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Observing Americans, EFL Students Share Insights

From de Tocqueville to Codrescu, America often welcomes the observer who traverses too familiar landscapes, daring to make sense of what sometimes escapes us in this mad rush of American life.
Ron Alcalay

Issue #27, September 1996

landscape image The best mirror is sometimes the one we've never seen before. Mirroring differences, or nature we take for granted, foreigners often prove astute critics of the countries they visit or adopt. From de Tocqueville to Codrescu, America often welcomes the observer who traverses too familiar landscapes, daring to make sense of what sometimes escapes us in this mad rush of American life. These foreigners show us a version of ourselves; they hold the strange mirrors that illuminate as they reflect.

Last summer, while teaching an American Culture class to English-level E Taiwanese and Koreans, my students pointed to some features of this homeland that I hadn't recognized before. The following essay records some surprising views from the students' American Culture Journals (grammar mistakes included), and includes some of my responses to these observations. I quote these students with their permission, and at length, because they were smart; and though their English wasn't quite up to level-F snuff, the way they expressed their thoughts captured something that even native speakers might miss. Now, a pedagogical note: the American Culture Journal formed the core writing of the course, and the basis for about twenty minutes of discussion at the start of every class. Each entry included an observation, a question, and a hypothesis. After a student read their entry, I might have commented on the analysis, or asked the class for alternative hypotheses, broadening or specifying our analyses of contemporary culture.

One recurring topic concerned privacy and public behavior. The Asians found so many of our displays inspiring or shocking. One Chinese woman named Cecilia described the instant familiarity engendered by a temporary halt on the BART train:

And then when the train arrived, WOW! It was full of people. We tried our best to get into the train. It was very crowded. Then the train went on to the next station, more people came in, but the train didn't keep going. It stopped for about five minutes. The carman kept saying, "It's the Richmond train..." Then people on the train said, "Oh, we already knew that. Hey, close the door and let's go!" People began to talk to each other. They laughed and talked just like they knew each other for a long time. At that moment, I felt warmly in my heart. They made a bad situation better....

Cecilia continued, hypothesizing about American optimism. She loved this attitude. As one who often feels free to speak freely with those around me, especially during unexpected situations, I also shared her enthusiasm for the public transport gab. "But that easiness also has a flip-side," I said. He's called "The Pesterer." And he won't stop talking even if you bury your head in a newspaper or close your eyes and pretend to meditate." After a pause, one student wondered where he might find The Pesterer; he wanted practice in conversation.

Another student subtly skewered a common greeting practice. Her observation: The American way to say hello between men and women is to embrace with each other and have a kiss. While I admitted to greeting some close friends this way, I clarified that the greeting was far from universal, but that I would do my best to remedy the situation. Then she asked: Does an American husband care or be angry when another man embraces and kisses his wife to say hello and to be friendly?

Her hypothesis:

Chinese people are more conservative. If a man and a woman embrace or kiss, people will think of them as lovers, not as friends. I think that maybe Americans just want to express that they are really good friends without any distance.

In the ensuing conversation, another student added that he felt Americans acted this way because they weren't sure of their friendships, and wanted to believe they were strong — so they acted close. "To compensate for their insecurity," I said. Compensate, Insecurity: vocabulary for the board.

Along the same lines, a student found:

that most American are very actively while they are in the movie theater. They laugh loudly and even applaud. Sometimes they will hiss and boo at the characters. It's very interesting. Because in Taiwan, if you do that, people may think you are crazy. Americans are willing to show their emotions. I like this. It makes me feel that the movie is not only a movie, but a true story happened in front of me. And the food is quite different, too. People here like to eat popcorn or maybe this is the only food that got in the theater. In Taiwan, there are hundred of food selling in the theater or in the stores which are near the theater.

Ah yes...that difficulty differentiating between reality and fantasy in American life, like Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show, an early film in which a bumpkin tears down the screen in an attempt to save the damsel from the dude who's distressing her. But it's not so much confusing fantasy for reality, as a willingness to immerse ourselves so totally in the fantasy that we act out our visceral responses, regardless of our company. Of course, the darkness helps. As for popcorn, that's a capitalist plot. The theaters sell it for more than two dollars, and it's mostly air! No wonder there are no pot stickers....


Out on the street, surrounded by movement, some students' observant eyes invariably turn to our habits of transportation. A student entitles her entry "CAR."

I couldn't see many people walking down the lane. Most of people, as soon as they get out of the house, they ride in a car. And drive to anywhere. Then why do Americans use their car a lot? Americans seem as if they can't live without their cars. My first hypothesis is about a kind of section which is divided into house section and commercial section. In Korea there are many small shops near houses, so we don't need to use a car, but here I think there are not so many small stores near houses, but instead, there are commercial section where many big stores and shopping centers are little far away from their houses. So when Americans go to the big stores, they have to buy many things or big amount of goods as they can't go often. So they need a car as a means of transportation which carries the goods.
And I found that in America there are not so many buses or public transportation. So they have a car. Of course I'm not sure which is the first — because most of Americans have their cars, there are not so many public transportation, or because there are not so many public transportation, Americans should have a car.
And I learned that Americans can have their driver's license from sixteen. So Americans think their car like a friend, more familiar as they have been with a car since sixteen years old.

Cars as friends, members of the family, lovers even. Reminds me of the Queen song, "I'm in love with my car/Got a feel for my automobile." We can form those attachments to any familiar object — a watch, a bike, a favorite pen. Just lose one and you'll see; but cars...perhaps because they talk to us, purring, roaring, just like a faithful pet. Americans love their cars almost as much as their dogs.


