Thirty-some county fairs ago, I attended for the first and only time a demolition derby. I still don’t completely understand this motorsport, in which drivers make a point of doing what I try my hardest not to do at the wheel. As I watched the ramming and slamming from my seat high up in the grandstand, I kept wondering how I would ever explain such an unusual tradition to my friends in Germany.
This memory popped up the other day as I perused an online article Francesca Vega had written for Big Global Travel under the title “Questions Non-Americans Have for Americans Where the Answer Is Yes.” Please note: the questioners quoted are from around the world, not just Germany.
For years my perspective was unique, called upon as I often was to explain American customs to my German friends while simultaneously explaining German customs to my American friends. Reminds me of my dirt-cake and fungus-pizza article a few weeks ago…
Actually, that certain questions were even posed offers us a fascinating look at ourselves and our own sometimes quirky lifestyles – and raises questions about lifestyles elsewhere. For example, DO AMERICANS REALLY LEAVE THEIR PARKED CARS UNLOCKED? reminds me that a friend in Germany once found a photo of her car – with all doors open – printed in the Hannover newspaper as a public reminder that the police assess fines for exactly that!
Naturally I was drawn to school-related queries such as DO AMERICANS SERIOUSLY HAVE WHOLE TESTS THAT ARE MULTIPLE CHOICE? which conjured up visions of my German teacher friends reading pages and pages of essay answers written by students during tests that lasted anywhere from two periods to six periods. No Scantrons for them!
I also found reference to DO AMERICANS HAVE YELLOW SCHOOL BUSES? in comments by our exchange partners about American Kaesewagen (cheese wagons) winding through cornfield-bordered country roads and stopping at each individual residence. In many other countries, students wait at stops – along with random other passengers – for city buses to transport them.
Here are a few replies from prominent community members to this question: DO AMERICANS ACTUALLY HAVE SCHOOL MASCOTS? (Sparky, Freddie Falcon, and Brutus all say yes!)
And there were a couple of school-related questions that simply made me smile: DO AMERICAN STUDENTS REALLY HAVE LAB PARTNERS? WHAT DO THEY DO WITH THEM? …and… DO AMERICAN STUDENTS ACTUALLY HAVE A SCHOOL ASSIGNMENT WHERE THEY HAVE TO TAKE CARE OF A BAG OF FLOUR LIKE IT’S A KID?
Unsurprisingly, our global neighbors inquired about some of our food customs. One of my snack favorites made the list: DO AMERICANS EAT CHIPS ON SANDWICHES? (Love the crunch!) And another fave: DO AMERICANS REALLY EAT PIZZA WITH RANCH DRESSING? (Yum!)
The use of peanut butter was also questioned. DO AMERICANS REALLY EAT PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICHES? …and… DO AMERICANS REALLY EAT PEANUT BUTTER ON CELERY? Peanut butter is seldom eaten in Europe, and celery root rather than stalks are preferred. Hmm, how would our European friends react to raisins on peanut butter in celery, especially if we told them they were eating Ants-on-a-Log?
Also on the food front, my first-hand observations in German grocery stores had me prepared for this one: DO AMERICANS REALLY NEED ENTIRE AISLES JUST FOR CEREAL? Knowing that many cultures value certain tea and coffee traditions – teapots and teatime and crumpets and beans and leaves, I was not surprised by: DO AMERICANS ACTUALLY PUT WATER IN THE MICROWAVE TO HEAT IT UP?
It was not the question itself that made me chuckle: DO AMERICANS REALLY CALL OPTICIANS “EYE DOCTORS”? No, I laughed at the author’s long explanation of opticians, optometrists, and ophthalmologists, which she ended by wondering if we also call dentists “tooth doctors.” That is exactly the word used by Germans: Zahnarzt = Tooth Doctor!
I totally understand both sides of the next question, having grown up in a farmhouse on River Road and later spending time in several German homes: DO AMERICANS ACTUALLY HAVE THOSE MAILBOXES ON THE END OF THEIR DRIVEWAYS THAT OPEN COMPLETELY? DO PEOPLE NOT STEAL THE MAIL? (Just packages off porches!)
One of the questions in the article brought to mind an occurrence at a Graham Board of Education meeting back in the 1990s, during which a couple of GHS athletic teams plus the German and American exchange students were to be recognized. As had long been the custom, the board president requested all attendees to stand and join in the Pledge of Allegiance. Cued by their teacher, the German kids stood politely but wide-eyed during that public recitation. Hence, the question DO AMERICANS ACTUALLY STAND AND SALUTE THE FLAG? hinted at considerations in German political history – and perhaps presaged struggles in our own attitudes concerning displays of patriotism.
Another question helped me recall sweet memories from my time in Germany: DO AMERICANS REALLY CALL OLDER PEOPLE MA’AM AND SIR? Combined with recent news clips of British children bowing and/or curtsying before the Royal Couple, I remembered that German children were taught to do the same before their elders as a sign of respect. I don’t know if that custom is as common as it once was, but I treasure those days and memories.
By the way, we also crown prom queens (and kings!); we have white eggs; we boil hot dogs; we consider Homecoming a big deal! Yes! Yes, we do!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.