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Archive for the tag “All About…”

Pride, belonging, and gratitude: All about…. Dairy Farming {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Emily Fogelsanger, a writing major at Messiah College and a native of Shippensburg, PA. She grew up tending tomatoes, milking cows, and riding four-wheelers through sunlit fields, and she considers herself to be a better person because of it. Her favorite activities are climbing trees, eating ice cream, and hanging out with her sisters.


The small, rural town of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, is not exactly a foreign location for many readers of this blog. But dairy farming — a lifestyle that acts as the backbone of Shippensburg, as well as the world — is not always thought of as what it is. It is a means of feeding nations and supporting families for generations.  However, to many people, a dairy farm is viewed as home to large, smelly animals and unruly kids just as degraded.  And let’s not forget the assumption that anyone who is raised on a farm is a “hick.”  Being raised on a family dairy farm myself, I’ve grown up hearing these misconceptions along with a few others, and I hope that this article clears some of them up.

The heifer (female) calves in the barn in the process of drinking their milk from their buckets (2013)

The heifer (female) calves in the barn in the process of drinking their milk from their buckets (2013)

1.  Anyone raised on a farm is a hick.

This is perhaps the largest and most common stereotype that I have noticed.  According to the Encarta Dictionary, a hick is someone who is lacking in education and sophistication. Perhaps this stereotype comes from the fact that many people raised on a farm have a different dialect or wear torn jeans and faded shirts.  I personally grew up saying ain’t instead of isn’t, crick instead of creek, aten instead of eaten, and minnie instead of minnow.  My high school classmates were always teasing me about the way that I talked, and it wasn’t until eleventh grade that I actually stopped being embarrassed about my dialect.  Even though I have now forced myself to speak “correctly,” occasionally a word or two slips past my radar and makes its way into a conversation.  But, understandably, when your family and community speak a certain way, it’s only natural that you do, too.

And of course the clothes we wear on the farm are faded or old; that is logical. Most farm work involves dirt, sweat, and cow manure, meaning that whatever you’re wearing is most likely going to end up with a couple stains or small tears.  When milking, I myself wear a T-shirt and a pair of jeans that have definitely seen better days.  But my milking clothes aren’t the only styles in my closet; like every other farmer’s child, I actually do have a sense of fashion.

And the bit about farmers’ lacking in education? The business side of a farm takes a highly skilled person to make important decisions.  Choices involving when to harvest the corn, whether or not an injured animal should be sold or should be subjected to expensive medication, and which type of feed is best for the cows all require a good deal of patience and often a large amount of research.  Working on a farm requires a TON of knowledge, and a lot of this knowledge is acquired hands-on, meaning that there is only so much that you can learn about a farm from books.

My favorite cow, number 181. 2011.

My favorite cow, number 181 (2011)

2.  Dairy farmers are cruel to their animals.

I’m not sure how this myth came about; perhaps it is a line that vegetarians use to try to keep people from eating animal products. But cows provide a farmer with his living. If a farmer didn’t take proper care of his cows, they would not give good-quality milk in return.  Dairy cows require plenty of fresh feed, water, and a supplement of grass for their diet.  In addition, their hooves need to be trimmed regularly so that they are comfortable and able to produce rich milk.  If a cow is not getting the amount of food or care that she needs, both the quantity and the quality of her milk decreases.

Dairy farmers need to be constantly alert for signs of mastitis, an inflammation in a cow’s udder that results from a bacterial infection; and pinkish sore spots located above a cow’s hoof knows as “strawberries” that can cause a cow to limp.  The life of the entire farm depends on the cows, and a true dairy farmer cares deeply about his animals.

A cow greets a newborn heifer calf that I had just delivered

A cow greets a newborn heifer calf that I had just delivered

3.  Raw milk is hazardous to your health.

I, along with my cousins, grew up drinking raw milk, and none of us suffer from mysterious illnesses.  Raw milk is the milk that comes straight from the cow, free from any added ingredients and still containing milk’s natural nutrients.  Pasteurized milk, the milk that is sold in stores, is milk that is processed by removing natural vitamins and adding artificial nutrients.

After talking to one of my friends who is afraid of drinking raw milk, I think that the biggest reason for this fallacy is that since cows are considered (by some!) to be dirty, unprocessed milk must be equally as dirty. However, the cow’s udder and milking equipment are both completely sanitized before milking begins.  Raw milk is so healthful that many people who are lactose intolerant are able to consume it, and it also is known to help cure diabetes and certain heart conditions.  Pasteurized milk may be what is sold in grocery stores, but in my family raw milk will always be a staple.

4.  Anyone who growing up on a farm has no social life.

Operating a farm requires work from morning to night, and some days we don’t get the opportunity to leave.  For us, milking begins at 5:00, twice daily, and it is usually finished around 9:00.  Additionally, if a cow goes into labor and needs assistance, or if another animal is injured and needs special attention, all less important plans are usually put on hold.  When a field needs to be planted or harvested before bad weather comes, the day can sometimes stretch as late as 11 P.M.

However, most farms nowadays have employees who can take some of the workload. This leaves time to take small vacations or to just take the evening off.  Farmers may have a lot to do, but with everyone working efficiently, there are plenty of opportunities that free up our lives.  Besides, working together every day allows strong friendships and trust to form, so during the days when no free time is available, a farmer’s relationship with his family and his workers provides the best kind of social life.

