February 28, 2013

We Should Have Dinner Sometime

As I've observed earlier in Hello America, this is a friendly place.

Americans are incredibly welcoming towards newcomers, whether from within the country or from abroad. If you've listened to the political news coverage, you might not believe it, but what the people in Washington or in some state capitols say has usually nothing to do with the average person on the street.

The average person will give you a friendly wave. The average person might show up on your doorstep thirty minutes after you've moved in with a plate of cookies in their hands. The average person will offer to drive you around and show you the new neighborhood. The average person will let you borrow mattresses and sleeping bags to tide you over until  your container comes, even though they've just met you. The average person will be very curious to hear where you're from. And the average person will usually proudly tell you about their ancestors from Germany once they find out that's where you were born. It's a miracle that English is spoken in this country. Because I haven't met a single person here who doesn't trace their roots to some place in Germany that I have usually never heard of.

I find the question about where you are from particularly telling. When I first arrived in the United States as an exchange student, I could not believe how many people wanted to know where I came from. I  had lived in Germany for all of my sixteen years, and never once had anybody asked that question, even though I had traveled before. I had also never felt the need to ask it myself. Not that Germans are not curious about newcomers or outsiders. On the contrary. But anybody who's ever lived in a small German town will know that the preferred way of dealing with that curiosity is to observe from behind drawn curtains and speculate and draw conclusions and discuss in hushed voices, rather than, God forbid, actually ask outright.

But to Americans, where we are from is THE quintessential fact we need to know about someone, and so that's what we always ask each other, right after exchanging names. Everybody is from somewhere, and everybody has a story that's worth knowing.

The one thing though that I will give those skeptical Europeans who claim that while Americans are friendly, they are also superficial and shallow once you get past that first friendly greeting, is that you have to be quick and bold if you want to make real  friends.

What I mean is that beyond the actual place you hail from, your audience may soon  lose interest. Back in my high school exchange student days I'd get "Germany, ooooh!", followed, more often than not, by "East or West Germany?"

I never quite appreciated, in those days, the fact that any high school student would even know there were two Germanies. Instead, I was slightly offended, or at least puzzled. Who, in 1983, wouldn't know that traveling to Vicksburg, MS from East Germany would have been impossible? American high school students, that's who. Considering they were also unsure whether we had movie theaters, electricity, and indoor plumbing, I shouldn't have been surprised. The question I most commonly got was what language we spoke in Germany (hint: it is derived from the word Germany).

But I doubt I was able to educate any of my new-found friends about the subtleties of the cold war or the cultural refinement of Germans. Once it was established where I was from, everybody moved on, and that was that. I was just another student.

This is what newcomers often misunderstand. In America, like anywhere else, you have to work at making friends. Just because the store clerk had a nice conversation with you rather than shooting you an angry stare for daring to enter the premises doesn't mean you've got yourself a new friend.

Just like when people tell you that "we should  have dinner sometime" doesn't mean that you've got yourself an invitation.

This can be a bit of a pitfall when you are new to the U.S. and show up on someone's doorstep who has "invited" you to their house.

That exact thing happened to Noisette and me when we were touring the U.S. on one of those Delta standby tickets in the late eighties. We were students and had little money, so that when a relative of the host family we were staying with at the time was gushing on about how we had to "absolutely come stay with us in Florida," we took her at her word. Called from the airport, ignored the consternation on the other end, and pulled up at their mansion, I think it was in St. Petersburg. We were most decidedly not invited in, let alone offered any free lodging for the night. There we stood, looking at each other, both parties mortified at the misunderstanding. Actually, I think it was mostly Noisette and I who were mortified. As for her, she just didn't want to let us inside. So, once we got the drift, we made a hurried and embarrassed retreat, pitched our tent in Fort de Soto Park, and were invited to a beer by a complete stranger on the campsite nextdoor.

By now I've lived here long enough that I should know these subtleties, but I think I have to relearn them after our sojourn abroad. There has already been talk about "dinner sometime" and I've found  myself holding out distinct hopes of being called soon. But this is not South Africa, where you may never get called back by any contractors but will most definitely be invited in for a glass of wine when standing on someone's doorstep, even if you're meeting them for the first time.

