Category Archives: U.S. Culture

The eating is exotic and good!

Given the wide range of popular ethnic restaurants in the greater D.C. metro area, you might think the path to Washington policy makers is through their stomachs. Enjoying the available ethnic cuisines is one of the many pleasures of living in this city.

The range and quality of eating experiences, plus the variety of cultural offerings, reflect Washington’s transformation into a sophisticated, global city from its small-town, swampy, Southern roots. The presence of so many foreigners, thanks to the diplomatic missions and international organizations based in the city, adds too to its cosmopolitan appeal and flair. Washington is not, however, on the mega-city scale of either New York or London: The 2010 census estimated the greater Washington metropolitan area to have a population of around 5 and a half million; the District of Columbia itself is just over half a million.

The diversity of restaurants and eating options in Washington really reflects the waves of immigrants who have ended up here. The archetype immigrant to the United States arrives and starts a small business. More often than not, this business is a restaurant that serves food from back home. Or it may be a supermarket specializing in items from that particular region of the world. It might also be a food truck, a “restaurant on wheels” that sells a limited selection of already prepared food, often with a clear ethnic identity.

Running a restaurant that serves native food is usually the preserve of newest immigrants. It is typically the first step on the ladder toward achieving the fabled “American dream”. And it is certainly not the last.

It is also not without contradictions. When Ethiopia suffered devastating famine and traumatic internal displacement of people in the early and mid-1980s, there was also an influx of Ethiopians to the D.C. area. Many started restaurants. I was a graduate student in Washington at that time, and I recall how dining at Ethiopian restaurants was the rage then, largely because of the cuisine’s novelty. Meanwhile people in Ethiopia were struggling to feed themselves.

The many foreign specialty supermarkets make for great browsing. All sorts of ingredients can be found, some familiar, others mysterious and obscure. Like supermarkets the world over, most American supermarkets have “international” sections where one can easily buy kitchen cupboard standards like Japanese soy sauce or Thai sweet chili sauce. The joy of the foreign delicatessens is in finding a particular ingredient that facilitates the making of a much-loved-but-rarely-eaten dish, or one that begs a cooking experiment.

Not all immigrants start off trying to create new lives for themselves and their families with a family-run restaurant, a food truck, or a specialty supermarket. In Northern Virginia, it seems that Korean and Mongolian immigrants have cornered the dry cleaning business. I am amazed at how many Africans—from Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, and Sierra Leone—are nursing assistants in area hospitals and nursing homes. The other stereotypical job for newly arrived immigrants the world over is the taxi business. Certainly, Washington has a preponderance of Ethiopian, Indian, Nigerian, and Pakistani cab drivers.

Neighbourhood enclaves of immigrants from particular countries are very fluid and can change quickly. For example, as the area east of The White House has gentrified, the restaurants and shops that comprised “Chinatown” have been pushed out to a suburb of Maryland. A strip of Vietnamese restaurants in Arlington, Northern Virginia, formerly had the informal moniker, the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”. Sadly, these restaurants from the 1980s and 1990s have been displaced as rents have risen. Yet, most of the immigrants who ran those restaurants have probably graduated from running restaurants and been absorbed into American society.

And this is the key observation: The ethnic restaurant business is a multi-generation enterprise. The newest immigrants to the United States often start the restaurants. They don’t speak English and are willing to work hard for long hours for small financial reward. Yet their children, who will have worked in the family restaurant growing up, often become professionals, such as teachers, doctors, and lawyers, and fully part of mainstream American society—thereby fulfilling the “American dream”.

What fencing says about you

The general lack of fences or any kind of barrier between suburban American homes is breathtaking. After living in Johannesburg, where gravity-defying tall walls with razor wire, broken glass, and electrical wiring atop are the rule, this aspect of life in American middle-class suburbia is an amazing revelation.

When fences do exist, they are usually more decorative than obstacles to passage. If present, their function is largely to delineate property lines. Fences may also provide privacy if one lives on a busy road or junction, but this is atypical. Indeed, neighbours can frown upon fences being erected. We know of someone who still resents previous neighbours of hers for putting up a fence to keep in their dogs. Instead of fences for this purpose, many use “invisible fences” that administer gentle shocks when their collar-wearing pets meander beyond a certain perimeter.