The large combine prepared to harvest a field of wheat

The large combine prepared to harvest a field of wheat

5.  There is no future in dairy farming.

This is a debatable topic, but I personally believe that there will always be a generation willing to be dairy farmers.  Some children raised on farms are interested in pursuing other lives, simply because dairy farming is extremely difficult and the monetary payback is often very slight.  Additionally, much of your livelihood depends on factors that are out of your control, such as the weather, crop and milk prices, and the health of the cows.

But in each family there is often at least one child who imagines no other way of making a living.  My one younger sister is one of these people who lives to farm, and I fully support her dreams.  In our nation, there will always be a demand for dairy and beef products; therefore, there will always be farms to supply them. Farming is not always easy, but in my opinion, there is no better way to grow up.

My sister Amy and her heifer calf, Spearmint (2013)

My sister Amy and her heifer calf, Spearmint (2013)


Dairy farming isn’t a job; it’s a way of life.  I’ve seen my father and uncle stressed and exhausted day after day, but they always seemed contented.  I grew up running around half the year in my bare feet, and even now, at the age of eighteen, I still do.  I will always have a craving for ice cream, and I will never be able to fully function in the morning without a glass of milk.  Growing up on a farm has accustomed me to things that always stay the same; yet, at the same time, it has helped introduce me to being open to change. In dairy farming, the sense of pride, belonging, and gratitude will always remain.

Living above the land down under: All about… New Zealand {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by my cousin Stephan Troost of the Netherlands. Stephan is currently studying human geography and urban/regional planning at Utrecht University in Holland. In the fall of 2012, he spent five months living and studying at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His favorite memory of living above the land down under is hitch-hiking the South Island — a total of 2000 beautiful and exciting kilometers — and only paying $20 New Zealand dollars to do so.

Fall 2012

90-Mile Beach, Northland; Fall 2012

On beautiful countrysides. Some people call New Zealand heaven on earth. In terms of nature, I’d definitely agree — New Zealand is perfect. I’ve had experiences before where I’ve gone to places that are supposedly amazing but have ended up being a bit disappointing. However, in New Zealand, anytime someone told you that a certain place was great, it always was.

When you’re driving, especially on South Island, the landscape can change drastically in just ten minutes — going from golden beaches to high mountains, waterfalls, forests as thick as green walls, and everything in between. Because New Zealand is so far from everything, there’s an incredibly diversity of species that exist nowhere else.

Too many landscapes!

Kepler Track, Fjordland; Fall 2012.

Landscape love

Coromandel Peninsula; Fall 2013

The temperature is quite moderate — around 14 degrees Celsius in an Auckland winter. The countryside is extremely green because it rains regularly, and the weather changes just as drastically as the landscape. This happened especially in Auckland. One moment, there would be a really big rain shower, and the next minute, it would be sunny like crazy. We say in Holland that our weather’s always changing, but at least in Holland, we can mostly predict what’s going to happen next!

On cultural history and diversity. In my opinion, New Zealand was not heaven on earth when it came to the people, but that’s usual. People will be people. New Zealand was colonized by the British, so most people are still from European descent. However, a lot of people come from different Pacific islands or Asia — like China, Malaysia, or Thailand — to work. I found the different cultures very interesting, especially the colorful and exotic Pacific Islander culture, since it is so different from the culture I’m used to in the Netherlands. Some kiwis — that’s what New Zealanders call themselves because of the kiwi bird — struggle with the fact that immigration has been really high since the 1980s. There are only 4.5 million people on the island, and 45% of Auckland’s population is non-European.  In a few years, no ethnic group in Auckland will have the majority.

The indigenous people are called the Maori, and New Zealanders recognize the Maori as the original inhabitants of the country. An aspect of Maori culture that is often seen is an aggressive type of dance that they used to do to scare other tribes: the haka. It’s good for tourists, but it also shows that New Zealand has a really different history than just a British one.

Multicultural New Zealand

Multicultural New Zealand; Fall 2012

On government, food prices, and public transportation. In Auckland, people live close to one another, but large suburbs are also common, so having a car is a must. Like the States, public transportation is horrible in comparison to that of Europe.

Since New Zealand is so far from everything and everybody, I found the government to be really liberal and independent. In Europe, the news often focuses on events from all over the world, but New Zealand news was mostly about New Zealand, Australia, and random other world events.


Auckland, New Zealand; Fall 2012


The Waterfront, Auckland, New Zealand; Fall 2012

A lot of internationals go to New Zealand, so there are a ton of American fast food restaurants in New Zealand, like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, and Dominos. People are very active in New Zealand, but they eat a lot of fast food as well. Maybe it has to do with the fact that groceries are very expensive.

On its difference from Australia. New Zealand is not Australia. People think it’s simple to fly from Melborne to Sydney to Auckland, but a flight from Sydney to Auckland is still three and a half hours. Both countries have British influences so there are some similarities, but since they’re far apart, it’s more like how it would feel if Canada and the States were separated by 1300 miles. In New Zealand, rugby is the big sport, so a match between Australia and New Zealand is a big deal for Kiwis.

On accents. I found the New Zealand way of speaking English to be really funny. A lot of Americans are familiar with Australian and British accents, but a kiwi accent is different – kind of blend between British and Australian. In the US, if you would say, “I’m expecting somebody,” in New Zealand, you’d say, “I’m expicting somebody.” Find a Youtube clip of Prime Minister, John Key, and you’ll know what I mean.

