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.