American Culture Through Guinean Eyes

Just as we learn more about ourselves by visiting other cultures, so can we learn more about our own culture when seen through the eyes of others. For this, I have my partner to thank. For his family and friends here in Guinea, he is the paramount of wisdom of life in the US and there are a few stories I’ve listened to him share in my time here.

Many Stories are exchanged in the shade on a hot day
Many Stories are exchanged in the shade on a hot day

One that never fails to amaze is his story of one of the first times he shared a home with roommates. Sharing a home is certainly not strange to Guineans, nor is sharing resources. In this instance, my partner shared a home, kitchen, and specifically, refrigerator with others who were paying by the room. One day he ventured, hungry, out to the kitchen and found an orange in the fridge. He ate it gladly, and was later shocked when the owner of said orange confronted him when he went searching for his fruit and found it gone. My boyfriend will act out the confrontation with grand gestures, demonstrating how angry the man was to not have his orange. His listeners will invariably be amazed at somebody getting so angry over sharing such a small item of food – something so common it goes without saying it will be done here in Guinea. The story ends with my boyfriend cooking up delicious food and not sharing it with the stingy, salivating roommate.

People are slow to believe that almost everybody has a car in the United States, that guns are not only legal, but fairly prevalent, and that one family member can and would take another to court. (This last tidbit gleaned from the People’s Court we watched while snowed in a motel room before we left.) I’ve also listened as he regaled people about police presence in the US; here in Guinea, police are rarely seen outside of traffic stops.

Another shared bit of wisdom regards the cost of living. It is assumed that anybody living in the US is incredibly wealthy, and indeed, opportunities for work abound. Less common knowledge is that life in the US is not inexpensive. My partner will shock his friends by talking about the cost of food, car insurance, and housing. They sit rapt with wide eyes and mouths hanging open trying to imagine.

When we watch movies with the family on my laptop, people are always interested when the scene is snow-covered. Ice, or glace (French, pronounced glass,) is a bit of an unknown. While there are people in the market selling small bags of ice, the idea that snow and ice could cover everything is hard to envision. (As difficult, I’d venture, as Africa would be to imagine for somebody living in Alaska.) Some walk away with the distinct impression that all of America is covered with snow.

The fact that America’s president is half African is not lost on the people of Guinea. Barack Obama’s likeness or name adorns the strangest of items here. His proud figure is displayed anachronously on the package of a DVD player, numerous bumper stickers, and small handbags sold at the market. His name is printed on socks, T-shirts, and on a drooping, blue umbrella set outside a dusty African bar. The only other American personality as well known as Obama is Snoop Dog, the most frequently requested music on my play list.

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