In general, everyone was relaxed, friendly (“no worries, mate”), and real. They did not act like Americans who pretend to like someone just to be polite; they also didn’t act like Europeans who have to say everything they think. In the countryside, people just helped each other — that’s how I got to hitchhike so much. It’s common and safe there.

Culture-wise, I felt like New Zealand was rather British, but maybe it was more like a combination between the States and Europe. Or maybe it was just an even better combination than all that together.

The music, the vibe, the people: All about… Trinidad {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is by Annique Joseph, a Trini native from Claxton Bay. She grew up on the island and moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2010 with her two children to live with her mother. She currently works as a clerk in the Pennsylvania State and Finance building.


When I learned about the Caribbean in school, no one really knew the difference between Trinidad and Tobago. What are the similarities and differences between the two islands? We are two different islands with the same government and currency, but we are definitely different places. People in Tobago have a bit of a different accent, a little bit more like the island of Grenada. Tobago is a bit more of a tourist attraction because they have the picturesque beaches and scenery, but we have all the petrol.

Speaking of accents, all Trinis speak English, but it’s not quite the same as what we speak in America. No, definitely not! If I’m at work, rambling on, and speaking in a normal Trinidad accent, no one understands me. They think I’m not even speaking English. I think one of the problems is that we speak a lot faster than Americans do. Another problem is the different words. “A lime” or “liming” means a social gathering, hanging out and talking, or just going to a club and dancing the night away. Basically, there are a lot of words that a Pennsylvanian wouldn’t understand.

Word order is sometimes different, too. Right. We would say, “The bottle have a yellow label” instead of “the bottle has a yellow label.” Or we say, “Rain fallin'” to say that rain is falling.

And you switch the word order, too. When I was in Trinidad, your mom would often say, “Where Peter is?” when asking for her brother instead of “Where is Peter?” Right! We also say, “What today is?” when asking about the date. But I think in Trinidad, we generally have a good way of speaking. When you are asking someone how they’re doing, they never say, “Fine, thank you.” We usually say, “Not too bad,” which is more true than all the time saying, “Fine.” It’s hard to pass ten to fifteen people at work every day and say, “How are you doing?” when no one really stops in to give you a real answer! All the same, the American way of greeting has kind of grown on me.

Another great part of Trinidad is the Carnival in February right before Lent. What’s that like? Oh, I’ll just have to take you there. Let me put it this way. It is the greatest show on the face of the earth. I think it’s extra ordinary, the music, the vibe, and all of the people, just coming together to dance and celebrate. There’s all the costumes, makeup, music, everything. It’s about relaxing and enjoying yourself — not lying on the beach relaxing, but just relaxing with people and having fun. It’s a fantastic experience that you need to have.

Emmancipation Day. August 1, 2010.

Emancipation Day. August 1, 2010.

There are Carnivals all over the world, so what’s different about your Carnival than, say, the one in Brazil? In Brazil I think the people get a lot more naked than we do while still being able to enjoy themselves, while in Trinidad, I believe there’s laws against that. The entire “Carnival season” has police on duty for 24-hour shifts. This ensures that people have fun but stay safe, although there can be interruptions at times.

How long is Carnival season? Well, Carnival basically starts from the day after Christmas. We call it “Boxing Day.” A fete [party] is also held on the said night, and then things kick off from there. After that, almost every weekend, if not every weekend, is a fete leading up to the two big days. And then the week before Carnival has a fete every night. The Friday before Carnival is called Fantastic Friday when the groovy soca and power soca competitions are held. And then on Sunday night is the calypso competition and the “king and queen of the bands” competition.

What’s the difference between soca and calypso? Soca is real upbeat and dancing music, although “groovy soca” is slower and “power soca” is faster. Both make one feel like jumping and prancing or simply grooving to the rhythm of the beat. And calypso is more of a melody with words about the government, politics, and sometimes things that are happening in the country.

How do the official days of Carnival go? The official days are Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. On Monday morning it starts, most of the time around sunrise. That’s called jouver’t, pronounced joo-vay. There are groups playing old mas and dressed up in traditional mas costumes, like the midnight robber or the blue devil. Then there’s the mocco jumbie — that’s people on stilts. Then there are the bands, all dressed up in different matching outfits, sometimes old, sometimes new. They do mud mas, which is when they throw cleaned and sometimes colored mud or paint on themselves — or on anyone else who looks too clean. So if you’re a spectator, please wear old clothes and be prepared to return home dirty! The bands in the parade, all differently owned, are judged for creativity and leave the streets around 11-12 o’clock noon to give way for the original mas players. There’s the masquerading of the bands on Tuesday as well when people come out in their costumes to play real mas. That’s when you sign up months in advance for a particular group and wear a costume made with a particular costume designer.

Costumes can be expensive, right? Oh, definitely. One can be anywhere from 3000-8000 TT dollars (about $500-1250), according to the band leader or the designer.

Playing with a mas costume. August 2010.

Playing with a mas costume. August 2010.

