Disclaimer: This post was not meant to be obnoxious, but might have ended up being so anyway. It illustrates the experiences my husband and I have had with the arguably very limited number of Americans who happen to be our friends or acquaintances, so for us they do represents Americans. Why we have had such experiences is probably a complex interplay of the fact that we are immigrants, how we are generally as a family (we might be very crappy people indeed and oblivious to it), the part of the country we live in, the fact that we are middle-aged and married with kids (as opposed to young and/or single and/or kidless etc.), and the fact that we hang out with people whom we mostly meet through work at a university or through our kids, i.e. with generally middle-class parents like us who live in this particular area of the country. I understand the US is big and there are many different kinds of people here. But these are our experiences, and being a scientist I have tried to distill the general patterns based on experiential evidence. If you feel something I wrote is too harsh or not representative at all of anything that you have ever experienced, then I say good for you! You are very fortunate and enjoy your awesome social life!
I have been in the US for 15 years, of which 10 where I am now. I believe I am well assimilated. Socialization with the local Americans still feels quite unnatural to me, as there are a lot of aspects of it that are very different from where I grew up.
1) All build-up, no main event
This is a phenomenon I have now come to expect of nearly every event for which one doesn’t have to pay through the nose. Whatever is free or cheap — a 4th-of-July parade, a concert in the park, Halloween trick-or-treating — starts with many weeks of relentless propaganda, be it on the radio or via emails from the neighborhood list, followed by the main event that would generously be characterized as ‘meh.’
I remember a few years ago a colleague made a really big deal out many of us professorial moms making it to her neighborhood for the 4th of July parade. There were many emails, texts, a whole lot of activity to schedule us meeting and decorations. In reality, it was a 10-min walk, followed by a fun-and-games carnival consisting of literally two lawn games and a beer stand. The colleague who was the organizer left after 45 min.
Anything that the schools organize are weeks and weeks of relentless emails and colorful flyers, followed by the event that is very brief, very cheaply organized, crowded, and generally having a very poor fun-to-hassle ratio. So I no longer go. My husband doesn’t mind as much, so he occasionally takes the kids.
The same holds for individual events. I have been at a number of parties where the person spends a lot of time on colorful invitations, sends numerous emails infused with the list of all the fun things that will be happening, and then the main event is 2 hours long, there is nowhere near enough food or drinks, the party activities are very brief and very lame, and the whole thing is… underwhelming.
I understand the underlying reasons — everything is expensive, and nobody wants to spend money on anything. But what’s all the pre-event hullabaloo then? It just raises everyone’s expectations (or perhaps just my expectations, cause I am naive), and then the poor execution is a real let-down.
2) Dinner parties
When you have dinner guests over in my home country, there is a great emphasis on food as food=caring, so it’s assumed that you will put in the time to prepare some of the most delicious things you can make. When we have people over, I spend a lot of time cooking and usually make the food that takes longer to make than my usual repertoire, something people don’t have a chance to eat every day. Also, in my culture guests are king, and having people over generally means you spend a lot of hours eating and talking and having fun.
This has not been my experience here. Again, I apologize in advance if this feels like I am offending anyone, but this has been occurring very regularly.
Outside of Thanksgiving, I have never been to anyone’s house where I felt they went out of their way to prepare dinner for the guests. It’s usually something very quick, like what I would make on Tuesday night after work. The portions are limited and it is not expected that anyone would want seconds; only the amount expected to be eaten is prepared.
This is something really unheard of in my culture, where it is imperative to make sure your guests have had enough (or more than enough) to eat. If there are no leftovers that means I have failed as a hostess and didn’t make enough. In contrast, when visiting my American friends, the hosts routinely decide how much everyone eats and that is exactly what gets made , and no more (e.g. 2 hotdogs per kid, without a chance that an adult maybe wants one or a kid would want three). For instance, at some point we had one of my Eldest’s friends over with his dad and brother. The friend was quite astounded at the food that was left over and made a snide remark about us not being able to count. The dad tried to save it by stating that people often made enough for leftovers, but it did make me feel very uncomfortable. What is considered being a good host where I come from appears to make me a dumb waster of time and money here. It is also interesting that some friends who are careful about having no leftovers and restricting portions at their place are happy to go for seconds and thirds at our place.
(This has not been the case when I visit my Chinese friends, where there is generally plenty and a variety of food, and the attitude towards hosting is similar to my own native culture.)