No burglar bars on windows are another joy of middle-class suburban life here. Those residing in American cities are more likely to have such essentials of Johannesburg city or suburban life (and most other South African population centers, for that matter). But such home protection measures are unusual in the middle-class suburbs here. Having an alarm system—and then using it on a regular basis—is not the suburban norm here either. I’m learning too that some do not even regularly lock up their homes when no one is present. Wow!

The gathering and releasing of crime statistics to the public is controversial in South Africa. Released figures reflect broad trends in crime categories, and are viewed skeptically as inaccurate and misleading. In contrast, the extent of detail in the notification of criminal activity here in Northern Virginia fascinates and stuns me. From one local newspaper, I learnt that a backpack was stolen from a parked car on our block last week, while two streets away, tools were taken from an open garage. The neighbourhood papers also reveal titillating details like an after-hours argument between an employer and employee at a nearby restaurant that resulted in police being summoned. Imagine details such as these, of seemingly petty incidents, making it into South African crime reports…

My personal favourite anecdote about the remarkable rarity of crime in our local area comes from the afternoon my son called from school to say that the school bus could not drive into the neighbourhood because of police activity. It turns out someone had seen a person throwing something into a basement window three houses over and had reported this to the police. Five or so police cars drove into the suburb, and a police helicopter hovered overhead, to apprehend this criminal. We learned later that the window breaker was in fact the homeowner who had locked himself out of his own home! I was totally impressed at the swift response and speechless at its overwhelming nature.

In a sad reflection of people’s desperation in the strained economy, bank robberies occur with unexpected frequency in the area. However, the robbers are typically apprehended quickly.

I should reiterate that what I’m describing here is very much an American middle-class suburban experience. Life in working-class suburbs and in cities themselves is profoundly different. The United States is hardly without crime, it has appallingly high gun ownership, and it has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. But it also has incredible policing. U.S. police are very well trained, and they have remarkably sophisticated technology at their disposal. Life for traditional criminals must be very difficult indeed.

So middle-class Americans in the suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C., are fortunate with low overall rates of criminal activity. Yet I find a general skittishness and nervousness about any possible untoward or unexpected occurrence. In my experience, Americans in this part of Northern Virginia show a great sensitivity and suspiciousness about irregular behaviour. I don’t know if this can be attributed to our proximity to Washington and general security consciousness in the post–9/11 world.

I had a revealing personal experience of this a while ago: My visit to a self-service petrol or “gas” station to fill the car with petrol went a little awry, and I came away having spilt a little petrol on my trousers. My next stop was the post office. I did not realize how much I smelled of petrol, so I blithely stepped into the post office and joined the queue. A hushed silence came upon the others in line, with everyone anxiously looking around them. Two women notably dashed out of the store. Another softly ventured, “Can you smell that? What is that?” Others murmured their concern. I then realized the smell emanating from the spill was the source of the problem and said loudly, “No, it’s me! I spilt some petrol on myself!” Nervous laughter broke out, with a couple of people reassuringly offering that they too had similar incidents with air bubbles when pumping petrol. Most curiously, the envelope I mailed that day never arrived at its destination. I’ve often wondered if it was sidelined because it too may have smelled suspicious.

The free-flowing nature of American society masks many issues. The lack of fences is part of the narrative of openness and the expectation of transparency in the American soul. Minimal fencing also shows the enormous respect Americans have for private property. The present tax structure strongly encourages Americans to buy homes, so those fortunate enough to own their homes greatly value them. And they very much respect others’ property too.

A sporting chance

Competitive inter-school sport occurs only at the high-school level in a typical American school district. This realisation took me by complete surprise when moving here twenty months ago with a teenager and a near teen. I had assumed that, like in South Africa, inter-school sports started at the elementary level and continued through high school. It turns out that local clubs nurture youth athletic talent and provide formative competitive sports opportunities in the United States, not primary and middle schools.

