In my short time on this planet, I have had the good fortune to be able to travel rather extensively. In so doing, I have seen and discovered a great many interesting things, and there are a few insights that I have gleaned which I thought might be interesting to others. As such, I would like to share some anecdotes that relate to culture; more specifically, I have found that that many aspects of a country’s culture can be experienced in the presence of that culture’s children. The clearest examples that I have encountered regarding this phenomenon are the differences experienced when interacting with children from Europe, Japan, and Mexico.
As an undergraduate studying foreign language (I chose to study 3: Spanish, Italian, and German), it behooved me to grab hold of any opportunity to immerse myself in the target languages. Through some work and communication with my advisor, I was able to study in Europe for nearly a year and a half. I spent 4 months in Goettingen, Germany and an academic year in Italy. European children, though well-behaved and generally friendly, were curious but indifferent to my status as an American. Sure, Italian children would ask me questions like, “Do all Americans eat only hamburgers every day and put ketchup on everything?” (to which I’d winkingly answer, “Yes.”). But the mere fact of my being American, or foreign for that matter, did not strike them as particularly unusual or interesting. This is probably due to European nations close proximity to each other, giving most Europeans an almost daily opportunity to rub shoulders with someone from a different linguistic and cultural background. Germany is, relatively speaking, just up the road from Italy, but these two cultures are quite distinct from each other; if you want to ride in state-of-the-art trains that run on time (and yes, sometimes I really do!), visit Germany, but if you’re in the mood for amazing culinary delights, Italy is your place.
Japanese children, on the other hand, are absolutely fascinated by foreigners, particularly Americans. Admittedly, I only spent about a week and a half in Japan, under the guidance of a good friend of mine who lives in Tokyo. My girlfriend at the time was a blonde, and this was enough to prompt a group of Japanese students to ask to take a picture with her. This instance, however, was outside the norm of my experiences with Japanese children. They were indeed fascinated my “American-ness”, but tended to keep their distance. If I didn’t know any better, I would almost say that that their attitude seemed reverent. Japan is absolutely a very polite society, shockingly so for most Americans who are used to a more “blunt” means of expression. So, perhaps my perception of these children’s reverence towards me is simply their polite way of being quite curious without being intrusive. Throughout the ages, Japan has adopted aspects of other cultures and made them their own (Chinese writing system, Indian Buddhism, etc.). American culture is “trendy” in Japan, and one sees examples of this all throughout Tokyo. The attitudes of Japanese children, I feel, demonstrate this dual dynamic of fascination with American culture coupled with a very Japanese non-obtrusive way of interacting with others.
More recently, I had the opportunity to visit Mexico City, en route to the fabled ancient city of Teotihuacan (I was in full Indiana Jones mode). I was quite surprised to discover that the children of Mexico City were somewhat different that what I had expected. I am a native Californian, of proud Irish descent, but I speak Spanish and have many Spanish-speaking friends. Therefore, I felt like I understood Mexican society to an extent, and having been to the border towns on a few occasions, my expectation was that most Mexican children would see me as “just another gringo” and not pay me any special attention. I could not have been more wrong! These kids were quite curious about me, but unlike Japanese children, they were not shy in engaging with me. Indeed, once they discovered that I spoke Spanish, the floodgates opened, showering me with questions about the United States. They were absolutely warm and charming, and it was very gratifying to me to tell them of my homeland, such as it is. The truth is, I have always experienced Mexican people as warm and convivial, but perhaps tensions here in California had colored my view; perhaps I expected to find resentment, but instead I found boundless warmth and hospitality during my stay. I found the whole scenario very touching.
Having experienced these three very different ways in which children in other countries engage with foreigners, I would be quite curious to hear about the experiences of people coming to the US and their interactions with American children. Perhaps by examining the way we raise our children, we could learn a bit about ourselves!