More Gangsta, Less Jello: A Personal Reflection on Values

This wasn’t one of those lists.

It wasn’t one of those top-ten-annoying-things-you-do-at-work lists, or fashion-faux-pas-after-age-thirty lists. This wasn’t a list to confirm you’re a child of the 80s, or a Virgo, or a Stowaway Tribble on the USS Enterprise. It was from an article someone used at a workshop we attended this past weekend for soon-to-be foreign exchange (62)

In Values Americans Live By, Robert Kohls of the Washington International Center, spells out thirteen of the core values he says explain why many of us in this country behave the way we do.

Sure it does, I thought. Despite my proclivity for clicking on nonsensical social media quizes, I don’t especially like being told I fit any mold in particular.

I’ve traveled enough to know that Americans in other countries are often thought of as wealthy, cold, clueless, loud and lousy dressers. I also know that most of the rest of the world forms opinions about us based on what they see in the media. Which means we’re all either real housewives, crooked cops, serial killers, movie stars or gangstas.

Well, I for one am totally gangsta. Dawg. Just take a minute to envision me flashing a sign with bling-adorned fingers.

I’ll wait.

… When we have an opportunity to spend time, face to face with actual people in far flung places, it goes a long way to dispel preconceived notions.

Well, except for the one about being clueless.

Or gangsta. Yo.

Still, I hate being profiled. I’d like to think I’m a big bag of surprise. So, as we were going through the list with the students who volunteered to let us send them across the globe next year, talking about what kinds of core values they have that are likely to be challenged when they’re plopped in the middle of some exotic local, and how they’re likely to face a number of opportunities to work on their coping skills, it was with the teensiest bit of skepticism on my part.

Because. The whole mold thing. We are none of us Jello.

But there were things were on the list that made me pause. Like Personal Control Over the Environment: the belief we have the ability to shape our own destiny, if we only try hard enough. That to be labeled as fatalistic is insulting, tantamount to being called passive, or lazy.

Hang on, there are people who don’t believe that? Setting aside my own control issues for the moment, I do feel comfort in the knowledge that if I want something bad enough, I can get it. And I’d like to think I’m actively imbuing my kids with this sense of personal power, too.

Then there’s the value we as a nation place on Individualism and Privacy that I had no idea was a cultural thing. Sure, privacy is the reason I’m loathe to insist the boys clean their rooms beyond keeping a path clear to the door in case there’s a fire. I’d like to think they value living in a space that’s not a biohazard, but I hate the thought of requiring tidiness. It’s their own space, after all.

And I don’t have the energy to yell that much, anyway.

It would be nice if they had less of a collection of my dinnerware stacking up at any point and time. But, meh. I pick my battles.

Still, and more importantly, we’re at an age when my kids have more advanced computing skills than I can ever aspire to, which could render them vulnerable in ways Dr. Spock never thought to warn us about. But monitoring my teen’s texts or perusing his browser history feels a little like peeking at his diary, to be honest.

I know. I have to get over it.

Funny thing, that Competition and Free Enterprise is listed as a core American value on Kohl’s list. If you’ve been here any length of time, you know I have a competitive streak, but only with stupid stuff. And only if I think I can win. I’m not going to go head-to-head with Steven Hawking in a physics bee, but I’m not one to pull any punches in Scrabble, either.

Our tendency as a nation toward Future Orientation strikes a chord, too. Especially when I find myself awake at 4 am wondering which kid is going to end up living in my basement post-adolescence, demanding meatloaf and sucking up our Internet bandwidth. As many viral lip sync videos as there are to Let It Go out there, we’re not a nation that is collectively satisfied with nature taking its course.

I’ve had ample time since that workshop to ponder our collective core values, probably far longer than I’ve given thought to any list of how I Know I’m Addicted to Coffee (yup), whether I’m A True Extrovert (not necessarily), or if I’m In a Marriage That Will Last (despite my husband’s insistence on introducing me as his ‘first wife’ after 23 years with this ring on my finger).

It’s enlightening to think that the incoming students we’ve hosted have had to work on their coping skills in our home, my efforts to not scare them off with my proclivity for yelling notwithstanding.

I never thought of my tendency to push a kid out in the general direction of the bus stop rather than driving them all over kingdom come as a reflection of Kohl’s core value of Self Help, for example, nor that our tendency toward Informality could be making our young charges want to pull their hair out.

After our morning training, we gathered our outbound students together with the inbound kids from more than a dozen different countries for an age-old American tradition of a parade.

The mountain town of 3,000 where we’d gathered was kicking off a winter festival, swelling its normal population to more than 60,000, each jostling for a place on the street to better catch a random string of beads or piece of hard candy thrown from a fire truck.

The sunlight was brilliant, the noise deafening, and from my vantage point seven or eight rows back, all I could see were the tops of heads and the occasional passing banner of a float. What uniquely American value is reflected in a rodeo queen’s wave, I wondered? And what the Hell do these kids write home about after this experience?

Dear Mom and Dad, This weekend, we made signs and were told to stand in the bed of a truck for three hours and throw stuff at people on the street while everyone cheered.

Later we returned to our host families and watched an American-style football competition where people seemed more interested in the food and the advertising than the actual game.

Please send chocolate.

winter parade


I’m rather hoping one of your core values is voting, and that you’ll do so daily for my blog.

Thank you.


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  1. Chocolate IS one of our core values. Remember, we invaded for bananas once and we like chocolate WAY more than bananas so, don\’t mess with the chocolate supply. Oh, protecting the supply lines for chocolate covered bananas? That is the sole reason the B-2 was designed. Word.

  2. That actually sounds fascinating, but it makes me cringe to think of being judged according to American television standards. Eew.
    It\’s hilarious that your husband calls you his first wife, LOL.

    1. We all do it, though. The first time our (at that time much younger) kids asked one of the German foreign exchange students if they knew any Nazis, I just about died. She graciously shrugged off my apologies saying they have to deal with those kinds of questions all the time.

  3. Having lived overseas I totally get how Americans are judged by TV and other things. Sadly sometimes it is a well earned judgment. I hadn\’t really thought about foreign exchange students and what they think of America and Americans before coming to live here temporarily. Interesting perspective.

  4. I just voted for you!

    I loved this post and laughed all the way through. It\’s fascinating to think about how our American culture in perceived. I know a lot of it is well deserved, but obviously there are A LOT of different cultures throughout our country. I love that your consider yourself \”gansta\”, lol. I think I\’m a \”wannabe gangsta!\”