American on the Outside

[TMI Warning]

Lately I’ve noticed that when I talk to people about my national identity, they tend to assume that I consider myself American. For instance, I’ll say that I’m Russian and Israeli, and they’ll add “and American” without any prompting from me. I keep wondering why this is, and it brings up some interesting issues about immigration and that whole thing.

I suppose the “ideal” of immigration is that you come to a new country, become a citizen, and renounce your prior ethnic identity. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, many European immigrants who came to the United States did just that. For this reason, most people in the United States today call themselves “Americans,” despite the fact that, except for Native Americans, there really isn’t such a thing as an “American.”

However, I have to admit that I don’t fall into this pattern. My heart just isn’t here. It’s back home in Israel. And although I may “look” like a normal American–I dress, eat, speak, and entertain myself like one–my worldview and way of interacting with people certainly aren’t. For instance, like most Russians, I tend to show off my knowledge and intelligence rather than hiding it, and like most Israelis, I tend to be blunt and open about my beliefs and opinions rather than toning them down a notch like Americans do. For this reason, Americans tend to see me as conceited and overly opinionated, whereas Russians and Israelis never do. After all, the cultural norms are just different. Russians don’t show off their intelligence because they think they’re better than others; rather, they simply don’t have a culture that shames and belittles smart people. In the United States, the assumption tends to be that if you’re acting smart and using lots of big words, you’re probably full of yourself, because if you weren’t, you’d keep that side of yourself hidden like everyone else does.

Similarly with the whole opinion thing. In Israel, if you’re not sharing your opinions, you’re weird. In the US, you’re polite. I always found it funny how things like religion and politics are almost considered “taboo” topics in the US. After all, they’re so interesting and generate so many great discussions, so why wouldn’t people want to talk about them? Americans, unlike Israelis, shy away from any sort of conflict and confrontation. I’ve met plenty of people here who disagree with me, but very few who will actually admit it.

Those are just two examples. Obviously, I could go on and on. I’m reminded of my status as a foreigner every time friends reminisce about American kids’ shows that I never saw or a popular band from the 70s that their parents made them listen to, but mine didn’t. I’m reminded of it every time I find that I can’t stomach a particular American food (hamburger and hot dog buns, the combination of sweet and salty, pork ribs), and every time I look at the culture around me and find it, quite frankly, appalling (the media’s influence on eating disorders, the virgin/whore dichotomy for women, and so on). Although I’ve learned to “act American” for the most part, there are many aspects of my personality that I refuse to let go of, and they mark me as an outlier in this particular culture.

In short, I don’t think that the fact that I’ve ended up living in the United States due to circumstances beyond my control automatically makes me an American. I’m not even a citizen, for starters, and the only reason I’m going to stay here after I graduate is because I’ve learned how to survive here and don’t want to learn it all over again in Israel. I am a Russian Israeli living in America. Not an American.

Middle Class Sexuality

I saw this interesting op-ed at the New York Times’ website today. It talks about the “Viagra for women” (flibanserin) that was recently rejected by the FDA and how the sexual problem for American women isn’t medical but societal, because the “white upper middle class” has essentially become uptight and frigid.

I agree with the op-ed in some ways, because it’s true that American culture is actually extremely Puritan despite the gratuitous amount of sex present in its media (including advertising and entertainment, of course). Once when my grandma came from Israel for a visit, she was shocked that at the swimming pool, men wear huge, baggy trunks rather than the tight little briefs they wear in Israel. That’s a rather trivial example, but it showcases one of the many strange contradictions in American culture. Nearly-naked men abound in the movies and in advertising, but they’re unacceptable at the pool (which, one would think, is a place where people go to be nearly naked).

In any case, there are probably better examples of this, like the fact that the government spends millions of dollars on teaching junior high students that one should never have sex before marriage, and high schools will make students call their parents and ask them to bring a different shirt if they wear one that bares–gasp–their shoulders. (The fact that schools try to send such a strict message when kids are bombarded with highly sexualized media every day is nothing short of ludicrous. It’s media literacy they should be teaching, not abstinence till marriage.)

The fact that all of this eventually leads to a complete lack of sexuality is unsurprising. When you spend your entire life being told that sex is sinful and shameful, I can see how you’re not going to get terribly enthusiastic in the bedroom. However, where I take issue with Paglia (the writer of the op-ed) is her suggestion that this is all attributable to “white” culture. Christian culture, maybe. But white culture? The op-ed uses the example of female celebrities to argue that since Latinos and African Americans seem to be more sexualized, the overall sexual deficiencies of American women can be attributed to white women:

Furthermore, thanks to a bourgeois white culture that values efficient bodies over voluptuous ones, American actresses have desexualized themselves, confusing sterile athleticism with female power. Their current Pilates-honed look is taut and tense — a boy’s thin limbs and narrow hips combined with amplified breasts. Contrast that with Latino and African-American taste, which runs toward the healthy silhouette of the bootylicious Beyoncé.

I’m just not sure about this generalization. After all, Beyoncé may be African American, but plenty of white people love her, too, and it’s pretty much universally agreed that she’s gorgeous. Does the fact that black women tend to be curvier than white women make black women more sexual? And aren’t there plenty of thin black women and curvy white women?

I suppose I’m just uncomfortable with the idea that women of color are somehow more sexual than white women. I think Paglia takes it too far there. However, white culture has been the dominant culture in America since its inception (due to demographics and discrimination), so I guess you can blame most of our societal quirks on it.

Aside from that, though, the op-ed made many great points. This paragraph struck me as very insightful:

In the discreet white-collar realm, men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work. Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure.

I can’t say I could offer up a solution to that, but it’s a keen observation all the same. Yes, in terms of sexuality, American culture is downright boring, and no pill can fix that. Or rather, I’m sure they’ll find a pill to fix that eventually, just like they find pills to fix everything else, but it’d be nice if we didn’t need pills.

Paglia ends the op-ed by writing, “Pharmaceutical companies will never find the holy grail of a female Viagra — not in this culture driven and drained by middle-class values. Inhibitions are stubbornly internal. And lust is too fiery to be left to the pharmacist.” No one would suggest that we return to all being poor and leaving 99% of the nation’s wealth to a few elites, but clearly, a culture mostly controlled by the middle class has some unfortunate drawbacks.