What do you miss most about Trinidad? Carnival is when I really miss it. Other than that, I miss being outside. I miss it being warm all the time. I miss bare feet and not having to wear so many clothes. In Trinidad, you can go out and call on all the neighbors or just visit a friend, and nobody asks you why you didn’t bother to call first. You can just stop by. In Pennsylvania in the wintertime, you’re inside and you’re inside and that’s it. Also, in Trinidad, you can just go outside and find your own food — that is, if you have a sort of garden. You can dig for yams or pick the green figs from the tree or pick some dasheen bush to make a dish. Go pick some mint for tea or just to season a piece of meat. Mango season? Go outside and pick a mango off a tree. My idea of tea is picking leaves off the bush, putting them in a pot, boiling the life out of them, or letting it draw (sit there for awhile, as the old people would say) and adding milk and sugar if you choose to right before you drink. That’s a fair idea of tea.

Trini countryside. August 2010.

Trini countryside. August 2010.

In the US, most people like Jamaican food, culture, and music. What’s the difference between Trinis and Jamaicans? Trinis tend to be way laid back. “Trini time” means that you’re half an hour late to just about everything. We also have the greatest music here: soca, calypso. For me, the best kind of music is the steel pan. In the days of slavery, they had to make these songs up with rhythm and taste.

What about the difference between jerk seasoning in Trinidad and jerk seasoning in Jamaica? There’s a difference all right! People cook it differently.

There’s also a difference between Kentucky Fried Chicken in the U.S. and KFC in Trinidad. Yes. In Trinidad, KFC is spicier and more flavorful than it is in the U.S. But there’s kind of a competition. We either eat KFC or Royal Castle (which consist of the same type of food), but they both have their customers. I personally like Royal Castle’s pepper sauce, although Trini pepper sauce in general is too hot for most Americans.

Bread, rice and pepper sauce, and fried fish. August 2010.

Bread, rice, and fried fish. August 2010.

What’s it like, growing up in a place that’s surrounded by water? Well, I can’t swim, but that doesn’t matter because you’re not living in the water or anything. One can go to the beach all the time, but you can get tired of it. When people say, “Hey, I bet you’re always on the beach,” it’s like, “Been there, done that.”

Good point. Here’s another way to look at it. Does growing up on an island make people more or less likely to leave it? We get tired of it eventually. A lot of people travel for work, because $1 in the U.S. is worth $6 in Trinidad. It isn’t unusual for Trinis to get out, travel, work, and send money back home, just to build a big house, to buy a nice car, to buy a piece of land and/or take care of their family. But if it wasn’t because of work most Trinis would want to travel anyway too. We sometimes feel the need to want more out of life, just like everybody else, and there’s just too much of the world out there to see.

28 years abroad: All about…the Netherlands {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by my aunt Colleen Savelkouls, who was born in Pennsylvania and has resided in the Netherlands since 1984. Staying at Colleen’s house in the Netherlands has been the way I’ve slept off jetlag for every single trip I have taken to Europe since 2000. Still strong to her Pennsylvanian roots — and accustomed to welcoming family visitors of all ages — Colleen is a great reference for explaining Dutch culture to Americans and expressing what she loves about both countries.


As an elementary school child growing up in central Pennsylvania, I still remember an older Dutch woman coming to talk about Holland. All I remember was her talking about wooden shoes and windmills. After all, isn’t that what most Americans think about when they try to picture Holland today — windmills, wooden shoes, and maybe tulips?

But having lived half my life in Pennsylvania and the other half in Holland, I know that there are many misconceptions that exist. First of all, Holland Dutch and Pennsylvania Dutch are not the same. The latter derives itself from the German immigrants who moved to Pennsylvania and introduced themselves with their “Deutsch” language. Second, most stories about Holland that exist in the U.S. are not necessarily about modern Holland, but the Holland that existed during or after World War II. This was the case with the older Dutch lady that I met as a child, who had left Holland to follow her love, an American soldier. Third, the country’s official name is the Netherlands. North and South Holland are actually provinces of the Netherlands from which ships used to sail with spices and Delft porcelain to sell around the world.

Here are a few differences that I have compiled to explain modern Holland, as well as the trials of living an immigrant life.

Learning languages, learning cultures. One month after receiving my Bachelor of Arts degree in 1984, I followed love to Holland. I believed I could conquer the many cultural differences and was willing to try. I was accepted easily by the Dutch, as most people my age learn English at school. Languages abound in Holland: Dutch students begin learning English around 5th or 6th grade, and in high school, they study Dutch, English, and have at least two years of both French and German. (Students going to college often also study Latin and Greek, for a total of six languages at a time.)

However, for me to learn Dutch at age 22 proved to be more difficult than I had thought. While I am now fluent after 28 years of living in Holland, I still cannot write a letter without asking someone to check my spelling. I now have more compassion for immigrants than I once did, especially a husband and wife team who are trying to learn another language as adults. My Dutch husband can correct my writing, but, as it often does with family immigrants, it often lands on the children’s shoulders to translate. After learning Dutch, I was also surprised to find that my language skills would continue to disable me in a job. I have a university level of thinking on how to approach a job, but my language skills have decreased how I can work. I can think and speak myself into a management level, but especially at the beginning, I could not write at a management level. This was limiting and, at times, very frustrating.

