Friday, February 3, 2012

Musings on Minor Cultural Differences

Every time I travel I am amazed how small differences make such a huge impact on the culture of a place. You get a reflection of the people, philosophies and businesses that make an area unique. Now I admit, these are small things that someone from a foreign country might not notice at all, but traveling within my own country, I seem to be more open to the minutiae and I find that it is always interesting.

I recently traveled to the Midwest to visit family and see my grandmother who was in the hospital. I had a good time seeing all of my family and these comments aren't meant in any way to be condescending, but to provide an interesting reflection on how many small things and regional things can make a place feel so foreign. Part of this might be my fault for expecting things to be similar to home and finding that I have changed and so has the region where I used to spend time every summer growing up. When I visit the "Deep South" I know a lot of what is different and what to expect. This trip caught me off-guard.

The things that made me feel out of place seem to fall into two categories: food and technology.

(I could make a third category for politics, but I think I'll leave that out because it just isn't particularly interesting or relevant to this blog.)

Part 1 Food:

I ordered (American) Chinese and ate it with chopsticks at the HyVee Deli (more on that below). My lunch companions consisting of my dad and uncle and they where amazed and spent several minutes commenting on it. I found this rather comical, I mean my 4 year-old can now eat with chopsticks, you just have to practice a few times. In retrospect, I haven't had a reaction like that to the proper use of chopsticks since a meal 7 years ago in a mall food court with my wife when a family sat staring at us when we picking up egg rolls with chopsticks and an old WWII vet came over and shared some nice stories about his time in Japan with us. At least I didn't order the Suishi (more accurately Nori and Nigiri). I am sure someone uses chopsticks in the midwest or there wouldn't be an Asian community offering Asian food.
You hold them like this.

Fry Sauce:
This is a silly little thing, but kind of bizarre too and takes some explaining. No one east of say, the West Coast seems to know what fry sauce is. When at home I can walk into almost any restaurant, burger joint, fast food place, sports bar, diner, etc and just ask for fry sauce and it will appear in packets or a squeeze bottle. At A&W there is a dispenser right next to the ketchup. The exception to the rule is McDonald's and Wendy's which never have any. Generally speaking this is true anywhere I have traveled in the Northwest US and Canada, despite the wiki article claiming that it is a regional sauce common in Utah and Idaho.

It pretty much looks like this.

In the Midwest and Southeast they just stare at me with a blank or dumb look when I ask about Fry Sauce. It isn't that they don't have any, they haven't even heard of it. One really nice waiter where I was eating an excellent hamburger with my uncle said, "Fry sauce? Sure, what kind of sauce would you like with your fries? we have...." when I explained that it was the name of the sauce, not a request for some random sauce, he said, "oh, would you like the cook to make you some?" It was a nice offer, but I just went with ranch dressing. It's not really a big deal, but very funny. My aunt looked up the recipe on her iPhone while eating to find out what it was. Yeah, you can just mix ketchup and mayo and/or thousand island dressing, but it's not as good as actually fry sauce with the rest of the ingredients (like dill vinegar from a pickle jar and some great spices)

The HyVee Deli "Diner":
All regions have different restaurants and grocery stores. In the region I was visiting the HyVee grocery chain is common and is actually a very nice store. Strategically, since my last visit at least, they have been positioning their deli as a kind of buffet/diner for people to treat like a restaurant or an all-in-one mall food court. There are booths and tables nearby and usually a selection of comfort foods (potatoes, pasta salad, meat loaf, fried chicken, pizza, pie, etc.) and one of the bigger stores even had Chinese and Sushi prepared by appropriately ethnic chefs (the smaller stores didn't have that variety). Every day there is a cheaper "special" dish and you can do an all-you-can-eat or a la carte selection. They also seem to have a large morning coffee business to rival McDonalds among the elderly population.

The stores in the smaller towns weren't this big. 

The problem is, partially due to the other options just being fast food hamburgers or pizza, my family kept opting to "eat at HyVee". It was also cheaper if you weren't very hungry. The food wasn't bad, but it wasn't as good as say, a Shari's or some nicer family restaurant that it seems to have replaced in the region since the later is impossible to find. I don't blame HyVee for filling a lucrative market niche. However, after the 4th time eating there in as many days I staged a revolt and said "please somewhere else?" You can only eat that same kind of "homemade processed food" you find in school cafeterias, nursing homes, and chain restaurants so many times in a row. I ended up there anyway because that's where everyone else went and I felt that the need to socialize with family I never get to see overrode the needs of a varied palate.

