Before you read this article thoroughly, answer this question: what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about America? When I was a little girl, the first thing that came to my mind when I thought about America was…nothing.
Growing up in Indonesia, the only thing I knew about America was that it was the most powerful country in the world. I have been living in this country now for three years, and here’s what I’ve learned about the truth of American culture based on how I see, how I feel, and how I adapt to American culture and how it differs from Indonesia.
There are a lot of stories that you are probably missing when you think about America. My humble suggestion is to not blindly believe and digest the information without having a broad mindset or gathering all the missing pieces of the American story itself. Don’t generalize-don’t conclude. America is very diverse. It is arduous to see the American culture clearly because American culture is a melting pot. The first term of the melting pot was coined when European immigrants came to America in 1908 to seek the “American Dream, and right now, there are even more and more people coming to America that are from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and all over the world.
People from all over the world have contributed their culture to American culture. Some Americans have absorbed immigrant cultures wholeheartedly, and some have not. Similarly, most people who come from other countries, like me, are assimilating to the American culture unconsciously due to the environment and habits that we see all around us. For example, Thanksgiving is an important day for Americans, and since I live here, I contribute to celebrate the big day with my friends because I think that I am part of this country for now.
Another reason as to why I mention that it is tough to see American culture purely is because what we know about America is only the “whiteness.” We know that white Americans are the center of American culture for such a long time, but not now anymore. For example, Black culture is also part of American culture. Black culture is varied. It is wonderful and colorful. Black culture forms lots of music genres like jazz, blues, rock, R&B, hip hop, and includes certain professions like athletics, activism, speeches, singers, dancers, hairstyle, food, and the ability to remix the words, like slang, etc.
Truthfully, black culture is very vibrant and global as other cultures. You know it, but you don’t realize it. You can see how black American culture influences people in Korea and Japan in music and fashion. I love hip hop music. When I was young, I did not know that it was coming from black culture. There is no culture without life. Black American culture was formed because it exists. My reason for bringing up this specific story is because I know that not many Indonesians receive the true story about American culture. I can also say this because of my experiences with black culture enlightened me to be able to say the truth of the American story. Again, it is hard to understand the “real” American story. It requires a full understanding of what happened in the past and present. There might be a difference between black and white culture. However, they are one. They are one culture, and here is the story of how I survive in American culture.
One of the most significant differences between American and Indonesian culture is individualism. Americans tend to be very individualistic, whereas Indonesians tend to be group and family-based oriented. Most American adults leave their homes and want to be independent when they turn 18, whereas so many Indonesians live with their parents even after they have married and have kids. Indonesian families stick together to ensure each member of the family internalizes the same values.
I think some Americans tend to be more individualistic because of the way their country was born. America was born through a revolutionary war with England, which they called “the war of independence.” During this time, there were so many individuals and families seeking opportunities. Another factor might be from the country’s constitution, which promotes “individual liberty.” The constitution preserves the liberty of each individual instead of the community or group.
On the other side of the coin, our country, Indonesia, was formed based on the philosophy of Pancasila, the five principles of Indonesia. Our founding father wanted to unify the Indonesian people due to the diverse culture that Indonesia has.
Secondly, America has a lower power distance than Indonesia. What does that mean? Here is an example. In Indonesia, we are prone to have space with our Boss in the workplace due to a strict hierarchy. We tend to call our Boss “Mr. or Mrs.” because our supervisors are usually older than we are. However, no matter how old your Boss is, you can just call that person by their first name in the United States. The hierarchy is not rigid.
In Indonesia, we can’t call our aunties and cousins who are older than us only by their first names; it’s considered impolite. By contrast, in America, it is customary to call everyone by their first name, even older people. Americans even refer to their parents as “YOU.” This is forbidden in Indonesian culture because it is considered rude. If you ever have the chance to come to America in the future, try to do some research about how the culture works. My first year I experienced culture shock, then I struggled for two years to fit in, and then in my third year, I finally began to understand the American culture. For one year, I struggled to adjust to American culture, especially during my classes. I always asked my professor for permission every time I wanted to go to the bathroom, which is unnecessary in this country. In American college classrooms, students can leave their class without permission. The reason is that college professors don’t want students to interrupt their lesson. By contrast in Indonesia, students would get in big trouble if they left their class without asking permission. This is the power distance that I am talking about. For years, I still asked my professor’s permission every time I wanted to leave the class because my culture is embedded in me.
Thirdly, when we talk about educational culture, Indonesia and America are very different. I would say that America has more rigid academic protocols than Indonesia. Discipline is the word that comes to mind when I think about the educational culture in America. In the U.S, we are expected to finish all tasks on time, no matter what. Students cannot turn assignments in late unless they are sick. Also, all assignments are due at midnight.
This is interesting as in Indonesia, our assignments are, many times, collected during class. Another difference is that the relationships between students and professors are less impersonal than they are in Indonesia. Professors in America are willing to help students because they want them to be successful. They are eager to spend the time to help students whenever they encounter problems with their homework. However, American students must meet a set of requirements to earn a good grade. Even when professors and students get along, this doesn’t mean students will earn a high grade in the course. This is different than Indonesia, where “empathy” is part of the grading system. If you are not good in the class, but you have a good attitude, the teachers might consider changing your grade. The reason is that many Indonesian professors are deeply empathetic toward their students. Sympathy and Empathy are an essential part of Indonesian culture.
In my opinion, American culture and Indonesian culture are very different. These two cultures are very interesting. It requires acceptance to fully understand what it is, and there is no wrong or right in terms of culture because we all come from a different world scope.