Old windmill near Waspik, the Netherlands, 2010

Old windmill near Waspik, the Netherlands, June 2010

Low skies and cloudy days. The first years of living in Holland, I was always asked where I was from, what I missed most about the U.S., and what was the most difficult about living abroad. My first answer was obviously learning Dutch, but the second answer — what I missed — was the mountains. Holland is extremely flat. I also did not expect to be so affected by how far north in the hemisphere Holland is. Holland is as far north as Alaska’s most southern islands, meaning that you get short days in the winter and long days in the summer (in June the sun sets at 10 PM). Due to the Atlantic Ocean, Holland has a sea climate with rain and low clouds. All together, the winters are usually cloudy, rainy, and have only 7 to 8 hours of light! If we get snow, it usually melts fairly fast. In winters, I yearn for sunshine, although I am grateful that neither summers nor winters in Holland are extremely hot or extremely cold. I tease the Dutch that they only have spring and autumn instead of four seasons.


Sunny view from the bell tower of Oude Kerk, Delft, the Netherlands, 2010

Breaking bread and drinking coffee — together. Another aspect that I had to get used to in Holland was the coffee breaks and the eating of so much bread. The average Dutch individual — blue-collar and white-collar — eat an open slice of bread or sandwich for breakfast, have a 15-minute coffee break coffee sometime between 9 and 10 AM, eat a sandwich for lunch, have 15 minutes for coffee or tea sometime between 3 and 4 PM, eat supper, and have coffee or tea again around 8 PM. In the beginning, I thought that, with so many breaks, I could never get any work done! Now, I have come to love this time. Visitors usually come to visit for coffee or tea instead of a meal; and they usually only accept one or two cookies when sweets are offered. Taking more is considered greedy. The Dutch also have the most delicious (and healthy) bread I have ever tasted, and the aroma of Dutch coffee is phenomenal! I am addicted! Coffee time is also a time to discuss how your day has gone and to plan the next few hours. This must be why Hollanders are known to be good managers!

In addition to bread, the Dutch export excellent cheese. Delft, the Netherlands, 2010

In addition to bread, the Dutch export excellent cheese. Central Market, Delft, the Netherlands, 2010

Windmills and wooden shoes?  I would assume that maybe only 1% of the Dutch still wear wooden shoes on a farm or around the house to keep their feet dry. In contrast, the Dutch are very fashion-minded and follow the latest styles. Amsterdam is getting world-wide recognition for designs and models. Also, while there are still some old wooden windmills existing, many are not in use. Instead, there are a few provinces, especially Flevoland, filled with modern 80-yard-high windmills. This tells you how windy it can get on some days! Don’t try to keep your hair neat!

Not exactly fashion-conscious, supporting the Dutch "football" team in the World Cup. Rotterdam, 2010

Not exactly fashion-conscious, supporting the Dutch “football” team in the World Cup. Rotterdam, 2010

All in all, I have come to love Holland. I would probably have culture shock if I permanently returned to the U.S. after 28 years abroad. In Holland, I don’t have to worry about the violence of guns, and I strongly recommend the Dutch multiple political party system instead of a two-party system that divides the nation. The news in Holland is more international, whereas in the U.S. the media seems to focus just on America’s own problems. There are truly good and bad things in every country, no matter where you live.

Chinese food that isn’t: All about American Chinese buffets {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

However, that being said, I have never set foot in China, nor have I ever traveled west of Italy. But I did write this article for a May 2010 issue of TheBurg after wondering about the extreme oddities of a Chinese buffet (especially a jumbo buffet) where overstuffed Americans are shuttled in rapidly to dine in gorgeous settings, plates are cleared silently by beautifully-dressed women, and the myth is perpetuated that Chinese cuisine, via these buffets, is something that Americans are familiar with and somewhat appreciate. No doubt a Chinese buffet is a cultural experience, but of what kind? 

This article was reprinted on on May 4, 2010.


Chinatown, Philadelphia, Summer 2012

Chinatown, Philadelphia, Summer 2012

The Chinese buffet is an American guilty pleasure.

The spacious booths, the gilded gold artwork — everything about a Chinese restaurant appeals to the American preference for having as much salty food as one can handle, the convenience of not cleaning up and the comfort of never running out of Coke. While this may sound uncouth, even I have to admit that I visit a buffet at least once a month.

We in Harrisburg have more Chinese restaurants in a 10-mile radius from our state Capitol than we have McDonald’s and Burger Kings combined. Good Taste on 3rd Street in Midtown (carry-out only) is for lunch, dinner and midnight cravings, offering an extensive, reasonably priced menu of lo mein, chow mein, beef, pork or chicken. Asian Empire Bistro on Union Deposit Road is a sit-down, white-tablecloth venue geared toward dinner or drinks, providing new twists on old favorites like orange beef and shrimp in chili sauce. If this isn’t enough, there are approximately 70 other Chinese restaurants in the Harrisburg area, catering to patrons’ every white rice, rice noodle need.

According to the U.S. Census, the state of Pennsylvania saw a 61% growth of the number of Asian residents between 2000 and 2010. However, for many of us, a Chinese buffet is as much of Asia as we will ever see. While we hold chopsticks and name our Chinese zodiac, we have to admit we know very little about China. Instead, we secretly believe that every meal in China is deep fried and soaked in sauce. In our eyes, Chinese homes probably come standard with an electric waterfall and a tank of live fish.