Americans are as fanatical about sport as any others. Presently, the American sporting world is preoccupied with “March Madness”, the annual elimination competitions of both men’s and women’s college basketball that take place in March. For both genders, “March Madness” begins with 64 teams, continues with 32, then the “Sweet Sixteen”, the “Elite Eight”, the “Final Four”, and then the championship game.

President Barack Obama’s choice of teams most likely to succeed in each “bracket” of the competition was canvassed and has been widely reported. Obama also whisked off British Prime Minister David Cameron to Ohio last week to attend a game during the latter’s official visit to the United States—and apparently taught Cameron about the game throughout.

The scale of the tournament is huge, in terms of commercial value and TV viewership. Fans’ university and regional loyalties come to the fore, with many office pools being created and wagers won and lost.

For the athletes, a successful collegiate sporting career also means an entrée to professional sports. American basketball legends such as Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan became household names through their exploits as college players before playing professionally.

A revealing aspect for me is how the women’s collegiate competition is as highly valued as the men’s. This is thanks to “Title IX”, the civil rights law President Richard Nixon signed in 1972 that forbids discriminating between genders in education if that educational institution receives direct or indirect federal aid. Although sport was not explicitly mentioned in the legislation, Title IX’s biggest impact has unquestionably been on high school and collegiate athletics for women.

Before generalising about how local clubs foster interest in sport and develop talent, I should note that physical education is offered during the school day at American elementary and middle schools, but in a very low-key way when compared to school sport in South Africa.

For sport-oriented young Americans, neighbourhood clubs try to offer different levels of competition. A “select” or “travel” league would be geared to the really talented, and these elite teams literally travel around a region to compete against each other. A “house” league would offer general participation, although “A” and “B” leagues may be differentiated. “Try outs” may also be required to generate teams of relatively balanced ability. House teams typically compete against each other in the local area. A “development” league might be offered for the beginner youngest age groups.

These clubs are all about partnerships. Local school facilities are typically used for weekday practices after school hours and weekend games. So, for example, the local basketball club, the county school district, and the PTA of my daughter’s school teamed up to cover the cost of replacing the floor of the school’s gym.

But the key way in which these clubs reflect the best of a community working together is in the fact that they are volunteer dependent. Parent volunteers typically provide most of the coaching, although high school and college students coach too. A remarkable commitment is asked of these volunteer coaches: weekly practices and weekend games for a full season. Having observed parent coaches for the sports in which my two children have participated over the last twenty months, it is very clear that most coaches greatly enjoy the experience, do a simply terrific job, and really give their heart-and-soul to guiding the children in their care. One can also observe some taking it far too seriously, with some behaving as if they were coaching a high-powered college or professional team…

In an aside, in addition to being an avid follower of the game and a keen “hoops” player himself, President Obama is also known to attend his daughters’ basketball league games and sometimes step up to coach temporarily. How he must love such moments—the joy of feeling like a “regular” suburban dad!

Participation in these clubs requires a nominal fee, to cover the cost of officiating and the team shirt. Scholarships are always offered for those who would like to participate but do not have the means to do so.

When games are played, umpires or referees are usually provided, and they are paid a token sum. The refs are usually adults, but many times they are not. Providing teenagers with the opportunity to learn how to officiate is another great role these clubs play. For some American teenagers, officiating club games might be a first job.

Certainly, there are also many opportunities for young Americans to have private and more individualised coaching in the different sports. The cost of such training keeps it the preserve of the few—those who can afford it and those who are uniquely gifted. The majority of Americans learn their sport through local clubs.

Pious politics

Rick Santorum, one of the conservative Republicans vying to be the GOP presidential nominee, has hurt his chances of being selected by espousing views on religion that alienate many Americans. In contrast, a recent civic exercise for 12-year-olds illustrated a positive approach to teaching social and moral values.

