Class Notes

Crash-Course America

By Paula Marantz Cohen | April 17, 2012


I recently hosted a Chinese visitor—a woman of great sophistication but little knowledge of the United States. The experience struck me as an applied version of my American studies course. In both cases, the effort is to relay a sense of what America is, acknowledging that its identity is highly diversified and often contradictory. Wei’s visit was short (four weeks—eight days spent with me), and she traversed the smallest sliver of geographical space: West Philadelphia, midtown Manhattan, and a small town in southern New Jersey. Yet this was enough to give a beginner’s lesson in American culture.

Her first lesson was in consumption. Wei’s most pressing desire was to shop at high-end stores selling designer labels. But before she left, she gained a new appreciation for consignment, thrift, and wholesale shops where I buy most of my clothes. She piled up cut-rate merchandise (including a half dozen imitation Burberry scarves)—pretty much the same things I had bought at the Silk Market when I was in Beijing. We ended up paying about the same price for the same merchandise—most of it made in China. Still, she did splurge during our trip to Manhattan. After a visit to the reading room in the New York Public Library, she walked down the block to Botticelli, an upscale shoe store made famous on an episode of Seinfeld, where she bought herself a pair of $500 boots. They would cost twice as much in Beijing, she explained.

During Wei’s visit, we heard news reports about labor abuses at a Foxconn factory in China, which manufactures devices for Apple and other Western technology firms. She seemed untroubled, arguing that wages there are better than what workers would otherwise make, and that, besides, no one forced them to work there. Hers is a common view among Chinese, albeit those who can afford $500 Botticelli boots.

Her next lesson was on cuisine. We took her to a Philadelphia steakhouse and a New Jersey diner. We served her bagels and lox with cream cheese and English muffins with plenty of butter and grape jelly. I could see her palate changing and suspected she feared that a few more weeks would turn her into an obese American. Once, in a movie theater, she couldn’t take her eyes off a father and son, both of them of enormous proportions, eating the largest container of popcorn she had ever seen.

The high point of Wei’s culture tour was the Super Bowl. My husband and I explained the rules of American football, sketching diagrams of the field and defining terms like “first down.” That night we attended a Super Bowl party. She watched the game closely, taking breaks for extra helpings of the chili and sour cream, cheering at the appropriate places, and being properly exultant when the Giants won.

Watching my culture through the eyes of my visitor was an education. I could see the contours of my life more clearly—both its grandeur and its pettiness. The freedom that we take for granted—to air our views on whatever comes to mind—was acutely present to me as we discussed politics.

But the provincialism of our thinking and the self-centeredness of our approach to life also came to the fore. I know, having recently been in China, how food is automatically shared when it arrives at the table—no one ever owns a particular dish. And there is more politesse—people prefer consensus to confrontation. Still, Wei said that some of our preconceptions about Chinese and American family life may be wrong. Americans, for example, tend to be more family-oriented. American men are more present and more willing to share in responsibilities, she said.

I am curious to know what her more general sense of the United States is now that she has returned home, and whether other things about her country have become more visible to her through the comparison. And I wonder if she is getting compliments on her Botticelli boots.

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