Mmmmm Meatloaf!

Coffee Shops:
The Midwest is home to the die-hard Folgers Freeze-Dried Ground Coffee In A Can culture. That's ok. My farmer grandparents and uncles grew-up drinking it constantly (like water) and it's what they like. I guess the combination of that and the hardworking frugality of the region kind of kills the (fancy overpriced) coffee shop though. I live in a small college town. Not only are the coffee shops open most of the night, but they often put the larger chains (like Starbucks) to shame with high quality immported self-roasted and ground coffee drinks.

Coffee for hard working farmers.

I asked about Internet (more on that below) and of course about coffee shops in the area (the mainstay of free Internet and relaxing chairs when you travel). Nope, none. The hospital I was visiting to see my grandmother had a coffee shop run by volunteers. It was nice atmosphere-wise with some bookshelves and padded chairs around little round tables (the hospital had free wifi too!), but they served coffee. You know, brewed coffee (read: drip from freeze-dried crystals out of a pot), there were three choices even. I expect that from a truck stop or a Denny's, not a coffee shop. Shows what I know. Over the course of the week I made 3-4 moffees (my emergency recipe: mix packet of hot chocolate powder and vanilla or hazelnut Coffee Cream Creamer into a cup of drip coffee). I am sure in the bigger cities you could find something, maybe a Starbucks. I guess I can't fault the logic though. When I think "coffee shop" I think espresso. Here is simply meant drip coffee, which is more technically correct right?

Coffee for hard working city yuppies.

One morning I bought one of those Starbucks bottled mochas from HyVee. It wasn't actually that bad at the time, but I was up at 7 am that day to help move some furniture and that is with a 2 hour difference in time zones (read: it was 5 am to me). So the whole coffee thing was actually kind of relevant to staying functional.

On the way out of town I bought a Mocha from the airport coffee shop. They had a proper espresso machine and I thought I would be in for a treat. Worst mocha I have ever had. It was burnt and probably from old grounds. I just couldn't win on this front.

(Update: I actually only drink coffee maybe once a week and soda only 2-3 times max. I simply like high quality coffee mixed with something sweet and creamy when I do indulge. After reading this post, I sound like a complete yuppie. Oh, well. )

Part 2: Internet and Technology

I ended up bringing an iPhone, an Asus Netbook, and an iPad for work and entertainment purposes on this trip since they all did something different that I needed to do.

This might just be my family specifically as I occasionally picked up wifi networks on my laptop from neighboring houses, but they just don't seem to use the Internet. Only one household was really connected -- one of my uncles had a few smart phones, home wifi, and even a 3G connection for his car. Of the rest of them, one family has a hard-wired desktop that doesn't see much use and one cousin has a smart phone she uses frequently as a mom. My own mom has high speed Internet, but I never see her online, just an occasional email. One of my aunts is outwardly anti-technology, though she did like seeing digital pictures of my kids on an iPad slide show. Overall though in the Midwest region, there seems to be less of a focus on connecting people through technology or a dependence on the Internet as where I live. I know there are geeks and techies out there though, Google just opened a server farm in Iowa of all places. Where I live, everything is wired up, elsewhere, probably in more rural areas, it might be different, however, on my wife's side, everyone has Internet, even out on the rural farms. I was able to find Internet at the hospital, and a few of the local restaurants (no coffee shops as per the above comments), but didn't spend enough time in those places to use it extensively. I was there to see family.

(editors note:  In the local small farming community where Orcrist lives, some of the farmers have their entire farm with lighting fast high speed internet.  They do this so that their new farm equipment can do precision treatments to the fields, varying the application by the foot.  Granted it is still not the norm, but it is a big change from the experience Orcrist had and a little something to give you a comparison.)

Don't taunt me!

Internet vs TV:
You see, the Internet just isn't important here. I can understand when my grandmas don't see the appeal, but of the younger generations (my cousins and uncles) they mostly just watch TV. They pay for TV and have large TV's that are on frequently. We watch so little in our house (mostly hulu, netflix, and over the air PBS kids shows) that is was a bit of a culture shock that I forgot about; just how many people in the US still pay for traditional TV. I wish I could find the 2011 statistics I read a few weeks ago, but basically online video is growing and replacing traditional TV, just not very fast. A lot of people pay for both services and use both. Younger generations are forgoing traditional TV for Internet only TV and entertainment. Here are some older numbers.