2b) Overstaying One’s Welcome
Another aspect of entertaining over dinner is how long these events are supposed to last. In my home country, having guests over is an entire-evening ordeal, with hours of talking and fun. Alas, not here. It took a while to get used to, but now I consider it a rule: assume that Americans want you out of their house in no more than 2 hours, no matter how fabulous of a time you feel you are having; after 1.5-2 hours the hosts start cleaning up, which I consider a cue that we should really get going. (The same people might stay at our place considerably longer.)
I was really disappointed a few months ago, as we traveled as a family. In the city where we went on vacation lives a very good friend of mine from graduate school, whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years. He’s married with no kids. We went there with drinks and ice-cream (which is what they told us to bring), they ordered takeout, and still after about 2 hours they started to clean up, so we helped and then left. I was really disappointed, because I hadn’t seen him and his wife in a very long time, and god knows when we will meet next, and the most important thing was apparently to not have us over for too long or to not have their routine disturbed or what have you (in case you are wondering, the kids were angels, watched a movie the whole time).
Conclusion: Basically, my impression is that Americans with whom I have had a chance to socialize are happy to entertain (in general, or possibly just me and my family) as long as they don’t have to spend much time or money on it, or perturb their routine. But they really like to decorate flyers and Evites. And they don’t seem to mind us spending both time and money on entertaining them; they might think we are really stupid and wasteful for doing it, though.
What say you, blogosphere? Are these common features across the US? Do they vary with age group/part of country/when you met your friends (young and single vs old or partnered)? Any other immigrant experiences regarding mingling with the natives?
I was so, so happy to read your post!!!
We (me and husband) are new immigrants to north America, 9 years and counting… We have talked about those issues- between us- so many times. We could not understand what’s wrong with us, why all those lovely dinners with ‘domestic’ friends are called off after two hours at most… When we host, spending hours preparing special food… we would like friends to stay with us more than 1.5-2 hours, but it seems like they do not wish to spend much beyond dinner…
… and I loved your observations about the hype culture around events. We went through it so many times, and we still fail to catch it, time after time- municipal events as well….
I’m an American science geek who just found your blog; I LOVE it!!! Here’s the scoop: we post-boomer Americans have not been properly trained in how to have a dinner party. If you look at parties in colleges, they run for many hours, so clearly we do have long-running party experience — but we are totally unused to other people being in our “space” except for the video game or role-playing-game communities — small subsets of American geekdom, and even they are generally not socialized to provide nourishing food during such sessions. It’s usually pizza, and if you are very lucky, someone will bake cookies or make a pot of chili or something.
Natural-foodies will usually do better at this, baking bread and bringing something homemade to the table, and they may even linger outside on a lovely summer evening, talking and sipping beverages while the children chase one another, but many, many of us were raised eating on trays in front of a television set, because our mothers, who generally had been raised by mothers who knew how to throw dinner parties, were instead trying out their new wings (or their divorced wings) by working full-time. They didn’t have the energy left in the evenings to deal with kids… so we all ate dinner watching the television. We have to be trained in what it is to cook food from scratch, we must relearn the cultural dishes we have abandoned or have never even seen, and we especially have to learn how to actually talk with and interact with people other than the immediate family in our own homes for more than two hours at a time. That we have lost these skills in only two generations is sad. That we have the internet to help us regain them is a good thing. That we have immigrants who can also help us learn what we need to do to rejoin regular human interaction is a gift.
My apologies in advance if any of your friends don’t even realize that they need to learn this from you, but every time you have them over, you are modeling behavior that they never knew was the way people are happiest interacting! Don’t lose it and become another drone, please. Instead, teach it to all of us!
I am also an immigrant who has been in the States for ten years, whose culture is a lot like yours and who agrees with all you just wrote.I find it disappointing and annoying, disappointing that the people who invited us over didn’t care enough and annoying, because by this time i should have gotten used to it. A particular sore story: we had neighbors who had two kids like us, we always invited them over and made plentiful food. When they were leaving, to a newly-bough house, while we were still renting,(my husband pointed out the difference), we threw them a barbecue and invited out mutual neighbors. We prepared a lot of food for grilling, hot dogs and hamburgers, chicken and skewers of meat with veggies.
When they moved, they invited us over for dinner. They decided we would order Take-out, which was fine, because in my mind they were exhausted over moving. What I found unacceptable however, was that we and another neighbor ended up paying the bill. My relationship with them has not been the same!