When people ask me what strikes me most about the USA, I always say that everything is bigger, louder, and simply “more” compared to Belgium. In my humble opinion, almost nothing in the USA meets my (Belgian) standard of “normal”. To begin with, there is the obvious fact that the USA is a much larger country than Belgium is, with the latter fitting 400 times into the former. Because of the surplus of space, roads tend to be much wider and longer. For instance, US Route 20 connecting East and West coast is 5,415 kilometres long and the Katy Freeway in Houston, TX, has 26 lanes in some sections. Furthermore, Dollar bills and coins are also bigger in size than the Euro ones. But the comparison stretches far beyond these obvious points. Allow me to explain.
One thing that often pops up in conversations with other Fulbrighters when discussing our experiences in the USA, is the food. For one, food portions in the USA are generally speaking much bigger than they are in Belgium. As a rule, what is being served here as one portion, usually feeds me for at least two meals. A medium portion in the USA equals an (extra)large portion in Belgium. Small often simply doesn’t exist. In addition to the food portions, the availability of choice can be entirely overwhelming at times. For instance, it takes me at least half an hour to get through the entire menu at the Cheesecake Factory. Oh, and another half an hour to skim through their amazing counter filled with the most delicious and extravagant cheesecakes, in order to decide what I want for dessert.
The types of food available here, sometimes simply blow my mind. For instance, the first time I saw a picture of an ice cream float on a restaurant menu, I thought it was a joke. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a float consists of ice cream in a soft drink or in a root beer. This dessert is so popular, it’s even got its own Wikipedia page. Other types of food, I wish we could buy in Belgium too. The one example that springs to mind is something called “frosting shots” that I discovered by chance in a bakery shop in my Brookline, MA, neighbourhood. It concerns these divine little cups filled with the most delicious icing that you simply spoon out of the cup. Apparently they caused quite the rave last summer and even made it to the news. Whose needs cake anyway, right?
Notwithstanding all the deliciousness, one does not necessarily need to return to Europe double in size. There are plenty of food options available, both healthy and unhealthy, with overall way more attention being paid to people’s various dietary needs compared to Belgium. Moreover, while the American habit of putting the calories’ intake behind every item on the menu can sometimes spoil the fun a bit when enjoying – say – a donut, it does help to become more aware of what we consume in a day and to make healthier food choices.
No matter how fascinating and yummy, the point I’m trying to make here goes beyond food. In my personal experience, Americans are not only louder, they also tend to be – generally speaking – way more articulate and outspoken than your average Belgian. I often wonder if perhaps this has to do with the educational system here, with children being encouraged from a very young age to express their opinions and feelings. At American universities, most courses require students to complete all readings prior to the class and classes often take place in smaller groups, allowing for interaction and discussion between teachers and students. In law school, professors often address students by name from the first class onwards and active participation is mandatory. Outside of university, I’ve genuinely enjoyed some of the random conversations I’ve had with the check-out persons at my local supermarket or with people sitting next to me on Boston’s interesting subway system – also known as “the T” – with its many odd branches.
Furthermore, American patriotism is something very unique. The American flag is omnipresent, waving in the streets, hanging outside public buildings and private residences, as well as in restaurants, at events etcetera. Every sports event, be it the Super Bowl or a university game, starts with the national anthem. People take off their headwear and everyone joins in. Independence day is celebrated widely every year with fireworks and other festivities. Such demonstration of genuine pride is something that us Belgians could sometimes use a little bit more of. Our country may be small, but there are many things that we do very well (for one, the Belgian goodies I have been handing out since I got here have brought a huge smile on many American faces).
It appears that American patriotism has taken a bit of a hit in the current political climate. And Americans do not shy away from poking fun at their own situation, which is something us Belgians can resonate with quite well. This sense of humour has resulted in the availability of a wide array of hilarious gifts, ranging from Trump Halloween masks and talking pens to ‘O-balm-a’ lip balm that should be “applied liberally” and ‘I miss you, Barack Obama’ postcards.
Another thing Americans are extremely good at, is celebrating major holidays. They don’t just celebrate, they go all out and indulge in what cannot be called anything less than holiday madness. Shops receive complete makeovers to mark specific holidays, brands integrate seasonal ingredients into their products (in the fall, all foods were available in pumpkin flavour: not just coffee and donuts, but also breakfast cereals, sandwich spreads, pasta sauce and whipped cream) or put them in a holiday coat (hello, glow in the dark M&Ms for Halloween and The Grinch gingerbread house for Christmas), and games are launched in special holiday editions (anyone in for a game of ChristmasOpoly?). The day after celebrating one holiday, it is full steam ahead to the next one. For instance, Thanksgiving dinner hadn’t had the chance to fully digest before all shops had miraculously turned into Christmas wonderlands.
Don’t get me wrong, it is not that I think that Belgians are not good at celebrating the holidays or that my experience in the USA has made me appreciate all the food and other great things we’ve got going in Belgium any less. It is just that Americans manage to always take things one step further and I love it. Go big or go home, am I right?
Jozefien Van Caeneghem is a 2018-2019 Fulbright Visiting Scholar to Harvard University. Having completed her PhD in Law at the Free University in Brussels (VUB), Jozefien received a Fulbright grant to fund post-doctoral research in human rights in which she conducts comparative research of rights, manifestations of stigma, and social and economic inclusion of Roma in the USA and Europe.
Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.