Religiousness

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My mother didn’t give me a lot of useful advice.  That is, she gave me plenty of advice—but it wasn’t necessarily useful.  She told me not to put bananas in the refrigerator (which was good to know), but also that white shoes and straw hats must not be worn after Labor Day, and furthermore that one’s shoes must always be darker than one’s hemline.  I have no quarrel with the white shoes/hemline things because I never wear white; but Mom also informed me that a lady never wears diamonds before 4 pm, or a wristwatch after, which means that a lady who is lucky enough to have scored a diamond-studded Rolex can never wear it.  My mother wasn’t young when I was born—she was the age of most of my friends’ grandmothers—and I think some of her dicta may have been a wee bit out of date.  Anyway, I’m a woman, not a lady, and stand on my right to do as I please with regard to diamonds.

I am, however, in perfect agreement with her about one thing:  Religion and politics are not good topics for social conversation.

This conviction makes it just a little bit awkward for me that the third and final question that my English-language students almost invariably ask me is, “Why are Americans so religious?”

I say “almost,” because in fact, the Asian students I’ve interacted with never ask this.  What they know of American culture is what’s penetrated the filter of their own home-culture; and American religion mostly doesn’t penetrate the filter.  They see American-style Christianity all around them, and don’t recognize it.  An Asian student who had been in America for four years was amazed to discover that the figures in the Christmas crèche represented The Holy Family, rather than just “a family.”  It’s the European students who are curious about American religion.

The reasons Americans appear to be more religious than Europeans (I don’t quite concede that they actually are more religious, but they may seem that way) are many and varied, and since I love history and particularly the history of my own country, I think I could probably expatiate on them for several hours.

But I don’t.

For one thing, these are students of biochemistry, not history, and a lecture like that would bore them to death.  For another, to talk about religion at all would be as unsuitable as to wear that lovely fancy diamond-studded Rolex watch that I don’t own either before or, regrettably, even after four in the afternoon.

But it would be rude not to answer them at all, so I just look ‘em in the eye and I say, “Americans are religious because our country was founded by the people YOU drove out of your country for being too religious.

“Now, let’s get back to the proper use of the passive voice, shall we?”

I Must Show out a Flag and Sign of Love

flg_medOnce the international students that I tutor are satisfied that they understand why Americans eat so much meat (because we can!), they start asking me harder questions. And by harder, I mean things that are even trickier to answer than whether the entire English language contains even one verb that isn’t, in some way, irregular (answer: “ah—define irregular”). These are bright, educated, and very thoughtful young people, and their questions are deeply reasoned, and felt. They’re also quite varied (only the one about meat is of near-universal interest), but there are two others besides the one about meat that come up repeatedly.

One is why Americans are so enthusiastically, openly, obviously, and even (let’s face it) sometimes almost comically patriotic (“U-S-A!  U-S-A!”), and at the same time, so hypercritical of their country?

The first fifty times I was asked this, I really had no answer to give. I wasn’t even willing to concede that the inferences of the question were true. World-wide, I’d usually counter, most people love their native land. They love it the same way they love their mother; which is to say, a lot, and despite all her faults and failings, to which they are not blind. It’s just natural. Americans aren’t unique in this regard.

But I travel quite a bit (mostly in Europe), and I’ve even lived abroad; and after a while I came to the conclusion that the students had a point. (This is why I love it when the students ask me questions. I learn so much that way!) Go to a window in almost any European country and look out, and count the national flags that you see. Unless your room overlooks a souvenir shop, or it happens to be a national holiday, you won’t see many. But in the US, nearly every public building and many private homes fly the American flag every day. Cars sport window-flags, and patriotic bumper-stickers; houses are furnished with star-spangled throw-pillows and the birds in the garden are offered wooden replicas of the Statue of Liberty to nest in (I desperately want one of those; either that, or an Uncle Sam whirligig). I lived for years in a city where the local symphony orchestra—no matter what else was on the program—began every performance with a rendition of the national anthem.

It’s not that I haven’t seen comparable patriotic displays in other countries. I have. But not so many.

The conclusion that I’ve come to about all this is very much like the one I arrived at regarding the American passion for Meat. Our patriotism isn’t genetic, exactly. But it has been passed down through the generations.

The international students who are amazed by our flag-worship are the offspring of generations of people who, overall, had pretty good lives in their native countries. People who have it good someplace stay there. Nobody forsakes everything and goes off to live in a foreign country to do menial work and struggle with the irregular verbs of a new language on a whim.

