The U.S. Freedom of Character


One of the things I like best about living in the United States is being able to explore my character more freely. I am not questioned so much as to why I act the way I do or what I wear or why I cut my hair short. Everyone just lets me do what I want to and they will encourage weirdness rather than defying it.

Last night I was at a grand Thanksgiving family dinner (video) where I knew about half the people. When more strangers began to drip in I knew I was going to be introduced as David’s wife. In the Netherlands it seemed not one gathering or new introduction would go by without blatant questions about our age difference. I appreciated the sincerity, but after a while lost seeing the point of it. If it puzzles you, please ask intelligent questions. Unfortunately in the Netherlands I mostly ended up being questioned in a Spanish Inquisition sort of way. I was constantly having to explain myself in an attempt to avoid raised eyebrows or prejudice.

This great evening went by without even one person commenting on our age difference, style or way of life. Come to think of it, since I’ve been in the U.S. Pacific Northwest (PNW) very few have felt the need to make a point of any of it. This is what Americans proudly call their personal freedom and I can attest: it feels great to express my emotional and creative self more freely than I did in the Netherlands. And that, I believe, is the difference between old world and new world: there are no 1,000-years old behavioral codes to follow. You may be yourself and let that character come out!

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Meet my American family. Looks rather suitable, no?

I’m slowly getting used to the compliments people give to each other. Someone I’ve known briefly will take me aside and tell me they like my style or character. When we see each other again later, they might say “I love you”. I used to think this odd and figured there must be something else to it, but I’ve learned it’s sincere and Americans speak from the heart. The Dutch are brutally honest in telling you what’s different about you, but I’ve never received as much personal support as I have in the US.

Another wonderfully remarkable (and initially puzzling) feat of my PNW circle is that they’re not shy to cry in front of others. People I’ve not met before will burst into tears when talking of something close to their heart. Whether it’s joy or pain or sorrow, the group they’re in will hold them and everyone will say supportive words. Some might even applaud and cheer.
“How very American” I used to have said. We’re just not accustomed to that kind of emotional display in the Netherlands. It would be quite strange to act this way. The whole room would drop quiet and it would mean something very, very serious was going on. If there weren’t you can expect some remark like “Well, I don’t see why you would cry about that.” (I speak from experience here.) But I no longer see why that should be considered strange, or why you should be made to feel embarrassed. Isn’t it brave to show your soul and be vulnerable in front of others? I think it’s commendable and beautiful.

Europeans are confused by this and tend to think the Americans are rather an extravagant lot and therefore these expressions should be treated with suspicion. The Dutch feel more driven by rules and appearance. When I lived there I didn’t see it that way, but being gone from it for so long has made me realize that habits die hard and our habits come from ancient traditions (Think Downton Abbey or Pride and Prejudice) and those traditions were–until quite recent–driven by class distinction and politically adopted religious law.
I was bullied throughout my childhood and teens because I was more extravagant. More daring, challenging, boyish, uninterested in pony’s & pop music and above all–a hopeless daydreamer. In conforming and homogeneous cultures bullying is more common and intense. The English and Japanese have got the hang of it too. With homogeneity a group comes to expect a degree of conformity which in turn reinforces the homogeneity of the population, and so on. There’s a well-known Japanese aphorism that expresses this: Deru kui wa utareru: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

There are challenges in every culture and I don’t agree with most of the US foreign policy, Big Pharma and disregard of people in need. But I do love Sandpoint and the people are kind and openhearted, and I get to explore and express myself more than ever before.

 

 

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