And, more likely than not, for a lamb chop off the braai to go with your wine.

If we want a dinner invitation here anytime soon, we'll have to be the ones doing the inviting.


Mrs FF said...

Ha Ha Ha Ha, yep one of the first questions is always "where are you originally from?"

Make sure you do a "mean" braai complete with borewors and chops with South African wine when you invite the neighbors over!!!!

nikkimoffitt said...

So many things that resonate with me from this post. I could almost write my own ;) As an exchange student in Canada in the mid-80's my classmates were super impressed with my ability to learn English so quickly although were quite disconcerted with my 'strange accent' after all, if I had gone to the trouble of learning English then I should have used the 'right accent'. They also wanted to know if it was true that Olivia Newton-John and Elton John were sister and brother and if a Vegemite sandwich was some kind of sex act.

Once we began living as expats our first destination was HK. A high expat concentrated location, all expats were in the same kind of position, they had all been the new kids on the block once and so invitations were quickly, often and genuinely issued. If you accepted - you decided on a future kind of relationship (friends or not) or if you declined twice then it was unlikely a further invite would be forthcoming.

South Africa was much more a local experience - when you live more amongst the locals it is a tougher proposition. Sure they can be friendly and well meaning, but they have their lives, their own friends, they are often reluctant to make friends who may transition out of their lives (and those of their children). I was actually quite surprised by the number of people who were reluctant, or concerned about close friendships between their children and ours - given that at some time we would again leave.

Anyway - I have gone on long enough - I didn't really need to say anything given that you have your first dinner invite, we have also had ours and apart from me falling over cold it went quite well......enjoy, don't wear high heels .

Sine said...

@Mrs FF - yep, except we are so protective of our South African Chardonnay it'll have to be really special guests we share a bottle with!

Sine said...

@Nikki - you SHOULD write your own. I had no idea you were an exchange student in Canada in the 80s. Sounds like your life was similar to mine. Love the anecdote about you speaking English so well, ha!

You are quite right about locals being more reluctant to open up, we in fact had one friend tell us later that they were reluctant, having been "burned" before by someone leaving and moving out of their children's lives. But in the end we were great friends and our friendship will last because we'll make an effort to see each other again. For some reason, that's why I loved SA so much. Because most of our friends were locals, and you felt like you really earned those friendships. In Singapore, where it was like for you in HK, they more or less fell into your lap. Still, wee have good friends from those days too, it's just a different way of making them, and a "better selection" of sorts for you to pick from.

PS: I think a vegemite sandwich MUST be some kind of perverse act. Or an extreme act of love, given how awful vegemite tastes. I mean, in Germany we love our Nutella, but don't you agree that's an easier sell to kids??

W. A. Jeffrey said...

It is very hard to generalize about Americans. In many ways it is a regional thing. In the South, people are openly friendly sometimes even crazily so but who knows what they are saying behind your back.

In the Northeast people are more brusque on the surface and if they don't like you they make it plain. However, once you crack through the exterior you may end up with a loyal friend for life. In the Midwest it varies depending on which portion you are in but there is a general easy friendliness with the main difference being the one between rural and "city" people. Depending on where you are at you would be amazed how small a town you can come from and the country people will paint you as being "city" folk.

On the West coast there is great cheer and exuberance on the surface but everything is so fast paced that there is hardly any time to stop and chat. In the general west where the cowboy lifestyle still thrives it is its own thing that is unlike anything you will find in the whole world. The code of the west is indeed a real thing.

On a side note, my experience with foreigners is that they can be real uptight if you ask them where they are from. I've never understood why. They always act like I am going to criticize them or something. I guess they don't understand American curiosity.

Sine said...

All good points. One should never generalize an entire population but as an expat you can't help but group your observations in that kind of fashion. Yes, the US has big regional differences, though I would argue less so than many other countries, because Americans are so mobile and it's not often you meet someone who has lived in one place all their lives. Whereas in Germany where I'm from that is still very common. I guess that's why as an American you grow up asking people "where are you from" (and yes, it's just curiosity), and people from other countries just aren't used to that question. When I arrived in the US at 16 as an exchange student, I can honestly say that I had never been asked that question my entire life before. So, it was kind of hard to get used to always having to explain!