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2012.04.24

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Nate @ House of Annie

America isn't so bad, except for the politicos.

Glad you got to see the best of the country. Too bad no Northern California this time 'round.

FN

You are right about the US being too big and too varied to be generalized. This is what I tell everyone I meet outside the US, who tend to have a narrow view of the US after having been to one city there.

Thyme (Sarah)

What a wonderful read this very early morning as I'm getting ready to launch out into Houston's rush hour traffic. After spending some time in Asia, we learned to appreciate so much about our incredible lifestyle here in the U.S. I understand your sentiments. I'm sure you got a kick out of the pre-election saga of events! Hope your trip back was a good one.

Wendy Chan

Glad you enjoyed your trip back to America. See you again next time, or in Malaysia this summer.

Kristina

Lovely. If/when you come back to LA, I hope you have more time. I'd love to get together, especially if we haven't met in Penang by then!

Preeta

You managed to hit upon the exact things that make America loveable and liveable, especially in contrast with most of Asia :-) . Americans *are* pretty nice, polite, helpful to strangers, and generally open-minded about difference (even compared to Europeans). A place like New York really welcomes you whoever you are -- its arms are wide open for everybody. You seem to have spent time in the places I love most in America -- NYC, Michigan, and oh, New Mexico, where I first lived when I went to America, and for which my heart still aches something fierce, twenty years later. Oh, those big blue skies! Oh, the smell of those ponderosa pines! Oh, that unbelievable air! And New Mexican food is not too bad either :-) .

I agree completely with FN re: people who make terrible, unfavourable generalisations about America after having been to one tiny corner of it, or worse yet, never having been there at all. Everyone thinks they're an expert on America and Americans, but for every vile stereotype they trot out, well, sure, I can think of examples who match the stereotype, but I could also produce roomfuls of people who do not.

Anon

After all your time spent in the tropics yes San Francisco would be chilly!! It is rarely above 70 degrees here... Thanks for the beautiful post and tips!

Steve Jackson

"You're way better than many make you out to be. You're certainly too big, too varied, and too interesting to support generalizations"

Can't say I've spent much time in the US but I'm absolutely sure you're right - it's the same in most places - generalizations being the stock in trade of the travel writer.

I tend to quote this Paul Theroux line too much - being somewhere where travel writers pass through a lot: "Little bits of uncompleted life – what the traveller habitually sees – inspires pathos and poetry as well as the maddening sense of being an outsider. Jumping to conclusions and generalising. Inventing and recreating places from vagrant glimpses."

I have to say it really bugged me when you referred to Hanoians as "crusty" - another over generalization. I'm not sure stereotyping any group of people is healthy simply because of their geographic location.

Frankly I've never been anywhere where the majority of people have been any less than like able, welcoming and honest. Travel writing where people are broadly negative about the locals tends only to reflect badly on the writer.

Loved Preeta's comment above - I guess only stereotypes aimed at Americans are "vile" who compared to Asians (no generalization there) are apparently: "pretty nice, polite, helpful to strangers, and generally open-minded about difference (even compared to Europeans)"

Can't we just move on from all cliches, stereotypes and generalizations?

Sticky

You know what, as a fellow expat, I do get tired of all the systematic "American-bashing" that goes on amongst expat communities and travellers. I find it embarrassing and ill-informed.

I have more issues with my own countrymen and women - the Australians!

But that aside, I completely agree with you on the pleasure of experiencing your own customs when you go home - the small talk, the politeness, the queueing, driver courtesy etc

Nice post!
AGAIN!

Robyn

Hey Mark - I actually sympathize with some of the America bashers. I mean, we have done some pretty awful things abroad, and if you pay attention only to the nutjobs on the political right in our country we look like a pretty ignorant, insular, out-of-touch bunch. But I do think we stand for laudable things (even if we don't always play them out in our foreign policy). What especially hits home when I am back is that old line: "all men created equal". Most of really believe it, and behave that way. It's not so in this part of the world and it's something I do occasionally miss.
That and our NICENESS!

Nice to hear from you Steve. But -- you just generalized about travel writers! There is travel writing and there is travel writing and I am going to be completely unhumble and offer to proffer pdfs of my own published work that is utterly devoid of cliches and generalizations.

That said -- are we never allowed to say anything negative about anyone, or any people? There is the difference between the travel writer who drops into a city for 5 days for the first time in his or her life and from that experience draws cut-and-dried conclusions about the people there, and those who write from a very wide-ranging and long experience. And yes, I'm the latter. I've lived in enough places, traveled deeply in others, and have enough close relationships with locals around the region and elsewhere to discern differences in character among various populations. So hold onto your hat.

Chinese are louder and pushier than Thais. And yes, *in comparison to southern Vietnamese*, Hanoians are crusty. People in Chengdu are laid-back and more interested in the pleasures of life than in working: Shanghainese are all about money and tend to look down on people from other parts of China and pretty everyone else in the world too. Indonesian Muslims I've found to be way friendlier and open to interactions with westerners and non-Muslims than Malay Muslims. Istanbullus are warm and friendly (except for taxi drivers -- utter jerks) -- but cold and rude in comparison to Turks in the eastern provinces. Californians are more chilled out than Bostonians. Filipinos love to have a good time, and they really know how to eat.

Should I go on or am I making your skin crawl?