Dog-love aroused the curiosity of a student. He observed:

I've seen many times people who were taking their dogs out. They are always with their dogs. For example, when they went to the supermarket, or took a walk in the park. Usually, the dogs are very big. Question: Why are they always bringing their dogs out everywhere? Do they love their dogs so much? Do they have children to take care of?

The student attempted to answer his question by referring to dogs' reputed faithfulness, but one of his questions also suggests a possible answer. People treat pets like children; they use cats or dogs to satisfy that caring-for-someone-else need, or just to practice feeding something on a regular schedule. I once heard a woman wondering if she'd become a spinster, sharing her home with cats. Her friend reassured her, "Don't be so pessimistic. You'll find someone." "The problem," she retorted, "is that I like cats." Animals are so much easier than people, even if — or perhaps because — they sometimes require a leash.

We can also learn about our culture by noticing the things students didn't observe. No one observed policemen meditating, or aerobic instructors wearing natural tones; not one commented upon a cooperative moment. Everywhere students found motion - Brownian, atomistic, (even our leisure-time moved). We move, and better yet, we multi-task! A Taiwanese wondered at our ability to do everything while in transit:

Every morning, I find every American do many things like eating breakfast, reading newspapers, listening to walkman and walking at the same time. They seem very busy and let me understand time is really money. They don't have too much time to sit down at a coffee shop and order something to eat. Their doing like this is more efficient. The streets in the morning are quieter. However, in the afternoon, everyone's work seems stop and they begin to have time to go shopping, chat at a coffee shop and take exercise. The streets in the afternoon suddenly become crowded and noisy. Do Americans' work often end at about 3:00 p.m.?
P.S.: In our country (Taiwan), we usually say that if a person often has much leisure time to fool around or sit at a coffee shop, he has "American-time.

"American-time..." Too bad that often doesn't include time to help a stranger. An incident exemplifying the curt efficiency of American-time alarmed an unsuspecting student:

Today I went to the street near Claremont Hotel because it was my homework to interview some people. When I got there I found that this place is quite different from the place where I stay. The atmosphere was colder, and the people around there looked colder too. I felt some distance from them, but as my homework was to do some interview, I approached one guy and asked politely if I could ask him some questions because my homework is to do some interview. The man who was reading the newspaper suddenly look at me and said, "No!" So I asked "Why?" and he said, "Just get out of my face!" I was really shocked and wanted to heap abuses on him. I felt insulted. How could he stare at me in that way and say such things like that just in front of my face?
In Korea it can't happen especially to foreigners. We think the whole image of Korea before we talk to them. And when we say "No" we don't say it so directly because in this case the other person maybe can feel bad. But here when someone wants to say "No" it's so direct that sometimes the person even looks so rude. It's the most big culture difference that I felt here. Maybe Americans are not so used to say things indirectly because they are taught to think that kind of thing is a waste of their precious time. But in Korea, in most Oriental countries they say things very carefully, specifically when they say "No," because it can hurt somebody and ignore others whether they meant it or not.

Interesting that she locates the incident so definitively near the posh Claremont. I suppose ritzy neighborhoods don't necessarily breed good manners; and I wonder: would she have encountered the same reaction in front of my favorite cafe? But the tale also reveals something about the teller (as all tales will). Why didn't she heap those abuses? I would have liked to see that. And that statement probably says something about me too.

american image

"Excuse me-."
Whenever I walk down the street, I see many people, and whenever I'm touched with them — whatever I touch them or they touch me, anyway they quickly say, "Excuse me" all the time.
Sometimes even if it's so slight that I didn't know whether I was touched or not, Americans don't forget to say "Excuse me-."
I think of course it's a very good custom but sometimes it's also annoying. In Korea, it is forgivable (if it's a slight touch) not to say "Excuse me-." Then for what reason do Americans frequently say "Excuse me" than Koreans when they touch someone?
Perhaps because in Korea, we're accustomed to live in a small place, so touches are natural. But America is a large country, so people seem to care about touching to others. And Americans are individualistic generally. So it seems that Americans think it's important to guarantee one's province.
So if another person violates it, Americans think it's an unforgivable thing.
And my last hypothesis is: as American is a multi-racial nation, people need more understanding between themselves than a unitary nation like Korea. So to keep their good relationships between other peoples, Americans seem to enjoy express their gratitude or sorry like "Excuse me-."

Perhaps we use "excuse me" as permission to be careless. It's a funny expression, one that seems to demand what it asks, enacting the result regardless of consent. Like "I apologize." People rarely ask, "Will you excuse me?" And if they do, they rarely wait around for an answer.

Funny how so many of the students' observations to echo cultural stereotypes of Americans. Maybe the students simply found what they expected, or maybe Americans really are extroverts, who act out with their numerous screens as much as with each other; who love cars and dogs like family; multi-task, except when pre-occupied; say "No" with verve and "Excuse me" with ease. I fear that along with our cultural dominance in capital markets, we may project a callous and vacuous existence to those fortunate enough to visit our shores. Nevertheless, people keep coming, observing, and wondering about our nation's life. The Culture Journals contain other wise observations — about clothing, fat, adoption, and tips. I'd like to share them all with you, but I want to drink my herbal-infusion tea. It's American-time, Berkeley-style.

Ron Alcalay teaches Film History at SF State, and Reading and Comp. at UC Berkeley. His dissertation, "Adamant Immaturity" concerns U.S. narratives in the 1950s. He can be reached at