Sunday, October 5, 2014

Eleven Differences I Notice Since Living Overseas

Author note:
It seems everyone is making up their “top ten” lists these days. I thought I’d join the foray with my own few observations. Those of you who’ve spent any length of time in a foreign culture may relate.

"The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes." 
- Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, ACD.


(note the word “Cameroon” -- not “Africa)

1. Television Commercials Are Annoying

How many times do I need to be reminded how I must be unhappy until I buy items that I don’t really need? I have never been a fan of commercials but recently, when I watched the season premiere of a favorite television series I follow, I was seriously put out by the multitude of hyper commercials advertising for services and things I wasn’t even remotely interested in spending money upon. Those commercials for prescription medications were particularly inciting on so many levels.

2. People Are Multicultural

Americans are just that – Americans. The United States is a country of immigrants. I can’t define people as black or white or Hispanic or Asian anymore. Each person has their own unique heritage. The lovely Greek lady at the supermarket was a treat to meet. Her accent brought up sunny memories of Greek island beaches and delicious Feta cheeses.

3. American News Channels Are Terribly Biased

I have been privileged to live in different countries and talk with peoples from a vast array of cultural backgrounds. America is not the only country in the world. There’s so much more. The local news channels strike me as bordering on brainwashing. I want to shake the radio and yell, “Wake up, people! There’s more than three top stories happening in the world!” Ok. Deep breath. I’m thankful for the internet and the opportunity to glean from news agencies outside U.S. borders.

4. There Are A LOT of Choices/Options

OK. So much has already been said about the gigantic variety of choices that Americans are presented with wherever they go. I remember going to PetsMart and wondering to myself, “How many different kinds of flea product are really necessary?” The entire left-hand side of the isle was stocked with an overwhelming plethora of choices. I certainly didn’t have the time to read every label and do a statistical analysis of price versus quality versus reviewer rating before buying a product that would rid my dog of fleas.

 5. The U.S. Is Full of Emptiness

I take my dog for a stroll along the country roads. Each house I pass with manicured lawns and blooming flowerbeds is still and silent. The windows are dark. No dogs bark. No children bounce around the yard. My husband and I drive to the park. One other person with his son walks around the track with their two dogs. We drive along the freeways, only in the centre of Washington DC do the roads seem congested with traffic. Elsewhere the streets have plenty of space between vehicles. No motorcycles or pedestrians crisscross the lanes either. The neighborhoods seem eerie and empty.

6. Excessive Signage

In Cameroon, there are no street signs marking the names of streets/roads/paths/etc. This is generally not a problem since most roadways do not have official names; and, if they do, they’re not very descriptive or unique. Buea is full of streets termed ‘street one’, ‘street two’, street three’, ‘street four’, and such forth. Each different neighborhood/quarter has its own set of street numbers and unless someone specifies the neighborhood, one cannot differentiate which ‘street one’ is being mentioned. There are the basic traffic signs in Cameroon too. A few stately STOP signs grace the intersections suggesting to the taxi drivers that they might want to consider reducing their speed before crossing the thorough-way. I've never heard a foreigner complain about an overabundance of signage though. In contrast, take the intersection her in Virginia where I’m spending a few days. The Interstate 95 bisects Route 17 at the 4-way stoplight. There’s a digital WellsFargo Bank blinking the temperature of the moment. Another sign warns “Do Not Block Intersection”. The Sleep INN proudly boasts a ‘fresh look, complimentary hot breakfast, and wifi’. To my right there are signs directing traffic one direction, other signs announce, ‘End Work Zone’, ‘Over Height Do Not Pass Under Bridge’, “End Road Work’, ‘Left Lane Ends Merge Left’. To my left are more signs declaring, ‘Unmarked Pavement’, ‘One Way’, ‘Stay in Lane’, and ‘Exit’. Every empty patch of dirt appears taken with a signpost and the traffic signal poles are strapped with flyers and notices. There’s even a tiny white plastic spike with the writing ‘Caution Water Valve’ imbedded intoa scruffy tuft of remaining green grass. Signs, signs, and more signs. I’m feeling lost in the exuberant enthusiasm of the written posted verbosity.  Let’s not start on the cereal cartons!