Americans are the children of people who didn’t have it so good in the Old Country. People for whom America represented a chance—possibly the only chance—for a significant improvement in their quality of life. Consequently they were predisposed to like America before they had even arrived; and if they did prosper, and stayed and raised families here (thirty to fifty percent—depending on which source you read—of those who arrived on the immigrant ships went back home again), they taught their children that America was a great place, entirely worthy of incessant flag-waving, laudatory speeches and “Proud to Be an American” bumper-stickers which, unless you’re a naturalized citizen, make no sense whatever. (Your parents may be proud of their foresight in choosing to give birth to you in American; but, as a fetus, you yourself had little or no say in the decision.)

I don’t need to say any more than this to them before the international students tell me they suddenly understand why Americans are both hyper-patriotic and yet also very critical of their country. No country, they speculate, could possibly continue for subsequent generations to live up to the rosy picture of it painted for them by their parents and grandparents, who had exchanged a bleak existence for one full of promise.

Either that, or it’s something in American water. I lived abroad for two years. I loved every moment of it, and my existence throughout was anything but bleak. Yet I couldn’t wait to get back, fly the flag, eat a hot dog, and I always get a lump in my throat when a band plays the national anthem.

Where’s the Beef?

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I don’t know what they’re teaching young people in other countries about American culture, but whatever it is, I think it must be wrong. The international students that I tutor all appear to be suffering from a high degree of culture-shock. As soon as I’ve worked with them just long enough that they’ve begun to feel comfortable with me (which, coincidentally, is just about the time that I introduce them to the indicative perfect, “have begun”) they announce that America is not at all what they expected it to be, and the questions start pouring out.

These questions, like the students’ difficulties with English verbs, are specific to their particular home cultures. Students from more authoritarian countries want to know why Americans are so lawless; the ones from the Netherlands ask me why Americans are so excessively law-abiding. Honestly, that one makes me wonder how the Netherlands even continues to exist. A lot of them are stunned to find out—often the hard way—that things like the “No Parking” signs around campus are meant to be taken seriously. I’m asked the same things over and over again, year after year, except that in the past decade the sheepish inquiries about how Americans signal sexual attraction have really tapered off. I guess I must look too old now to be a good source of information on that topic.

There are three things about Americans that all of the students, from every culture, want to know—and one thing that only one student has ever wanted to know, which was if I was afraid of Mormons. Yes, Mormons; and yes, afraid. Never did figure out where that came from.

Anyway—as I mentioned, there are three characteristics of American culture that preoccupy all my tutees, and the first one is:

Why do Americans eat so much meat?

So far I’ve been asked this question 4,652 times, and never once, as far as I can tell, in a disapproving manner. In fact, the point is most apt to be raised at one of the semi-annual lab barbeques my husband and I host at our house, where the foreign students watch, awestricken and envious, as the Americans heap their plates with beef, pork, and chicken, and afterwards never have to wonder whether they made the right choice among the meats.

“How do they do it?” the international students ask, and the correct answer to this question (which I supply) is that it’s genetic. America was settled by people who loved meat, and we are their descendants. If you have ever read—as I have—the letters early immigrants wrote back to their various Old Countries, you will have noticed—as I have—that aside from a little family news, they’re simply catalogues of Meat the Said Immigrants Have Eaten; Meat They Are Currently Chewing; and Meat They Happily Anticipate Eating Very Soon. It’s like a sick obsession. Meat was apparently available in American in a way that it just wasn’t elsewhere; and meat-lovers couldn’t stop talking about how good—in regard to meat, at least—they had it here.

And then those letters motivated other meat-lovers to immigrate to America too; and pretty soon the whole continent was filled up with humanity’s most avid carnivores.

(I also tell the students that quite a lot of the meat the immigrants bragged about eating was game that they’d shot themselves, which probably goes a long way toward explaining why Americans are gun-crazy, too.)

The next time I write a novel about early America, I’m going to put a lot more hunting and meat-eating into it to provide that nice little touch of historical veracity that divides the ordinary historical work from the one an editor is going to demand big changes to. Editors are not interested in history; they are interested in sales. I wrote a novel once about the 1830s wife of a Congregationalist minister, and an editor informed me that the book was basically great, but would be much more commercial if she wasn’t religious. I’m not bitter or anything, but this is why I self-publish.

After we’ve dealt with the meat issue, the students and I then move on to the two other burning questions they all have about America; but I’ll leave those for another time.  The only thing I’ll say for now is that, happily, questions two and three have nothing to do with food.