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Quadruple Cultural Comparison

August 17th, 2012 No comments

In my entry on the California trip, I was so focused on just documenting the various events that I forgot to write about the most interesting element. I’ve got a few cultural observations to share, but I’ll start with a quick “update” on the visa situation.

After still getting no word by e-mail yesterday evening (Friday morning in Japan) I called my branch office and spoke with the guy who is normally in charge of keeping teachers’ visas up-to-date. But for whatever reason, it’s not him but the branch manager himself who’s handling my case, and he’s on vacation all week (yes, it was very considerate of him to let me know). He’ll be back on Monday and will get in touch with me then. But I was told something like, “We’re just waiting on the processing of your application now, but getting the visa will be easier when you’re back here in Japan,” which totally confused me because of course I’d thought the entire problem was that I couldn’t get the visa from inside the country. But this guy clearly wasn’t too familiar with my case and just told me to wait until Monday. Before I let him go, I just asked him very directly if I’m in any danger of losing my contract, as this is the fear weighing most heavily on my mind. He said, “No, we’re keeping that here” which I thought meant “here in Chiba” but later thought maybe he meant the physical document of my contract. But either way, he was very cordial and nonchalant the whole time, giving off the impression that everything is fine and there’s nothing to worry about, the total opposite of the branch manager who’s always made the situation sound very urgent and dire. So all in all, while I still won’t know anything until Monday at the earliest, the phone call helped put my mind at ease a little until then.

Now, as for California, the view I had through the Japan-tinted lenses was extra-tinted by my East Coast lenses as well as the Germany-lenses. When I visited Santa Barbara last year after three years in Germany, it struck me how in many ways East Coast / West Coast culture is more different and distinct than the difference between German and American culture overall. German culture overall is very similar to American culture, what with the meat and the beer and sports and politics, but the whole busy, hard-working, rude and direct demeanor of Germans in general corresponds much more closely to East Coast culture than the laid-back, relaxed, casual friendliness of the West Coast.

When it comes to Japan, it’s very clear that the subtle differences between East and West coast culture are extremely minor by comparison with the gaping cultural gap between East and West hemisphere. That said, I found it interesting how some of the cultural contrasts I drew between Japan and New York don’t apply to California, and how some of the contrasts between Japan and California wouldn’t apply to New York. For instance, while there’s a gaping difference in the demeanor of shop clerks in Japan and those in New York/New Jersey, it’s not so striking in California where they’re generally much friendlier. They may not be as rigid and professional as Japanese clerks, but they’re very polite and serve you with a smile, as opposed to East Coast clerks who seem to hate you for making them have to do ten seconds of work.

On the other hand, the laid back and relaxed attitude of the West Coast stands in extremely stark contrast to Japan, whereas the East Coast is a bit more similar. For one thing, Japanese drivers and New York/New Jersey drivers have got to be among the most aggressive in the world, as opposed to Californians who are perhaps the least aggressive (and annoyingly so). And while I’m sure this is true for many if not most East coast workers as well, everyone I had a chat with in California had the same basic attitude about work—that it’s just something you’ve gotta do to get money to afford having fun—as opposed to the Japanese mentality where work is the be-all-and-end-all and fun is just a luxury you can have from time to time, as long as it’s scheduled well in advance.

Then there’s just the basic sound of the way people talk. In southern California they speak very slowly and lazily and with a ton of slang. In New York they tend to speak more quickly and aggressively and with a ton of slang. In Japan they speak quickly but non-aggressively, and always adjust to the appropriate level of slang for all situations, which almost never includes adults talking to one another in a public setting. Germans tend to speak quickly and aggressively like New Yorkers, but with surprisingly little slang.

Other minor tid-bits: surfing is a way of life for many Californians and Japanese, whereas it’s pretty rare on the East Coast and almost unheard of in Germany. Baseball is hugely popular all across America and in Japan but Germans couldn’t care less, while soccer is of paramount importance to Germans and Japanese but not at all to Americans.