According to Indigo Som, manager of the blog “Chinese Restaurant Project,” American Chinese buffets are less windows into a foreign culture than they are mirrors of our own. The very existence of a “Chinese buffet” caters to the American need for choice and individualism. Equally, the idea that food should be heavily fried and rapidly consumed parallels the basis of our fast food culture.

Jingxia Yang (Judy) Stiffler, part-time professor of Chinese at Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA, said the Chinese view food much differently than the idea promoted at a buffet. While most clients finish a meal at a Chinese buffet in under an hour, an authentic Chinese dinner is an opportunity for patience and togetherness. The family sits around a circular table where several main dishes are placed on a large, central lazy Susan. It is culturally acceptable to eat from your own plate, from the dish in the center or to pass food from plate to plate with a quick “Here, try this.” At buffets, we clutch our plates to our chest as we wait for our share of General Tso’s, but Judy explained, “In China, there is no such thing as your ‘own plate.’ Eating is very communal.” A meal with friends can last four hours or more, starting with a cold salad and liquor and moving to stir fries, meatballs and soups. Dessert is only served for special occasions.

Traditional Chinese food differs from what we find under our buffet heat lamps. The country has five to six major types of cuisine that vary by region. Food from the Chinese province of Szechuan, for example, tends to be spicier (think Szechuan chicken) while food from the north of China is similar to that of Russia (like noodles and pickled cabbage). Vegetables such as bok choy, kai-lan, tomatoes and carrots are central to certain dishes, whereas American Chinese food pushes vegetables aside as garnish.

Judy maintained that American Chinese buffets aren’t necessarily poor representations of her country’s cuisine, but we need to regard American Chinese food for what it is. It represents both a nation of 1.3 billion people and a nation with a population one quarter of China’s — ours.

In Harrisburg, Paxton Street’s Jumbo Buffet welcomes the same patrons as the nearby Planet Fitness. Evergreen Chinese Buffet on the Carlisle Pike serves clients in a neonlit former diner. Across social and ethnic boundaries, we value equally the ability to promptly cater to our own tastes, and we rub shoulders with the neighbors with whom we would otherwise never speak. A Chinese buffet becomes a cultural intersection — a place where we are fully American and then some.

Better in Masaailand: All about… Kenya {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.
This week’s post is written by Heather Loring-Albright who is pursuing on a Master of Arts degree at the Chicago Theological Seminary with a focus in Women’s Studies and Black Studies. She has traveled to Kenya twice, most recently for two months in 2011. This particular reflection is from 2007 when Heather traveled to a traditional Masaai village two hours from Nairobi. The entire trip was “a painfully short 13 days,” which is why she went back years later. About Kenya, she recalls, “I learned a lot about simplicity and community there. I learned that I don’t need many things to find joy in spending time with other people. Togetherness is a real value for the family that I stayed with in Masaailand, and their community reflected that strength.”
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My safari at Masaai Mara. All rights reserved.

All too often for Westerners, the entire continent of Africa is envisioned in a series of generalizations that waft somewhere between sand, savannahs, sun, poverty, and violence. However, Kenya is, comparatively speaking, a well-to-do nation. Kenya’s economy is the largest by GDP in East Africa, although low infrastructure investment threatens their ability to grow. Kenya received its independence from the British on December 12, 1963, and today, much of the country is modernized with large cities that exist alongside smaller villages and towns.  Many people travel into and out of Kenya; safaris are the most well-known tourist attraction.
For the most part, Kenya is politically and economically stable. However, there was violence surrounding the elections in 2008, shortly after my first visit. In 2011, I visited an Internally Displaced Persons camp full of people who had lost their homes in 2008 and were still waiting for the government to grant them new plots of land. Government corruption, such as bribes, nepotism, and tribalism is rampant here, but this is not unique to Africa; with Hurricane Katrina in the United States, we saw how all governments tend to take advantage of the powerless and voiceless condition of the poor.
The following reflection is about the Masaai people who live simply and traditionally as nomadic herders within this modernized country. A semi-accurate metaphor would be to say that the Masaai are the Amish of Kenya, for they work hard to protect their tribal lands as well as their way of living. I’ve chosen to focus on how I feel life is better in Masaailand, Kenya, because I think people already have enough negative misconceptions of Africa as a whole, regardless of the country. I’d rather provide a positive and unexpected window into a place that many people will never visit to show what we can learn from Kenya opposed to what we feel must be changed.
Nairobi skyline.

Nairobi skyline.

In Massiland, I most appreciated the following:

1. Patience. When our car broke down — for the second and third time — while driving through Ngong, my host mom would just laugh and say, “No problem.” During one of the breakdowns, we pulled over by a concrete wall which acted as a gate for a nearby business, and as cars whizzed past us amid bright billboards and throngs of people, the driver patiently attempted to fix the car. A tape played over and over again in the tape deck, but eventually, we got going again. Nothing seemed to faze my host mom. In Masaailand, time revolved around our needs instead of the other way around.

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Friends from the village. All rights reserved.

2. Dancing. Unlike the States, where people feel that they need training or copious libations to make it onto the dance floor, folks in Masaailand are avid dancers. I noticed this at a cultural festival attended by over 1000 people, where soccer and volleyball, food, and time brought people together to talk and laugh under the sun. When a fun tune would start, everyone would begin moving, even the little kids! I was holding a small baby who bopped along to the beat. Back wraps held other children close to their mamas as they moved. It was amazing to see so much movement and appreciation of music by all ages.

