In my post, How Fresh is Fresh? I wrote about my first trip overseas to Italy. What an eye opener that was. But as I reflect on the different cultures I’ve experienced, I realize my first true culture shock happened in the USA, when I arrived in Seattle in the fall of 1969.
Seattle was not as I had expected.
I spent my first 18 years growing up in the heart of the City, New York, not even Brooklyn, nor the many towns of Queens, let alone the Bronx, but New York (Manhattan, for the uninitiated). Being in the heart of it all, makes one think they know it all and have seen it all. I certainly wouldn’t be the first New Yorker accused of a little hubris, especially coming from the heart of the heart, Greenwich Village. New York is nothing if not multi-cultural, and Greenwich Village was its soul.
In those days, Greenwich Village was the inexpensive refuge for people of all creeds, regions, colors, races, sexual preference and artists. The place for “different” people, my parents settled there because there were few places an inter-racial couple could live peacefully at that time, even in Greater New York and the rent in the West Village for our two-bedroom apartment was only $50 per month. Even communists were welcome, as Alger Hiss rented the top floor apartment in our little four story, four apartment building, when he got out of jail. A very nice man by the way. Our upstairs neighbors were two men, they would be called a couple now-a-days, but in the Greenwich Village of the ‘50’s, labels were neither needed or desired. They were simply two nice mean and neighbors for me. I learned to take people at face value, as I wanted to be taken. My brother and I just knew them as them as the good men who would make pancakes for us occasionally; like uncles, in fact better than my true uncles who I never met until I was 50 years old!
Fast forward to 1969, I found myself in Seattle, having decided pretty much on my own that I was going to the University of Washington (UW). (Which is a tale for another time of independent kids who involve their parents only on the periphery). Once I was accepted to the UW in the spring of ’69, I looked up all the information I could find about Seattle.
I knew its population was about 500,000. New York’s was 8 million, but Manhattan was only 2 million, therefore I figured Seattle is roughly a quarter the size of New York. From that factual conclusion, I made some interesting assumptions.
I figured life in Seattle would be like living in New York, if I never went north of 57th street or left the City (any place out of Manhattan). Therefore, I’d be giving up my occasional trips to the Bronx Zoo, Coney Island and going to Mets’ games. But then I figured one has to make some sacrifices to be able to attend a university.
My one quarter the size assumption, implied the quantity of everything I was used to: shops, movie theaters, buses, stores, delicatessens, etc., would be reduced to 25%. So, instead of having a choice of 20 delicatessens, I’d have a choice of 5. No problem I thought, nor did I think quality would be reduced to levels last seen on the Oregon trail in a Conestoga wagon.
Now, the UW knew the out of state kids would have some adjusting to do, so they had come a week earlier. Thus, I bonded with the other out of state kids in the dormitory and one in particular who was from Long Island. He wasn’t even from the City, yet even he could tell something was amiss here.
Bad food, bad coffee, bad everything; not even one delicatessen and the buses stop running at 11 p.m. The bagels that were sold in Safeway appeared to have been made months earlier by people who had never eaten a bagel but had once seen a picture of one (meaning it was round).
Who knew people lived like this? This chubby high school kid lost 20 pounds in 6 weeks.
In the early days, still thinking that civilization would return as I knew it, I’d ask for those things common to New York. In the summer everyone drinks ice coffee. But not in Seattle in 1969, when I asked for an iced coffee, the waitress had no idea what I was talking about. Somehow, the culture of strong coffee mixed with ice in the summer time never made it past Chicago (If it even got that far).
Another time, when asked how I liked my coffee, I replied, with that New York classic, “regular”, meaning with milk and sugar. They gave it to me black, well not really black, as I could see the spoon at the bottom of the cup. The coffee was an undrinkable, light brown concoction, of hot water and coffee flavor.
I survived, but it was my first eye opener, that when one leaves home (however large or small that “home” may be), one has to leave assumptions behind. Nothing was basic, even the telephone operator for my monthly collect call home, usually misunderstood my telephone prefix “Oregon” for “Argon”.
While I consider myself a life-long learner, I never said I was a fast learner. But as life went on, I learned to dump more and more assumptions so that I’d arrive at my new home naked with eyes open. From there one can make the case that there are no true assumptions. Assumptions by definition are conclusions based on spotty data. Good luck with that.
In the next two decades, I found myself in many varied places: Alaska, Colorado, Southern California, Italy and Germany, even the Arctic Ice Cap for half a year. Assumptions melted like a popsicle on a hot summer day. One of the aspects of European life that I like so much is the absence of urban sprawl. In some places more than others, particularity so in Germany.
I ended up living in Germany twice, in small German towns, around 2,000 inhabitants. One day while trying to follow a conversation with my neighbor’s daughter and her boyfriend, who was from the next town up the road about 5 km away, I realized he was speaking in a dialect that was even different than the Rhineland Pfalz dialect I was accustomed to and could reasonably decipher. I asked why his speech was so different. Then I learned that was because his town, which I drove thru twice a day, was a “Catholic town”, as opposed to the Lutheran town I was living in.
And because of this difference, there was much less interaction with this neighboring town, than with other towns.
Well, seemingly everyone but me. To this day, I have no idea if this pattern of towns based on region was a regional thing, a local thing, a national thing, or anything at all, (certainly local people have their own biases, which you must be aware of), but I do know never to make any assumptions about anything.
During that same stint, I met a German meteorologist, who was from Northern Germany, but was now teaching meteorology to pilots in Bavaria (southeastern Germany). We met for work, became friends and I visited him often. He told me that when he moved from the north some years earlier, no one would sell him a house simply because he was not local. He began making weather forecasts for the local farmers and after a few years they did accept him enough so that he was able to buy a house.
My take-away from this, just like the different town thing, was that the label “German”, as most labels, is not helpful in understanding personal interactions that take place on an everyday basis on a small scale.
I thought an of interesting way to look at these differences in macro and micro cultures using numbers.
Think of a number line from zero to 10, we’ll call it the Homogenous population. If we have a population of 1000 evenly spaced between zero and 10, every number is 0.01 or 1/100th apart in absolute numbers. Now, take a different population of numbers, this time from zero to 10,000, which we’ll call the Heterogenous population. Divide by 1,000 again, and every number is now 10 units apart in absolute numbers. Therefore, to the Heterogenous population, the Homogenous population seems much closer in value in absolute terms, and the Small population looks at the big population and sees far more diversity, since the range is not zero to 10, but zero to 10,000.
But looking at both populations from within, on a relative scale, Homogenous sees a difference of 0.01/10 =0.001; while Heterogenous sees the same result, 10/10,000=0.001. Therefore, even in populations that seem homogeneous to an outsider, to those inside the population the perceived differences are just as great as in a population that is viewed as heterogeneous.
My point is that perceived differences are in the eye of the beholder and that the differences one sees are as great to the Homogenous group as to the Heterogeneous group.
We cannot make the false assumption that populations that seem homogeneous to us, like Germans or Koreans or Italians or Chinese or Vietnamese or anyone for that matter, are in fact, homogenous, because for them, inside that population, they see diversity that we are not trained to see.
Or let’s put it even another way.
I believe that Queens County is the most diverse county in the USA based on the number of different languages spoken at home based on the last census.
So, if I am having a coffee in Queens, let’s say the neighborhood of Astoria, it’s likely that at a nearby table there sits: a Bengali, a Greek, an African-American and a Korean. While they may all speak different languages at home, may be both female and male and of different religions, creeds and colors, they will all know what a “Regular” coffee is.