Finally, the most interesting contrast between all the cultures is probably religion. Both East and West Coasters are a part of America and therefore more religious in general than Germans and Japanese who are mostly very secular, and yet both East and West Coasters are far more socially liberal than Germans and Japanese, who themselves are actually more socially liberal than Bible-belt America. Both Germany and Japan are considered to be more “conservative” cultures, but their brand of “conservatism” doesn’t even come close to the radical right-wing religious extremism of the conservatism you see in parts of America. That’s unique to that sub-culture, and unfortunately for everyone they don’t have the slightest inkling of just how much of tiny minority they are in global terms because they live in a bubble in which they’re the vast majority, and never spare a thought for the world outside “Amurrica”.

In any case, I’ll end this before it starts getting too political. I just wanted to record some of these thoughts. Maybe I’ll come back to this later and revise some of my opinions, but these are just my general impressions of the different cultures I’m familiar with now. I’ll undoubtedly see things a bit differently and a bit more clearly as I become more familiar with the cultures I know, and more familiar with cultures yet to be experienced.

American Football!!!

September 28th, 2010 No comments

There are just a couple of events left to describe from my trip, and I’m not sure how into detail I’m going to get for either of them. Once I’m finished with these and write a more detailed account of the day of my return, I’ll be back up-to-speed and there probably won’t be any more significant personal events in my life for many many months. Then it’s back to politics, and you can be sure I’ve got plenty to say. But for now, let’s stay focused on the more trivial things in life.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

I was a bit worried about the potential hangover I might have on Sunday morning after the big Autumn Lane Reunion, but apparently I behaved myself enough to avoid feeling too terrible—just a mild headache. I knew that I’d be meeting my dad and a couple of his friends at the Meadowlands at 1:00 where I would go right back to beer-drinking, so I’d made sure to pace myself the night before.

I left Mike’s apartment at 11:30, giving him a “Jets Jets Jets” cheer just before I left, then letting him get back to sleep. When I punched the Meadowlands into the GPS I’d been using to get around, it said it would only be a 40 minute drive, so I still had some time to kill. I walked down the pier and admired the view of Manhattan from Bay Ridge for a little while, then headed back to the car and drove to the Meadowlands, still arriving about 15 minutes early.

My dad met me at the parking lot of the nearby Sheraton, and we sat there for awhile waiting for his friend John, whom I haven’t seen since the sailing trip over two years ago, and his girlfriend whose name escapes me so I’ll just call her Linda. I think it was Linda.

I started with a soda but before I knew it I was opening up a beer and diving right back into the drinking, which is pretty much obligatory when it comes to going to a football game. My dad has had season tickets to the Jets for about my entire life, so going to the game with him a couple of Sundays a year was a dearly missed tradition and now that the stadium has changed and it’s gotten a lot more expensive, he’s thinking of giving up the tickets which meant this could easily be the last time I’d ever get to go.

When John arrived we packed everything into his car and drove to the actual stadium parking lot for some tail-gaiting. I drank a few more beers and barely got more than a slight buzz, but my bladder filled up quickly enough and I soon had to venture out to find a port-o-potty. When I got to an area with four of them, there was a line about twenty people long, all buzzed from alcohol and bitching with each other over having to wait in line. I made good friends with the black guy behind me and the attractive young lady in front of me, pleased by the ease with which I was able to crack jokes and communicate with these people. Talking to total strangers in Germany is a much different ball-game, as I’m usually trying to stick to the most simple language I possibly can so as not to have to reveal that I’m a foreigner.

Of course my new buddies didn’t wait around by the port-o-potties after pissing to chat some more, so our friendship had to end once each of us finally got our chance to pee. Sad day.

The tail-gating was as fun as I always remembered, with plenty of delicious food and beer as delicious as you could expect in America (plus my dad had brought some imported German hefeweizen, not necessary but a nice gesture). Having lived abroad for two years I had plenty enough to say to John and Linda, who are both extraordinarily nice people.

Soon enough it was time to head to the stadium, which was a really long walk from where we were but the belligerent Jets fans all around us made it interesting. Chants of “J E T S Jets Jets Jets” erupted about every fifteen seconds, as well as some colorful abuse hurled at the Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady (who apparently—according to some Jets fans—sucks).