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Gifting me a lesso, a traditional, loose-fitting garment used to provide color and to allow wind to cycle around your body and cool you down. All rights reserved.

3. Community. Because they are a distinct ethnic group, the Masaai have close ties with their family groups and larger clans. People often drop by uninvited. In fact, that is the custom. It is considered rude (or at least unconventional) to schedule an appointment to visit someone. Additionally, if you don’t make house calls, people will begin to wonder why you refuse to stop by and say hello. Visitors are to be treated with the utmost respect and hospitality, so one must always be ready to host.

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Adorable goats. All rights reserved.

4. Chai. Kenyans love chai. It is usually 1 part water to 1 part milk, with “Kericho Gold” or some other type of black tea (grown in vast tea fields in Kenya) plus mountains of sugar. When someone serves you chai, you must drink the entire cup. This becomes an issue when you are making numerous home visits in a row. Chai is highly caffeinated.

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The Maasai are herders; these are cows resting by a tree. All rights reserved.

5. Stars. Although plumbing is typical for the average Kenyan, in Masaailand, it is not, and I loved walking to the outhouse at night. I would regularly turn off my flashlight and gaze up at the night sky. There were so many beautiful stars, big and small, that I could hardly make out all the constellations I learned in school! Being in the southern hemisphere gave me a different view too. It was breathtaking.

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Leaving the Masaai valley. All rights reserved.

The lives of eight million: All about… New York City {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Brian Richards, museum curator for New York Yankees. Brian has coordinated 10 exhibits from scratch since the museum’s opening in 2009, including last June’s exhibit on Mickey Mantle. He currently lives in the Bronx and enjoys strolling down Fifth Avenue on Saturday evenings.


This post may raise a few eyebrows when compared to the others in this series that focus on global places, since New York City obviously isn’t a foreign country. However, it was a completely foreign environment to me when I moved here four years ago. I grew up in the tiny borough of Hughesville, Pennsylvania (population: 2,000), with a cornfield behind our home. In my teenage years, I dreamed of teaching history at Hughesville High School, marrying a local girl, and raising a family in that same little town. Even when I went to college at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, and on to graduate school in Cooperstown, New York (both also communities of 2,000 people), I never thought I’d one day move to America’s largest, fastest-moving, most exciting metropolis.

When I was hired by the New York Yankees in September 2008 to assemble and run a museum in the new Yankee Stadium, I was filled simultaneously with exhilaration and terror. How would I ever live in New York City? Simply tolerating the “Big Apple” would have been enough for me, let alone loving the place. I settled into the Riverdale neighborhood in the Bronx and have grown by leaps and bounds, both personally and professionally… and in my understanding and love for my new home.

Here are five important things that I’ve learned about New York City:

1.) There are many New Yorks within New York City. Think of New York City… what images immediately come to mind? Most of us will imagine Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Central Park, etc. As for me, I always thought of bustling Times Square where “The Great White Way” and Seventh Avenue grandly intersect. It’s easy to think that “this is New York City,” but that’s only partially true. New York City is also quiet streets of townhouses in Chelsea. It’s tree-lined streets on the Upper West Side where ancient brick paving pokes through well-worn asphalt. It’s Hudson Street in the West Village, with little shops and restaurants that offer a refreshingly laid-back atmosphere. And that’s just Manhattan! I regret to say that I haven’t explored Brooklyn or Queens very much… and have never set foot on Staten Island… but those boroughs no doubt offer even more “New Yorks” within New York. I no longer picture Times Square when I think of this metropolis; in fact, I intentionally avoid the area for that very reason. It’s beautiful to learn about and savor the unique aspects of these communities-within-a-city.

2.) New York City… it ain’t what it used to be. I think there’s a common conception among non-New Yorkers that NYC hasn’t changed since the 1970s and 1980s. By that I’m implying a New York City with crumbling infrastructure and subways that double as easels for graffiti artists, a New York of rampant homelessness and violent crime. Maybe that was just the perspective I came from, but I certainly believed it. When visiting a busy area of the city, my father warned me to always keep my wallet in one of my front pants pockets to avoid pickpockets. Before living here, New York City invoked in me a sense of wonder and an equally strong sense of fear. Thankfully, all my fears were unwarranted. NYC experienced a renaissance of sorts in the 1990s which continues to the present day. Streets and subways were cleaned up, new shelters were built for those needed housing, and crime rates plummeted. There’s a reason why New York is consistently rated as one of the safest cities in America; in Manhattan, there’s (almost literally) a police officer on every street corner. The days of municipal bailout requests, blackouts, and “Son of Sam” are long since over. I can walk down any street in Manhattan without fear of any sort of danger. And I always keep my wallet in my back pocket.

3.) Nuuu Yawkers — they’re not all pushy, arrogant boars. If you’re within “radio range” of New York City, tune-in to WFAN sports radio sometime. The not-so-graceful words of Mike Francesa may attack your ears. Francesa, a staple on New York sports talk radio shows, embodies the stereotype of New Yorkers that I formerly held. He gives his callers few opportunities to defend their opinions while arrogantly dismissing them in a condescending manner. This is what I expected all New Yorkers to be like — constantly blowing horns, pushing in lines, and griping in voices loud enough to permanently impair hearing. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find very few people here like that. It does, however, feel like every New Yorker is constantly in a rush, but everybody realizes that the people around them are rushing, too. New Yorkers recognize the presence of over eight million people around them and understand the need for tolerance and coexistence. That doesn’t mean that deliberately ignorant behavior will go unrecognized or without comment. But as long as you’re thinking and respecting those around you, a profanity-laden tongue-lashing in Brooklynese won’t be a concern. Unless, of course, you call in to Mike Francesa’s show.