7. America is the ‘Land of Many Toilets’

I’m not claiming the U.S. has more bathrooms than other countries. Cameroon has plenty of unofficial potty spots. In reality, any dim alley can serve as an emergency bladder-relief spot if necessary. However, in general, bathrooms are not as readily accessible, available, and convenient as the States. The supermarkets here in America have multi-stalled bathrooms freely available to their customers. Every Café maintains at least one fresh-smelling toilet. Quaint city parks with mere acres of grass and a tiny walking path still have at least a men & women bathroom facility. There’s nowhere I can go where I’m terribly inconvenienced by my bladder’s demands. I’m not complaining about this, mind you. It’s nice not having to plan my oral intake levels based on future availability. I must admit that I’m still getting used to the new norm of flushing the toilet EVERY time. The old adage, ‘when it’s yellow, let it mellow….’ Is harder to contradict than one might imagine. I find myself still calling out, “Bill, do you need to use the toilet before I flush?” at bedtime. 

8. The Supermarket, A.K.A. Food Supply, Is Far Far Away

In Buea, at the end of my workday, Jordan (our dog) and I would stroll around the neighborhood. I’d get my exercise, Jordan would get her excise, and we’d both find supper. Living on the outskirts of town right now, I find it takes at least fifteen minutes, by car, to reach the nearest supermarket, or really any store for that matter. Shopping and sleeping are much farther apart in the States as compared to life in Cameroon. No wonder everyone owns a car.

9. Where Are All the Ants?!

Ok. Ok. I admit, I’m not the most nit-picky house keeper. Our house in Buea was generally swept and the dishes at least in various stages of being cleaned; but, no one would have pinned a blue ribbon on the place giving me a Martha Steward award. Still, I learned to put every open food packaging in the fridge immediately after use. Where’s the sugar for the tea? In the fridge. What about the bread? In the fridge. No matter how minuscule the food particle, if it laid out on the kitchen counter for more than five seconds, the ants would come. Tenacious, persistent, incredibly intelligent little scavengers that could burrow their way into almost every form of packaging…even occasionally the as-yet unopened ‘sealed’ cartons. 
And now? There are freshly baked muffins cooling on the counter top without a hint of an ant. A small amount of sugar from the sugar bowl in the cupboard spilled this morning. Nary an insect has come. The candy sits in the candy dish without disturbance. The biscuits sit in the pantry in an already opened wrapping without a bug. The lights above the dining table shimmer alluringly but no flying six-legged critters fly overhead or fall into our stew. Amazing!

10. Small Change Lasts Forever

Thanks to Visa and MasterCard, the coins and dollar bills sit around in my change purse forever. No more searching for change. No more waiting until the end of the day when the pharmacy might be able to break a 10,000 XAF bill into spendable 1000 and 2000 XAF paper bills. My quarters and nickels wait patiently until the next parking meter, which is the only time I use cold, hard coins these days. The convenience is handy. My math skills in addition and subtraction that I’d use to ensure my purchases added up to a suitable round number that the clerk had change for, and then double-check the leftover change, are dwindling. 

And...since I couldn't contain my list to ten...

11. Fuel Prices Are Variable

My father has an app on his iPhone to help him locate the pumps with the least expensive fuel prices. One doesn’t have to drive too far to pass fuel stations with all sorts of different prices advertised; and, they change daily! Even fuel stations adjacent to each other advertise different unit prices per gallon. In Cameroon, during my five years, due to government regulations, the fuel price changed once. Very standardized. The fuel prices were not cheap but they were consistent. 

Obviously, many other cultural nuances and differences assault my observations these days. I'd love to hear from you and see what differences you've noticed internationally speaking.