Getting into the new stadium was a huge bitch as compared to the old stadium, and all I heard from people all around me was what a huge fucking waste of money the new stadium was. Everybody hated it. The escalators were a massive clusterfuck to get to the first level, and once you did you couldn’t just walk across to the next escalator but you actually had to go inside and walk around to reach the next one. The bathrooms were a similar situation, and during the game people were always complaining that there wasn’t a single screen for those trying to piss to be able to see what was happening outside. “A billion and a half dollars and they couldn’t afford to put a fucking screen in here?” I heard several times, each person probably thinking they were the first to express that thought.

My dad used to have great seats only 6 rows back and near the center of the field, but he didn’t want to pay the fifteen thousand dollars for the seat license when they changed the stadium and now he’s up on the top level on the end-zone line, so the perspective is much different. It wasn’t too bad though, and he’d brought some binoculars which were fun to play with throughout the game (particularly when it came to watching the cheer-leaders). But no matter how far away you are, there’s nothing like being at an actual football game.

I can’t help it—that’s my sport, dog. I explained this in an earlier entry, but I just think it’s one of the most entertaining, exciting games ever invented by human beings. Every single play can completely change the momentum of the game. There may not be action going on all the time, but in between plays you get to think about strategy—what they’ve been doing wrong and what you hope they’ll do this time.

I’m not sure about fans of other teams, but Jets fans are particularly great because they’re so accustomed to losing that they always expect the worst. They cheer like crazy whenever something good happens like the Jets get the ball with really good field position, but before you know it they’ll be saying “So let’s see how they manage to screw this up.” At one point the Jets went for a two-point conversion instead of kicking the field goal, and the pretty-much unanimous consent around me was that this was the dumbest move in the history of football—but they pulled it off and got the points and everyone cheered like crazy and forgot all about it.

The Jets played terribly in the first quarter but somehow managed to turn around and play a pretty good game for the rest of the time, ultimately surprising everyone by actually winning. Of course the best part of the Jets game is after they get a touch-down, when everybody looks to that one guy in the fireman hat who leads the entire stadium in the chant of “J E T S Jets Jets Jets!” There’s just something really cool about one guy—just one random fan—getting an entire stadium of thousands of people to get really quiet for a second and then shout the same thing in unison.

Naturally everyone was in a good mood (except the Patriots fans) when the game was over, but there was less cheering on the way out of the stadium than on the way in. Not hard to imagine why—on the way in everyone’s nice and buzzed from the many beers they’d just been pounding before going into the stadium. On the way out the buzz has mostly worn off because almost nobody is going to buy more than one $8.50 beer in the actual stadium. We only drank one the whole time, and I was just almost completely sober when we left.

The traffic getting out of the stadium is awful, so we waited around in the parking lot until things were relatively clear. We drove back to the Sheraton where John and Linda decided to wait a little longer for the highways to clear, but I figured I’d just head back to Brooklyn and deal with whatever traffic I encountered. I found that the turnpike was pretty clear but I ran into a massive clusterfuck at the toll-booths before the Goethals Bridge, where apparently I ran into the crowd returning from the Jersey Shore at the end of the weekend.

I got back to Brooklyn at a reasonable enough hour, but I knew parking was probably going to be at its most difficult. I drove around for a good twenty minutes looking for a spot, attempting a couple of times to parallel park in spaces that I then discovered were just a bit too small to fit in, until I suddenly spotted someone pulling out on the road up ahead of me and tried not to get too excited as I pulled up and discovered that yes, this was a legitimate parking spot, just far enough from the fire hydrant to be legal. There’s something really awesome about finding a parking spot in Brooklyn—it’s like you just won a video game.

Back at Mike’s apartment I watched the rest of the Giants game as they got their asses handed to them, and we both went to bed around midnight because I was tired as hell and he had to work the next day. It had been a really great day. I can’t say I learned much—just rediscovered things about American culture I’d already known—but it was definitely a worthwhile experience. I may be becoming more Europeanized by the day, but one prejudice I’ll never lose is that football is way better than soccer.