Volunteering at an “Ethics Day” for 12-year-old school children turned out to be a rewarding way to spend a morning. A local, secular, civil-society coalition organized the half-day event; a nearby Jewish temple provided the facilities; and all sixth graders from two area elementary schools took a break from their regular school day to participate. The point of the exercise was to stress how ethical choices determine the kind of schools, communities, and world in which we live. Ethical dilemmas were presented for discussion, and the challenge of reconciling what one could do in certain situations, what one would do, and what one should do was highlighted.

Every religion, faith, and creed could endorse the universalisms that underpinned the deliberations. It was agreed that integrity comes from living basic values like honesty, trust, fairness, justice, compassion, responsibility, and respect. The tenor of the presentations and discussions was practical and respectful, yet also idealistic and inspirational. The approach was non-theological, nondenominational, and non-divisive. It showed how moral conduct and civic duty can be inspired in a pluralistic, diverse society in a way that is sensitive and doesn’t cause offense—and supplements moral and religious guidance provided through family and private faith.

Rick Santorum and his evangelical supporters would likely find the formula followed at “Ethics Day” to be wanting. He recently said he didn’t “believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute”, and he accused President Barack Obama of “advancing a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible”.

In what has effectively become a two-man race between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and himself, Santorum’s elevation of divisive social wedge issues is also clever politics. Part of Santorum’s recent rhetoric is unquestionably belief—he is a deeply religious man. Part of it is also deliberate strategy. Some of the continued lack of enthusiasm for Romney among the core of the Republican Party relates to mistrust of his Mormonism and his reluctance to speak about his faith and how it informs who he is. By speaking so forcefully about his own faith and views, the Catholic Santorum is intentionally making this contrast with Romney. While Republican voters are also unsure whether Romney is a real conservative, Santorum assures all he is a “full-spectrum” conservative.

The politics surrounding the presidential campaign also explains why Romney, Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, the other conservative Republic presidential hopeful, berated President Obama for apologizing to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the disrespectful burning of the Koran at the U.S. airbase outside Kabul. Obama’s apology had struck me as totally appropriate and, in fact, essential after the inflammatory treatment, albeit not intentioned, of Islam’s holy book.

This overreach and heated rhetoric on social and religious matters has, I think, backfired for Santorum. He already has the evangelical vote sown up—although there is still some dwindling support for Gingrich—so continuing to hammer away on these themes is counter productive for his presidential ambitions. The brighter prospects of the U.S. economy also partly explains this pivot from focusing on the economy, but highlighting religion in the public sphere and social issues is not a winning strategy for Republicans for the general election. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, lost his 2006 senatorial reelection campaign by 18 percentage points largely due to his views on faith and gay rights.

The longer the divisive Republican nomination battle continues, the less likely Republicans will unify for the November election against President Obama, and the greater the possibility of a third candidate emerging to contest the election—which would split the conservative vote.

A protest poster at a recent Santorum rally said it all to me: “America is a democracy, not a theocracy”. Long live separation of church and state.

Christmas with American characteristics

Around the globe, people decorate this season. The retail sector the world over leaps at the excuse to adorn shops at this time of year, and American retailers are, of course, no exception. Even in “Communist” China and Shinto Japan, where most do not celebrate Christmas, shops are now brightly decorated. In Europe, lavishly decorated pedestrian shopping streets and traditional Christmas markets are seasonal pleasures. Some of the littlest towns or dorpies in South Africa have the fanciest Christmas light shows down their main streets.

The singularly American aspect to this decorating frenzy, I think, is the way in which Americans adorn the outside of their homes. While many in countries celebrating Christmas decorate inside their homes, nowhere in the world does one experience such fervour in decorating the exteriors of houses. Here in the United States, if you celebrate Christmas—and, sure, many do not—the chances are you will decorate the outside of your home. Working class, middle class, wealthy, religious, secular, elderly, young, you name it. If you celebrate Christmas here, you decorate outside. Some of it is very creative, tasteful, and discreet; some of it just too much and outrageously over the top. But, hey, it’s Christmas in America!