Older TV Statistics. 
Those statistics on TV watching habits don't hit home until you see a region where Internet is second to TV, unlike my hometown where it is opposite and people who do watch TV limit the screen time. As I said, what little TV I do watch usually comes over the Internet. The Internet has a lot of value to me, besides TV, I also use it for video games, work, socialization, shopping, bills, chatting, and news. I like to think that I have choices and access to a variety of non-biased information. Here all the news and entertainment is through one source. I saw a lot of Fox news, the weather channel, political ads, NCIS, and hours and hours of TV advertising. I forgot how much advertising there is. It's constant and completely foreign to me. I spent a lot of time reading a book during ads for the little but of TV I did watch. This information stream is backed up by local newspapers too, but really that's only two sources of information and I find it scary how skewed some of it is and how ubiquitous the TV is.

Ah, the American dream! Except that TV is kinda small, eh?

This isn't an issue of the digital divide (that means people can't afford access to the Internet or don't have Internet options available, and are cut off from the benefits). While having a computer and monthly internet service vs. a TV and monthly TV service are comparable in price, and some people do both... it's conscious choice and people are choosing to be cut off from the online world. It just doesn't have enough value to be worthwhile. I imagine there are lots of places in the US like this, but it's still a culture shock.

My iPad:

The iPad2 is HUGE! Look at that tiny little guy. 

I'll admit, the iPad2 I own is pretty high tech and I wouldn't even have it if it wasn't for luck (I won it in a contest). However, besides that one uncle I mentioned, no one had really seen or heard of an iPad or a tablet. Being so ingrained in geek culture this caught me off guard. Everyone thought it was neat and I think my dad secretly wants one, but I got lots of "looks" from random people for carrying one around. We also did high tech stuff like looked at digital pictures and I used Skype to video chat with my wife and kids back home using the fast Wifi at the hospital. That is actually very cool and it feels like "the future is now". It was also helpful for my kids who missed me to see me each day and for them to get to talk to all of the extended family they don't see often enough. Even my 93 year-old grandma and all of my aunts and uncles had a good time video chatting and passing the video device around. It's pretty much "point and talk" simplicity.

It looked a lot like this as long as the Internet wasn't laggy. 

My grandma in particular thought it was really neat and to put that in perspective... she grew up hearing about men like Nikola Tesla and the rise of the car, TV, flight, and the information age. Still, 80% of the people I encountered hadn't heard of the iPad or even the concept of tablets. I guess they didn't need to.... no Internet to use it with. I figured some TV ads or something might make them familiar, but after watching TV there for a week, I realize that only smart phones (the cash cow of big telecom with their monthly fees) are really advertised on TV. I personally see ads for tablets everywhere on the Internet (including internet video sites like hulu). This is just one of those odd cultural differences you don't think much about. At home, nobody really gives a tablet a second look. Come to think of it, the airport is the same way. In a small Midwestern town though, I feel like the rich city mouse with all the new ideas/things and that analogy might be closer to the truth than I realize. Except that I am not from a big city, I live in a small town too.

That's it for today. Just some interesting observations and overly wordy musings, a result I believe of having too much down time to think on the plane flight home.


  1. I personally, disagree about the Starbucks, but we won't break fellowship over that! LOL! I would take Starbucks over ANY coffee if I could afford it! As much as I drink coffee, though (about 3 or 4 cups a day) I get stuck with the Folgers to keep me going! You guys are awesome! And that's good to know about the midwest and technology. That would annoy me! My parents live in Oregon and don't have internet, but that's their choice. They think it's dumb. I think it's dumb to watch hours and hours of mindless television all day, but that's just me, I guess! And I'm not even a geek! Just someone who likes to read and write and technology helps me do that!

  2. I am glad to hear that it's not just the geeks that are finding TV annoying and lasting value in the internet.

    I think we are closer than you realize on the coffee thing. I was saying, I like Starbucks and prefer some of the local coffee shops slightly more, but it's semantics, in my opinion any good coffee ship is better than Folgers drip. However, I drink coffee rarely. If you drink a lot of coffee buying expensive mochas will kill your budget and your diet with all the sugar. I understand the appeal of the cheaper coffee.

    The point I was trying to make though, was that due to regional culture, I didn't even have that choice.

  3. I enjoyed reading this. Of course, for me and my kids, the trip to the Mid-west this summer will mean no sweet tea or grits. I will miss the internet, but as is, I am usually only online while at work. I very rarely get online at home. There are just too many other things to do. We have a laptop now, and would bring it with us, but now I'm wondering if it will even be worth it?

  4. It will be worth bringing the laptop because you can take home copies of pictures from our camera :)

    Just like I did on this last trip from your camera.


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