An American in New York

September 13th, 2010 No comments

I grew up near NYC, so for the vast majority of my life it was just “the city”. To this day, when I hear the word “city” I think of New York. But after spending two years living in a German city, returning to New York was like looking at an old picture through new lenses.

I drove up to my friend Mike’s apartment in Brooklyn on Friday afternoon, and after showing me around his neighborhood—which was surprisingly nice but still much dirtier than I’m used to—we took the subway to Manhattan to spend the night drinking and bar-hopping with a few of his friends. The subway itself is one of the most strikingly different things about German and American cities. This train squeaked all along the line, there were no screens for people to read the headlines while riding to work, no automated voice clearly enunciating each stop as the train approached it (the guy announced each stop but there was no understanding what he was saying through the garbled intercom), and of course half the lights only worked half the time. Hooray for infrastructure!

Before we met up with his friends, Mike took me to a building he used to work at, which just happened to be right next to Park51, the location where the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” is being built. This was the evening of September 10, and I knew there was going to a be a big anti-mosque rally the next day, but there were already a few hundred pro-mosque (technically, pro-community center) people demonstrating already. The actual section of street where the community center is supposed to be built (the old Burlington Coat Factory) was closed off, but the police let us through because Mike said he just wanted to get to his building. So we walked right by this “sacred ground”, from which I couldn’t see Ground Zero or anything to even indicate that Ground Zero was nearby, and we rounded the corner to see a titty bar right on the next block, also in the “shadow of Ground Zero”. Mike said they only had “sacred titties” there, so it was okay.

So that was pretty cool, to suddenly be standing in a spot where the eyes of the whole world were focused, but it really drove home the absurdity of the fact that there’s any controversy in the first place. Mike and everyone else from around there knew about the plans to build an Islamic community center long before some conservative blogger decided to raise hell about it and Fox News picked it up and ran with the story. But for the record, the people in favor of building the mosque there were out in full force even before September 11.

After grabbing a beer, we went to the apartment of a couple of Mike’s friends, a place with a roof that had an amazingly awesome view of the city, and looking at Manhattan from up there was quite the experience after getting so used to European cities where the buildings are rarely higher than five stories. Every European city has its own unique look and feel to it, but there really is nothing like downtown Manhattan. It may not be the most aesthetically pleasing urban environment, but it sure does inspire a powerful feeling.

After having a few beers at that apartment we began our bar-and-club-hopping adventure, which thanks to a shot of Jäger I took at the very next bar I don’t have much of a clear memory of anything that happened after. There was a lot of walking through the city streets at night, hopping in and out of taxis, showing my I.D. to bouncers, and standing around watching a bunch of less-than-spectacular looking women dance to music too loud to hear the person standing next to you. At some point we made it back to Brooklyn, but the memory of driving back over the bridge didn’t come to me until the following morning, so it came as a complete shock to me when we got back to Mike’s apartment. We ordered some food that arrived in seven minutes (quite literally), scarfed it down and passed out.

The morning was pretty bad, I won’t lie. Lots of getting up to puke and lying back down to try and sleep off the migraine. We finally both got out of bed around 1:30 or 2:00 and eventually made our way to a kick-ass bagel place for some much-needed sustenance. I’d hoped to be able to get back to the mosque area and check out whatever madness was taking place there on 9/11, but I felt way too horrible to take the initiative and I had to get to my cousin Jason’s BBQ in Central Long Island by 4:00.

It took me longer to recover than I thought, but after a walk down to the water’s edge I was feeling good enough to go. I found my car which I’d miraculously managed to park the previous afternoon after only five minutes of searching, and set up the GPS to take me to my cousin’s house. The traffic on the BQE and first few miles of the Long Island Expressway was terrible, so even though I left at 4:20 I didn’t get to his house until 6:00, but that turned out to be enough.

My cousin Jason is the oldest of three brothers who I pretty much grew up with when we were kids, especially during the first few years of my life when I also lived on Long Island. They never left the island and are now firmly a part of that Long Island Italian culture. None of them drink. Two of them own houses. It was crazy to see them, but we have so little in common that it was difficult to find stuff to talk about. I mostly just sat around and let them talk, throwing in a thought whenever I had one.

