Cultural Differences

It’s amazing, the number of things you take for granted. Maybe for you, it’s snow every winter and church every Sunday and brambles creeping onto your lawn. It’s something you talk about with your neighbors, and the stores all sell snow boots and there’s a little plaque on your door talking about God’s divine mercy. And, if nothing else, you can smile ruefully across the street at your neighbor as you both clip the brambles on your lawn, and bandage the pricks on your hands.


I live in California, specifically Southern California. My family has moved around a lot, but almost every time we moved, we at least stayed within Southern California. Except for when I was seven, and we moved to Colorado for two years. I remember going to the little kid’s section at church (Back when we were still religious) and gushing about the ocean and how much I would love to be able to walk on water like Jesus, and the teacher pulled me aside to explain that maybe I shouldn’t talk about the ocean because most kids haven’t seen the ocean, and we don’t want them to get jealous. Aside from the mind-boggling ridiculousness of that statement, I remember that it blew my mind that anyone could have not seen the ocean. The sea is something I grew up with. My earliest memories include eating sand and being forced to wear a hat all day at the beach, even in the ocean, because my nose was so badly sunburned. I could not comprehend that that was not an experience that everyone shared, because, in Southern California, it is. Everyone’s seen the ocean, in Southern California.


We moved back to California when I was nine, and I attended a semester at a tiny school called Keegan Academy based out of three rooms of an office building. Fifty students, K-8. There was one teacher for the entire middle school section, and she was great, actually. Really great. She was from New York, and she didn’t know what a tamale was. That shocked everyone in the class.

“Seriously?” we said. “You know, tamales, the things you get on Christmas Eve from a dinky little Mexican food place in the middle of nowhere.”

Christmas tamales, it appears, are only a thing in certain parts of Southern California. Nervously, we started listing kinds of Mexican food, peering at her to see if she knew them. She knew what a taco was. And a burrito. But she didn’t know about enchiladas, or taquitos, or churros, and breakfast burritos were a foreign concept to her. We were all a hop, skip, and a jump from the Mexican border, and there were approximately twenty tiny little Mexican food places started up by immigrants within our parents’ driving distance. We were raised on Mexican food.


Even smaller, in the little microcosm of homeschooling groups and our family, everyone I knew was a reader. We read huge, thick books, and didn’t think of it as strange, because everyone did it. We, at five or eight or twelve, talked about the Warriors books, recommended books to each other, Redwall and Percy Jackson and Harry Potter. All of us commiserated about being banned from reading as a punishment. That was a thing, our moms would take our books away if we were bad, because one of the commonly agreed points in homeschooling is that Electronics Are Bad, so that was all we did, read and played and pretended to eat Mr. Potato Head. The first time I heard someone complain about their parents making them read, (Also at Keegan, by the way,) I had just been complaining about being banned from books, and someone said, in a tone of amazement,

“You’re banned from books as punishment? My parents punish me by making me read.”

We sat there for a while and boggled at each other, a wide, uncomprehending culture gap yawning between us. I couldn’t believe anyone could dislike reading. He couldn’t believe anyone could like it.


After we went to Europe, I discovered other things I took for granted, as an American and a Californian. For example, the existence of a plethora of restaurants, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so that you could eat out for every meal every day for weeks and never have the same restaurant twice. They don’t have that, in Europe. They have a few restaurants, one for each kind of food and no Mexican food. That was weird. Although I suppose it makes sense, since they’re on the other side of the world from Mexico. No, the dominating kind of “foreign” food was Indian. I like Indian food, but it tends to be much too spicy for me. Even though I grew up on Mexican food, the point of Mexican spiciness is to give you a small, flavorful kick. Indian food is apparently intended to burn your tastebuds off. Of course, that didn’t stop our Indian friends from cheerfully ladling hot sauce onto their plates.


And they apparently do not eat breakfast. The closest thing to a breakfast place you can find is a bakery, which will be serving croissants and little tarts. No pancakes, or breakfast burritos. An English breakfast, sure, with eggs on toast with mushrooms and tomato and sausage, but, as delicious as Portobello mushrooms are, I was dying for some maple syrup by the time we got back to the US. Maple syrup and barbecue sauce, which is also not a thing that exists in Europe.

It’s interesting, the cultural differences, don’t you think? What cultural differences have bewildered you, growing up, or even recently?

(Note: Only about half the photos are mine.)

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2 Responses to Cultural Differences

  1. I’ve traveled quite a bit recently, and I have to say that I experienced many situations that I had realized I took things for granted. I swear, sometimes my mind was so mind blown that people didn’t do certain things, until I got to the point that I was accepting everything and anything into normality. I think that’s what happens when you have so many culturally shocking experiences, and I really love this post since you’re acknowledging something so overlooked by many. Cheers 🙂

  2. The “no breakfast” restaurants was a little shocking to me as well. But one thing that I thought was interesting, was that the largest cultural difference wasn’t from geography but from economics. Seeing the poor, middle class, and rich in France and England, and seeing how it mirrored what we see in the US, showed me that how much money you have is what divides cultures the most. I did not expect that.

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