Just to make sure everyone is clear on the matter: Texas is not Europe.
I don’t say this because I think you’re dumb, I say it because I’m not sure I had my head fully wrapped around this concept when I left for my spring break trip a few days ago. Despite having traveled profusely around the US, six months in Madrid threw all of my knowledge of traveling these 50 states out the window. I’ve now been in Texas for four days with my parents, and I seem to have endured more culture shock in these four days than when I first arrived in Madrid in August. Everything in US cities just seems much harder!
Like transportation– you have to drive everywhere. The reliance on personal transportation is one notable difference between traveling in the US and Western Europe. In the US, driving is often the primary mode of transportation, which can heavily impact one’s overall travel experience. The lack of accessible public transportation and the setup of the cities means that walking to stores to get needed items is oftentimes not feasible. When we’re hungry in Texas, we must get into the car and drive 15 minutes to the closest restaurant or grocery store. This is very different from living on top of a pasta restaurant in Madrid, and even notably harder than getting on the metro to transport you to food services farther away. Even for short distances in the US, one must drive. This emphasis on cars has seemingly shaped the US culture into one where pedestrians have fewer rights and are less prioritized compared to pedestrians in Western Europe. With the more accessible walking nature of European cities, there is an allowance for a deeper immersion in the culture and ambiance. When traveling somewhere on foot, you’re constantly learning through looking in the windows of stores, overhearing conversations, and having more time to read billboards than if you were driving at 40mph, all while being constantly surrounded by other pedestrians whether they be locals or other tourists. When traveling through a city in the US, you don’t get this kind of cultural exploration. Travelers are confined to the familiarity of their own vehicles, and as I sit in the backseat and Father Rooster drives down the street in Corpus Christi, Texas, I find that the road we’re driving on looks an awful lot like a multitude of roads I’ve encountered in other cities. It makes it seem as though there are no unique cultural experiences in US cities, as they all tend to blend into one with the homogeneity cars create between cities.
This is exemplified even more by the popularity of chains in the US. In every city you travel to in the US, you’ll find the exact same stores. Walmart, Starbucks, Walgreens, Target, McDonald’s; the hotel chains like Holiday Inn, Marriott, or Hilton. These stores are often the first string, “go-to” options in the US and are always standardized across different locations. Therefore it is quite accurate to say that many cities across the US feel exactly the same, as they all house these same stores. A lot of these chains, such as Starbucks and McDonald’s’ are still prominent in the majority of cities across the world, but these chains must adhere to the already established culture of the city, not the other way around. In the popular shopping destination in Madrid, Gran Via, there is a two-story McDonald’s that sits over the square. Despite being an ‘American’ entity, Mcdonald’s has assumed the architecture of the surrounding buildings instead of the identical architecture that McDonald’s has in every city in the US. Although countries across the world also have these chains, they aren’t held to the same priority. In Spain, and Hispanoamerica in general, there is a strong preference for smaller, family-run stores that offer a more unique shopping experience such as neighborhood markets, street/flea markets, and traditional artisanal goods stores. Having this variety appeals to the different cultures cities can have, and also contribute to the local economy and cohesion of the community.
This lack of community cohesion in the US comes from the prominence of extreme individualism in our culture. Individualism is the ideology that every person is a self-sufficient individual and therefore emphasizes self-reliance, individual rights, and personal achievements. The communities are therefore lacking because individualism pushes the view that everyone is their own person and not representative of a family or community. This is far different from the view of Hispano-American countries. In Spain, there are strong family bonds where many generations live harmoniously under the same roof, with a better work-life balance, and more emphasis on relationships and socializing. The US culture doesn’t see these things are important and therefore struggles with a lack of interconnectedness as individuals tend to focus on themselves instead of their local community. This in turn leads to a weaker sense of collective identity and shared responsibility which can generate justifications for inequality as people are unlikely to address societal issues through collective action. The lack of community cohesion in the US means there are fewer social support networks which causes an increase in loneliness and time spent with others. When walking around Madrid in the evenings, there was no short supply of people out getting tapas together, couples walking around in the park, or coworkers riding the metro together. When looking around this road through Texas, it seems as though a majority of the people are inside of their respective cars, alone. Not only does this inevitably cause more carbon emissions as most people feel the need to drive themselves, but it also causes an increase in consumerism and materialism. When our society pushes the need for individual achievements and proving that one individual is better than another, this can oftentimes result in placing more importance on material possessions, wealth, and status.
Even the thrift and solidarity stores are different in the US because of this need to outwardly show your status. When flipping through clothes, the majority of them come from the same prominent brands. You can go to the mall to buy Forever 21, Lululemon, and H&M, you can open an incognito website and order Shein and Zara online, or you can go to your local thrift store and find the same exact brands and clothes hanging on their shelves as well. It’s the same problem with clothing and accessory brands as with chain stores. The US has a familiarity with the brand and a cultural drive to let everyone know that they can afford the most designer clothes and the most expensive handbags because of their own personal achievements.
I grew up in the US and spent my entire life here except for those six months so I obviously have the same struggles with individualism as well. Many, including myself, would say that I have a horrible work-life balance and focus more on my academic goals than fostering a tight-knit community. I liked how living in Madrid forced me to push myself out of this American individualism bubble though and gave me an incredible perspective on how one can achieve great things while still seeing friends every day. The longer I’ve been back at university in the States the more this perspective has dwindled though, and the more obsessed I become with achieving, achieving, achieving.
I do still have a habit of instinctively saying “perdona!” when bumping into someone on a crowded street. Or how being in the South means people are extremely nice to you, sometimes too much, and how I miss the waiters coming up to me and just saying “Tell me” without any more small talk unless you initiated it. I still hesitate to hand over my credit card as it was drilled into my head by the owner of my first hostel never to let anyone else touch my card. As I’ve seen the work-life habits I learned in Madrid start to wear off the longer I’m back in the States, it’s nice to travel to a new city again and realize that I still have these small parts of Madrid living inside of me.
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