My aunt Cindy asked me if I was feeling “reverse culture-shock” which is a phrase I think describes it pretty well. I’m usually hanging out with groups of Germans and I can’t really understand them unless I’m paying attention and really trying. But in this group of Americans, of New Yorkers, I understood everything they were talking about even if I wasn’t trying. And it wasn’t just the language but the references. Whether it was something in politics or pop culture, a quote from The Simpsons or some comedian everyone’s seen on Comedy Central—I got these people. It’s also a weird feeling to not have to speak slowly and enunciate everything you say. You can just mumble and slang your way through a conversation and everyone will understand you. It feels great, but also strange to be that conscious of verbal laziness.

The BBQ was a nice time, but I knew I could be having a nice time in Brooklyn as well, so at a little after 10:00 I left Jason’s house and headed back towards the city. I got back to Mike’s apartment at 11:20, but there was nowhere to park and I drove around for a good thirty minutes before I finally found a spot, oddly enough just across the street from the spot I’d found the day before. Apparently some people have spent over an hour just looking to park in that neighborhood. I don’t think it’s even close to that bad anywhere in Hannover, and the same goes for probably most of Germany, probably because not as many people drive.

So it was almost midnight by the time I got to Mike’s and he was still at home but getting ready to go out—another big difference between New York and Germany. You can wait until midnight to go out and still get four good hours of party-time in before everything starts to close, and even then not everything closes. So Mike and I hopped a few bars in his neighborhood (by then I’d sufficiently recovered from the previous night but still refused to take any shots) and I kept my wits about me the whole time.

Mike told me his theory that Brooklyn is the center of the universe, because—he claims he’s been told—you can go to any bar anywhere in the world and say, “Where’s Brooklyn at?” and somebody will answer. So according to his theory, there is at least one person from Brooklyn in every bar in the world at all times. I told him I highly doubted there was anyone from Brooklyn at the bars in Hannover I go to, and I’d put his theory to the test. Any readers can feel free to demolish that one too. Although to be fair—Brooklyn does give off the strange impression that it is in fact at the center of the universe.

We ended up in a diner, and as I’ve been doing ever since getting back I treated myself to the most American food I could order—some chicken fingers with BBQ sauce and honey-mustard, along with some curly-fries dripping in melted American cheese. Oh man, was that delicious. Those poor chickens can at least take solace in the fact that very few chickens have ever had their fingers enjoyed to such a degree as I did then. The waitress was a kindly middle-aged lady too. Extremely friendly and good-humored, working for those tips. I do have mixed feelings about the concept of tipping in general, but you just can’t deny that it produces better service outcomes. The United States of America has the best customer service anywhere in the world, hands down. Germany’s infrastructure may run laps around America, but America’s customer service can kick Germany’s ass all across the Atlantic ocean. You have no idea how nice it is to just ask for extra sauce and to get it without any hassle—and for no extra charge!

So the diner experience was a great way to end the night, shortly after 4:00 a.m. The next morning I got up around 10:00 but Mike stayed in bed until just before football got started at 1:00. American football is something I’ve also dearly missed, as the evil people who run the NFL have decided for some reason that they’re not going to make their games available to anyone outside of the United States. I would actually pay for a subscription service to be able to stream and download games online—and I’ll bet there are thousands of American expatriots around the world who feel the same way—but apparently NFL owners still think it’s 1987 and have no concept of how much money they could make through the series of tubes that is taking over all media.

I’m about as far as you can get from the culture of football, but I just love the game. Two teams like opposing armies on the battlefield just fighting for every yard. It’s a game of strategy as much as it is of strength—of psychology and momentum—of moments where everything hinges on one play and where any unexpected thing can happen at any moment to completely turn things around. It’s just such a fantastic game that I’m sure the rest of the world would come to love it too if America didn’t keep it on such a short leash. I caught World Cup fever along with the rest of the non-American world, but it just doesn’t come close to the level of excitement that NFL football provides. The only thing—the only thing—that soccer has over NFL football is the lack of commercials. Watching the games live on TV, it got to the point where I just couldn’t take the advertisements anymore, and at least with soccer there are no time-outs so you only get commercials at half-time.

