Moving to a new country inevitably leads to some culture clashes. Some surprising, some less so. Sometimes, differences are so small and suble that it is difficult to see that signals are interpreted differently from intended. Sometimes, one is being told 😉
Which parts of me did NOT blend easlily into a studenty environment in the US in the nineties? Well, irony, for one. Not that people didn’t understand or use irony (Reality Bites, anyone?), but I was told in very explicit terms that people found it hard that I was switching between being sincere and being ironic, and had difficulty making out exactly when I was being what. So I pretty much abandoned irony (or cut back heavily, anyway), and haven’t really regretted it.
Hiking was another issue: going for a hike was surrounded by a whole ‘nother set of values than what I was used to, kind of like a sneak peek into today’s Norwegian self-realization culture: focus on exercise and getting it done, rather than stopping to smell the flowes (or look for weird new ones on your way).
And lastly, the way I dressed, especially (!?!) my choice of colours!
So, a couple of decades back, I found myself in bluegrass country (or bubblewrap, depending on your perspective and prior experience). I was on my way to a reception (some Fulbright thing, or international students, or visiting researchers, if I am not mistaken). I had dressed up from my daily lab/field/office attire, best described as ‘relaxed ecologist’, you know, washed out jeans or khaki shorts, washed out T-shirt, Tevas (remember them?) or possibly some Birkenstock clone. And having dressed up, I was confronted with this remark from one of my lab-mates: ‘There she goes, wearing black again’.
I was reminded of this episode yesterday, as one of my American friends described my outfits back then as ‘brilliantly [colour, allthough she didn’t specify] coordinated, i.e. black’….
I thought it incredibly unfair! In my mind I was wearing anything but, – a charcoal (not even a dark one) lambs wool sweather and a short plaid wool skirt, in soft red and soft moss green. Oh, and I assume with black tights and black Dr Martens, since I didn’t have much to choose from. But there you are! If you’re European, and this is the mid nineties, every colour you wear is black, regardless of your own perception. Obviously, my charcoal sweathers were black. My bottle green fleece – black. And most suprisingly to me: my lumberjackish flannel shirt, red & grey (again plaid), was described as ‘definitely black’! How could one win?
I admittedly arrived in the US, with two pairs of black jeans, a black dress, and a nice dress-up black jacket. But the rest of my wardrobe was – well – other colours. My summer wardrobe mostly white/tan/pale green/linen, and I quickly bought new garments, like blue jeans, pale green chinoes, blue tees, rust coloured shirt & skirt. Nonetheless, my wardrobe reimained, by American standards, pretty much jet black.
I kept wondering, and looked around. People were, in my perception, wearing pale, pale, pale blue, pale pale pale pink, pale, pale, pale purple. And blue jeans. Quite nice – on them – but whenever I went for colours, I went for saturated ones. I concluded that Americans perceived every saturated colour as black.
Now, one reason I perceived my own wardrobe at that time as positively colourful,was that up untill months before, my wardrobe had indeed BEEN black. As in jet black. Nothing I ever decided on. It just happened. Partly because black was allways available. Partly because it was practical (yes, one never really had to worry about colour coordination). And partly because, well, I had recently lost a friend and all other colours seemed – loud. All too cheerful. All too bright. I do understand why black often symbolizes mourning.
And maybe, just maybe I went through a borderline closet-goth stage, like any good European. Who knows. I loved Tim Burton movies and Dead Man, but my taste in music allways went more towards blue than to anything black. Either way, I had recently began to add more colour, and saw myself as colourful. Not least as my black scarf, which I wore with my long, black dress and my black jacket, it actually had RED & PURPLE flowers and GREEN leaves on it.
Now, going there for interviews, monts before moving there, I might have hurt my case, since that happened when I was still wearing – well – black. So, in short, my identity was sealed. I was forever that European, allways wearing black.
Oh, and incidentally, today I’m all dressed in black. In case you wondered. But I did go out shopping, buying a pale blue dress and matching pale blue shoes. Probably in a (futile) attempt to escape stereotyping 😉