A New Look at Americana

By Alex Newhouse

It is easy to discount “American Culture” as a loose, insufficient, reductionist term for the patchwork heritage of the U.S. As we all know, America is called a “melting pot” for a reason – this country is primarily composed of people who have cultural roots elsewhere, often across several continents. The resulting attempt to define a singular culture of the USA necessarily fails. American cities are microcosms of the greater state of US culture; in the space of one city block, the demographics of citizens can vary so wildly that it feels as if a visitor has stepped between two countries.

When I left home for my semester abroad at Oxford, I was expecting to feel culture shock just by virtue of the society here in England working a little differently, with different norms and customs. But they still speak English, and since America really doesn’t have an entrenched culture, I thought it would be fairly easy to get accustomed to it.

But it surprised me when I started feeling a clash of cultures on a more fundamental level than just difference in behavior. I began to feel an underlying difference between the two countries, and not just in how the ketchup tastes (slightly different) or the buses drive (aggressively with little regard for pedestrians). George Bernard Shaw’s oft-quoted statement, “The United States and Great Britain are two nations separated by a common language,” may be cliché, and it most likely sounds pretty kitschy and tourist-y for me to say so, but he’s right. I’ve felt a vague sense of detachment from the British in a way that has made me identify more with the country I’m from. And it’s made me realize that “American Culture” might be more than a general affinity for McDonald’s and automatic vehicles.

I’m not going to embark on an attempt to define U.S. culture to any significant extent, because I certainly still think that it is nebulous and constantly shifting. Nevertheless, I have observed and felt several things that have made me wonder if we give short shrift to American culture itself, and whether it’s richer than we generally give it credit for.

To start with a small-scale example of how even basic things differ: I have found very few sink faucets in the UK that have a unified hot/cold tap. Almost all have two different taps with two different spigots for hot and cold water, requiring you to take a few extra seconds to fill the basin and get warm water to wash your hands with. These sinks exist even in places that were very clearly recently built or renovated, so it can’t simply be explained away by a relative lack of updating appliances. If I can be wildly speculative here for a few moments, this phenomenon seems to me to indicate something about the two cultures. The British haven’t changed these sinks most likely because they work well enough, but those few extra seconds necessary to fill the basin have been widely eliminated in the US.

The landscape of both Oxford and England have also caused me to reassess American culture. English countryside is heavily farmed, and with a population density of more than twelves times that of the U.S., it is unlikely that you can travel more than a few miles without seeing some sort of town or city. And Oxford itself, as a medieval city, is extremely dense; thousands of people congregate on the city centre (where I happen to live at the moment), buildings stand in close proximity to one another, and the roads are narrow. A few large parks are welcome parts of Oxford’s scenery, but these are fenced-in, heavily cultivated and locked at night.
All this contrasts greatly with the United States, where cities and towns sprawl and empty space is aplenty. Driving through the western part of the US reminds you just how massive the country is, and still how much of it is wild and untamed. Swaths of prairie land bordered by massive ranges of mountains make up the American Frontier, and having visited a country now where even the woodlands of Scotland are dwarfed by the countryside of Montana, I’ve got the sense that some of that difference has made its way into our cultures. Nineteenth century America is often defined by the pioneers of the West, who made their lives on somewhat inhospitable land and managed to settle brutal terrain. The roughness and independence of these early pioneers is still apparent in the towns scattered throughout Wyoming, Montana, Nevada and even still parts of California, but I think that frontierism is still present across America. There’s an appreciation for space which manifests itself in spread-out cities and untamed urban parks (think Central Park in New York and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco). There’s also a transience apparent the American psyche — Oxford is steeped in historical tradition going back well before the US was ever founded, whereas many American cities and towns have simply appeared or drastically expanded to fit the constant and continual shift of American citizens across the country.

I’ve only been in the UK for a few weeks, and I freely admit that I do not have nearly enough evidence to back up my claim beyond just an inkling, but the truth of that assertion is almost secondary to the fact that I have been thrown off a step by it. There’s something here, even in the design of the faucets, that makes this place feel different and causes me to think about myself as a result of an American culture. There are plenty of problems with American society and I do not intend this column at all to channel American exceptionalism — but there are certain facets of British life that have started to cause me to think about how Americans are unified. Perhaps it’s not just the notorious proliferation of junk food, or a penchant for over-the-top patriotism, or even the lack of a definitive common culture, that make us American. Maybe there’s something in the still-unconquered frontiers that make us different and give us a sense of cultural unity.