to properly communicate in conversational English. For example, we are taught that “chips” don’t stand for “french fries”, or that “cola” is not going to be understood as “coke.”
From my experience, however, I have to say that Americans understand everything just fine. They don’t need a specifically American phrase to serve their customers.
Here in America I live around nice people, I feel comfortable talking to them, whether it’s in a store, on the street or in church. I do admit, though, that the magic pronoun “you” makes interaction much easier. In the Slovak language – and indeed in many European languages – when you talk to an older person and you use “you”, it is not the same “you” as you use while talking to a teenager, your friend or any child. Here in America, there is only one “you” and all people are addressed in the same manner.
At first I was shocked by the American way of greeting people and introducing themselves. They are not afraid to show their feelings and interests. Americans greet people without knowing each other. When they feel comfortable and sympathetic they just express themselves. In Slovakia, strangers usually don’t come forward to people they’ve never seen. The Slovaks don’t trust as much as the Americans do. They always suspect something bad.
From my perspective, Americans exaggerate a lot. But still, I like their sense of unity and togetherness, and I believe the precautions they take are in the right place. What makes me speak of exaggeration is how they celebrate birthdays, weddings, etc., which are bit over the edge. It’s all too grand.
On the other hand, they don’t pay attention to useless issues as the Slovaks do. For example, how others dress up. The first time I really participated in an American Sunday mass, by listening and understanding I realized I paid no attention to people as I used to back in Slovakia. People here in America aren’t so concerned about dressing up and looking good in places like church. I like it a lot.
I never feel humiliated because of my language handicap or my country of origin. After all, America is the country with no limits. It’s well known for the mix of cultures and races and it all gives people the message that whoever wants to admire and love America has a right to do so.