4.) Owning… and driving… a car really isn’t necessary here. Okay, now this one seems like a no-brainer, right? Who doesn’t know that an empty parking spot is impossible to find in NYC? But consider this: if everybody really knows that “fact,” why are there still so many cars, and why is parking still so coveted? Life without a car was simply unimaginable when I grew up in Hughsville, and I still held that belief as I drove my 1993 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight Royale to New York from Cooperstown in October 2008. The dream of keeping my beloved car quickly turned into a nightmare. Not only are parking spots in Riverdale difficult to find, every car has to be moved at least once per week for the street sweeper. I drove 90 minutes straight without a break one night — literally, a full hour-and-a-half — trying to find another spot. I quickly realized that the car was a luxury here, not a necessity.  It’s definitely convenient to come and go whenever you please rather than just missing a bus or subway train, but the city’s public transit system really does get you where you need to go. I never thought I could live without my car. Now, I can’t live with the car here. The parking, sky-high insurance rates, city gas prices, etc. are simply unneeded stress.

5.) Celebrities are not standing on every street corner. Another “obvious fact,” right? Not necessarily. It seems like everybody who is anybody in film, sports, music, etc., calls a chic Manhattan flat “home” for at least part of the year. Many people come to New York expecting to bump into Jennifer Aniston in the supermarket, wait for a subway with Jay-Z, or get a restaurant table next to Eli Manning. I have yet to experience any of this (although I have spoken to Rudy Guiliani, Whoopi Goldberg, Henry Kissinger, and Richard Gere while working at Yankee Stadium. OK, so I’m special.). Next time you venture into Manhattan, you’d might as well forget the autograph books. What you will find is something far more beautiful — the lives of common people unfolding before your eyes, by the thousands, at any given moment. Everybody has needs, wants, longings, joys, and sorrows, and New York shows all that drama unfolding and multiplied by eight million. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind bumping into Rachel McAdams at Starbucks sometime. But seeing and hearing so much genuine human drama excites me far more than seeing any famous face could ever do.

"Daily Life in NYC," Chuck Kuhn

“Daily Life in NYC,” by Chuck Kuhn


Yankee Stadium (Stock Photo)

Take it easy, Santa: All about… Germany {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Christine Stumböck from Ichenhausen, a small town in the south of Germany. She misses good German bread, readily-available recycling, and the ability to buy groceries by bike. Christine currently resides in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.


When I was younger and still living in Germany, I always had the impression that Christmas was a much bigger deal in the US. I guess it was mostly because of the blinking, colorful, and giant Christmas decorations that some families had in and around their house, often starting to pop up as early as November. Or maybe it was because of the fact that Santa Claus as we know him today is an invention of Coca-Cola. But anyway, my family always preferred subtle, natural-looking decorations like straw ornaments, and my mother would never put metal on our tree or plastic Santas in our lawn. It’s also a common German tradition to put up the Christmas tree and fully decorate the house on December 24. After all the work is finished, we sit together in the evening to open presents before going to church at midnight. So for me, Christmas always started late. And Christmas as a celebration always was over quickly because we received our presents shortly after we’d decorated the tree!

When I came to the United States two years ago, I realized that an American Christmas is much shorter than I realized. For a big part of the working population, Christmas is often not more than a single day off to spend with your friends and family. For those of us in the service industry — we who must keep the grocery stores and retail shops open at late as possible to accommodate last-minute shoppers — Christmas is the busiest time of the year.

Of course, there are also stores and restaurants open around Christmas in Germany, and many Germans consider the Christmas season to be a busy time. However, German federal law protects Christmas. First, there’s a law that requires stores to maintain “normal” working hours year-round for all those in retail; this law is called the Ladenschlussgesetz, or shop-closing law. This means that all stores are closed on Sundays and are never as late as 10 or 11 PM during the week; this is true even in big cities like Munich where I lived for several years. This law also has a specific regulation for Christmas Eve which requires that stores close in the afternoon so that everybody can go home and enjoy the holiday with their family.

Secondly, even though Christmas itself is shorter in Germany, Christmas as a season is much longer. The second day of Christmas, December 26, is a national holiday. And as most workers have more vacation days than we do in the U.S. (I had 28 days per year), many people are able to take off until New Year’s Day or even January 6, another national German holiday.

It took me a couple of years living outside of Germany to value federal regulations and realize what I really miss about Christmas. It’s not the colorful decorations, the shopping trips months ahead, or the plentiful gifts — it’s time. Time to sit together with family and friends. Time to calm down and fully relax. Time to think about the year that’s ending and to recapture all the memories, both good and bad.

So, Santa, maybe you could think about that until the next Christmas season rolls around…as I’m sure it will, way too soon.

Traditional spitzbuben cookies, December 2010

Traditional spitzbuben cookies, December 2010


Trier, Germany, 2010

Dried oranges from my German roommate, Talange, France, 2007

Christmas oranges dried by my German roommate, Talange, France, 2007

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