Anyway, I gorged myself on football all day, with just a few breaks to go get a bagel (half-time during the 1:00 game) and go to the bar (half-time during the 4:00 game) to watch the rest of the game while sampling some delicious buffalo wings—the lack of which is also one of Germany’s biggest shortcomings.

After my thoroughly American weekend I was ready to head back across the Verazzano and the Goethels to good old “Dirty Jerz”, and before I knew it I was taking the long way home through the back-roads out in my relatively rural area—a world apart from Brooklyn but still distinctly American.

I don’t miss most of the big things about America. The infrastructure sucks, the middle-class isn’t taken care of, people work longer hours and make less money, etc. But I definitely miss the little things like football and chicken fingers, I miss the customer service, and I definitely miss being able to effortlessly communicate with everyone I come across. But with all that said, I do miss Hannover with its short buildings, super-clean streets, and beautiful bike-paths galore. I’ll be going back to NYC before I go back to Germany so I’ll get to soak up some of that one-of-a-kind atmosphere a bit more before leaving it again, but I’m definitely glad that I am going back.

World Cup Commentary

June 29th, 2010 No comments

I haven’t done much sports commentary on my blog (none, actually) but now that I’m blogging every day I might as well occasionally offer my thoughts on matters unrelated to humanity’s long-term survival–although by the end of this post I’ll find a way to bring it around to that anyway.

For the most part, I think soccer is an excruciatingly boring game. Yes, each game has a few moments of excitement and every now and then there’s a truly rivetting game from start to finish, but for the most part you’re just watching them kick a ball around for 90 minutes and if you’re lucky that ball will go through the goal-posts a few times and everybody goes crazy.

But living in Germany during the World Cup, it’s impossible not to get caught up in it. Everyone is talking about the games, and whenever Germany plays, the entire country is watching it. One of my students this week even informed me that train conductors come on the loudspeaker to announce developments on the game for those unlucky few who happen to be travelling at the time.

Not to mention Paul, the amazing oracle Octopus:

So far, Paul is 4 for 4 in his predictions, which (if you’re superstitious) may explain why the referee missed a call in the first half of the Germany/England match which would have given them a goal to tie up the game. The ball hit the top of the goal-post, bounced behind the line, and bounced out again. From my position watching the game among a crowd of Germans at a public viewing, even they were admitting that it should have been a goal. Up until a moment before they’d been leading 2-0, and after another goal by England only a moment before it would have been tied 2-2 and completely drained Germany’s momentum, which they kept going and ended up winning 4-1.

So here’s my commentary: Instant replay? Come on, soccer. It’s 2010. We have the technology to go back and actually see if a call was right or wrong within a few seconds of that call being made. Why not take advantage of it? In this day and age, we shouldn’t have to rely solely on the perception of flawed human observers to make important determinations at sporting events. Had Germany not scored any additional goals, their victory would have been completely tainted, and due to the momentum-dynamics of soccer their victory is a little tainted anyhow. So let’s have instant replay not just for the sake of the losers but for the winners as well. Everyone has an interest in the games being fair.

Finally, a note on the soccer-obsession these Germans have. I mean they go absolutely crazy. Until the World Cup began you’d never see a German flag displayed anywhere. Even after 65 years since WWII, a national shame still hangs over this nation, but when it comes to Fußball the pride comes out in full force. Cars rolling down the street completely bedecked in German flags, ceaselessly honking their horns with national pride.

This, I believe, is a good kind of national pride. It’s an outlet for people’s inherent nationalistic impulses and Us vs. Them mentality that doesn’t involve dropping bombs on other countries. As little as I care for the sport, I hope soccer continues to grow in popularity in the United States and that Americans get just as psyched at the next World Cup as Germans are now. Let’s compete on the world stage with sports instead of war. If we have a peaceful outlet for our innate competitive emotions, it would go a long way towards protecting the fate of humanity…[I told you I'd bring it around].