The paraphernalia for this outdoor decorating is readily available. Thanks to cheap Chinese imports, strings of LED lights—white! multicoloured! on green wire! on white wire!—can be purchased very reasonably. And one can connect lots of these together to create a quite dazzling effect; a box of lights notes that a maximum of 43 strings can be linked together. Another favourite is a type of “net” with white or multicoloured lights, which can be draped over bushes or railings. Every year, there are new lights, gimmicks, or other innovations on offer (clever Chinese), so you can always expand your collection. All this illumination gives communal cheer on these chilly winter nights when it becomes dark so early. Yet spiked electricity bills should give pause to those who overdo it, and overall increased energy consumption certainly gives this dimension to the season here an environmental cost.

One of the weirder manifestations of this decorating obsession is how some even jazz up their cars. Wreaths on the bonnets of cars are common. The one that always makes me giggle is the reindeer thing: A pair of “antlers” emerging from opposite side windows, with a red “nose” on the bonnet. Seriously!

European bakers are frantically busy at this time of year. The Germans, Swiss, Belgians, Dutch, Scandinavians all indulge in wonderful gingerbread, almond, cinnamon, shortbread, anise, and chocolate cookies around Christmas. Americans are also munching yummy cookies in December, with typical flavours including apple, pumpkin, oatmeal, cranberry, coconut, peanut, and chocolate.

The American twist on cookies at Christmas is the “cookie exchange”. Trust ever-practical Americans. The idea is that each person arrives with, say, three dozen of their favourite home-baked cookies, and then departs with the same amount of cookies chosen from the array of those others contributed. A key dimension, even etiquette, to this ritual is that the cookies have to be something over which one has taken time and trouble. It would be bad form to participate in a cookie exchange with goodies that involved little effort or were purchased, even if very special.

Giving is an essential part of Christmas. Americans are very generous people; indeed, they do the giving part of Christmas exceedingly well. In these depressed economic times, needs have increased everywhere, and one is inundated with requests for assistance. One’s mailbox is filled with requests for help, newspapers and churches list volunteer opportunities at nearby soup kitchens and charities, schools ask for assistance in providing gifts for needy children and constantly run food drives for local food pantries. The focus, as it should be at Christmas, is on giving. Yes, cynics note, charitable giving is tax deductible, and the tax year ends soon. But it’s the spirit of the giving—often anonymous—that illustrates my point:

Kmart announced that secret Samaritans in stores in Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Montana, and Nebraska had paid off many layaway accounts on toys and children’s clothing, leaving only a few dollars or cents so the items remained in the system. An Indianapolis woman paid off about 50 people’s layaway orders and handed out $50 bills as she left the store—in memory of her husband who had just passed. For the fifth year in a row, a Salvation Army collection kettle outside a Clarksville, Tennessee supermarket has had a krugerrand placed into it. A Salvation Army collection point near Harrisburg, PA, announced recently that it too had received a krugerrand. Cynics may suspect drug smugglers laundering their ill-gotten gains, or former criminals trying to make good, but I’m not so sure.

The materialism of the receiving part of the American Christmas experience can be repulsive and excessive, although the capacity of that great engine of the global economy—the U.S. consumer—is greatly diminished in recent years. Numbers from “Black Friday” (the shopping day after Thanksgiving when stores traditionally move into the black for the year) and “Cyber Monday” (the day for deals on electronics, especially for online purchasing) were up this year from last. Obviously, it’s too early to tell if the Christmas shopping season overall has been successful for retailers, but the frequency with which one sees UPS brown trucks and FedEx Home Delivery vehicles on the road suggests that people have been shopping hard. A middle-class suburban detail that amazes this South African is how parcels are dropped off by front doors and then left there, awaiting collection when people return home at the end of the day. Such parcels would quickly disappear in middle-class suburban Johannesburg or Cape Town–and perhaps not fare too well either in most American towns or inner city neighbourhoods.

Yet the most noteworthy aspect of Christmas in America is high attendance of church services, a phenomenon that is well documented elsewhere, and one that is categorically not true of all societies celebrating Christmas. Whether you go to church or choose not to go this Christmas, a very merry Christmas to all!