In the end it's pretty impossible to write a travel piece without commenting on the character of the locals. Qualifying every description with "generally", "some of", "most of", "about half the people you meet" and so forth makes for pretty dreary reading. Some writers play fast and loose with the generalizations and character commentary, some try to be more thoughtful. But I cannot write a feature about Hanoi or any other place without giving my reader a heads up as to what makes me feel the way I feel about it.
Maybe I met the ONLY 15 people in Hanoi who are crusty. But that was my experience of Hanoi (I have also written about the Hanoians I've met and enjoyed).

More likely our overall life views are different. I HAVE lived somewhere where the majority of people are very much less than likeable. I found (afterwards) all the stereotypes of those pple subscribed to those from elsewhere in the country to be true. So I'd be more likely to say there are nice people everywhere. Some places have fewer than others.

And I think it unhealthy to view any place -- your home country, your adopted home, whatever -- with rose-colored glasses. I love Penang and I have chosen to live here. I'm an American and darned it all, Americans are nice people. But there are screwed up things about Malaysia and Malaysians. And about America and Americans. It's possible to like a place -- to love a place even -- and still recognize, and voice, its shortcomings (and the shortcomings of its population).

I think we'll always disagree on this sort of thing Steve. But conversation is good. How boring it would be if we all agreed about everything. Thanks again for dropping by.

Steve Jackson

Not much there to disagree with (though not sure I understand what you mean by crusty - one of those phrases that means differing things in different parts of the world).

And Americans...I've found them personally frequently a more natural fit, conversation wise than many nations - but also probably more likely to bug me by talking loud and obnoxiously at the next table. The same can be said of Brits, particularly southern ones.

In Vietnam I'm aware that I spend 90% of every day with Vietnamese people. My wife is Vietnamese which makes half my family Vietnamese.

I also think that when tourists talk of national character they too often tend to mean customer service.

There are oddities I find about all nations and in the end, the difference between indifference and smiles is often just time. That smile comes in time in Hanoi or it comes when you've earned it. At Christmas my wife finds the British "that's just what I've always wanted" routine as fake as it obviously is. It seems increasingly odd to me too.

Then again I received flowers delivered to my house on a Saturday morning by my colleagues recently for my birthday - I can't imagine an office back in the UK doing that.

In the end the problem with generalisations is they over simplify. You've said this is the case for the US, I agree, but it's also the case for other countries too. It's not just about how people behave the way they do it's also about why.

I used to think it was very rude that people here didn't say thank you when you gave them a gift. The truth is that is just politeness too - just as it's impolite to open it straight away something that suggests that they are apathetic about the gift to foreigners.

Carolyn J Phillips

Beautiful writing and photos, as always. You two are invariably amazing! XOXO, /c

Albert

Great post, I definitely agree with you that Americans are alright. I wish I have the ability to put my feelings into words the way you can.

John Dory oyster bar was less than steller when I visited last summer however, the dishes we ordered were all too salty (I like salt), maybe it was an off night.

Preeta

Thanks, Robyn, for your response to Steve. You said much of what I wanted to say when reading his comment. Steve -- I am Malaysian, grew up in Malaysia, still have all my family there, return to the country twice a year for months at a time. I think I can say I know it extremely well. I lived in the US for 14 years and know some parts of it very well too; my husband and many of my closest friends are American. And for the past six years I've lived in Europe. As Robyn says, it is possible -- and not just possible, but necessary -- to recognise that a place, a people, a culture, has shortcomings. There will always be exceptions to the rules, but in general, Europeans *are* less accepting of difference than Americans. Since this is a food blog, I will offer an example involving food: it is unthinkable to French people that a person might choose to eat differently from the way they eat. It is unthinkable, even offensive, to them, that a person might choose to have hot savoury foods for breakfast, that a person might choose to eat rice with most meals ("But don't you get tired of it?" I am asked routinely, and when I ask them if they ever get tired of bread, they blink at me, because the question has never occurred to them), that a person might not eat meat. France has the largest Muslim and Jewish populations in Europe, and yet it is incredibly difficult to find a pork-free meal here.

I have seen locals in Malaysia hold their noses and put their bags on the seat next to them when an African gets on the bus; I have not seen this happen in America, for all America's (many) issues with race and race relations. I do think there is a clear difference between this way of approaching diversity and America's way, but if you don't see it, I suppose no one can make you see it.

As for Americans being polite compared to Asians: I see your point about different ideas of what constitutes politeness. But the thing is that Malaysians' refusal to queue up (to take an example Robyn brought up) is actually distressing to their fellow Asians. Asians themselves complain about how no one will queue up for bus tickets, how people will push past you to get on a bus first, how people will pretend to fall asleep when a pregnant woman gets on the bus. These things do make daily life more stressful for Asians, and that, in the end, is a universal definition of politeness: the willingness to inconvenience yourself slightly to make life easier for everyone. It's not just about when to say thank you or how to hold your chopsticks. When I talk about politeness, I *am* in fact talking, and thinking, about underlying causes (for example the fact that family outweighs all other relationships in Asian cultures, so that it is acceptable to inconvenience others in favour of your own children). But for me, at least, the causes don't excuse behaviour that most people experience as unpleasant and stressful. Don't get me wrong -- there are many things I don't like about America and American society. In real life, I complain incessantly about America (there were reasons why I left!). Having lived in so many places, I am left mostly critical of all of them, impatient with all their faults (as Robyn and Dave are, I suspect). But that wasn't the subject of Robyn's post, and I didn't think it was relevant to get into them here.

Nicholas Marks

I think there are good and bad in every race. I have met some really nice americans.

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