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Mariela Dabbah Headshot

American Culture: Arriving in America Can be Like Landing on Mars

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The first time I landed in Las Vegas only a few years ago I thought I had mistakenly taken a Virgin Galactic flight to Mars. From the slot machines at the airport to walking through a casino to get to my room at the hotel, to running into people gambling and drinking 24/7, the experience was unlike any other the U.S. had offered me since my arrival from my native Buenos Aires.

That trip made me think about all the activities, habits, traditions, objects and even foods that are beloved by Americans and that I still don't quite get even after twenty years in this country and a citizenship ceremony under my belt.

Let's start with one of the most common American habits: eating a full meal while walking down the sidewalk or at the shopping mall, watching a movie at the movie theater, working at the office, commuting on the subway, or driving. In fact, eating while doing anything. Is this a subconscious response to some irrational fear of starvation? Or perhaps of not finding enough time in the day to eat? Our obesity epidemic seems to point in the opposite direction but I won't get into that here.

Food being a part of life that always brings us back to our childhood and our culture, there are many questions around this topic that to this date continue to intrigue me. Like America's love affair with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I had never heard of such a thing before I came to New York and it took me years to even try the unusual combination of flavors that few other countries outside of the U.S. embrace with such passion. And let's not forget another local favorite: Eating ketchup with everything, which often makes me wonder why bother paying gourmet prices if you're going to cover everything with ketchup. And by the way, how long did it take you to learn that you have to smack the engraved #57 on the side of the glass bottle of Heinz ketchup to get it to come out quickly? Or did you just learn that here?

For a long time I couldn't understand Americans' attachment to Girl Scout cookies. But the frenzy that ensues when Girls Scout cookies arrive in offices across the country as a result of the fund raising efforts of employees who support their daughters' troops only rivals the passionate betting that takes place in South America's offices every four years during the World Soccer Cup. It was only after years of sharing family life with a close friend who is a troop leader that I finally got the true meaning of these emblematic treats that have survived almost unchanged for generations.

Obviously food is not the only aspect of American culture that catches my attention. There are more serious habits that intrigue me, such as why people keep their nice cars outdoors while they use their two-car garages to safely store junk. Or why they wear baseball caps for all kinds of situations that are not baseball related or that are not even remotely informal enough to call for a sports cap. Most importantly, I keep on trying to figure out the true purpose of wearing the baseball cap backwards. How did that come about?

And while we are on the topic of sports, I never understood why the national baseball championship is called the "World Series" when only the U.S. and Canada play. I also need some clarification on whether those black anti-glare marks that players paint under their eyes really do anything.

Through the years, many of these little idiosyncrasies have become transparent for me in a way that I don't notice them any more. (The most obvious one is being considered Latina or Hispanic, something I had never been until I arrived in this country. I was simply Argentinian.) But these differences are very evident for newcomers who try to make sense of things that are second nature to those who either have been born here or have lived in this country for a long time.

By now, I'm used to doctors who wear suits instead of scrubs to examine me, to colleagues taking one week vacations instead of the more common two to three weeks that my friends and family took in South America. I'm used to hearing people discuss the same soap opera for twenty-five years rather than the single year they more commonly last south of the border and to office employees who hang out around the water cooler (something I can't even figure out how to translate into Spanish!). I've gotten used to putting away my white clothes after Labor Day and getting kissed under the mistletoe on Christmas. I know people who buy snow globes at every airport. I've met some serious collectors of staplers, thimbles, cookie cutters and all sorts of other quirky things; while the only things people collected when I was growing up were stamps or coins. I'm not even surprised that there's a TV show called "Hoarders" (or that anyone would watch it), because it makes sense that in a country that so values having "stuff" some people can't give any of it up. But in the beginning it was all very foreign to me. Almost like landing on Mars on a Virgin Galactic flight.

Inevitably, many things will remain a mystery regardless of how long I live in the U.S., and I'm grateful for that. The discovery of what makes a people unique is all part of the fun and complex process of different cultures coming together.

This column has previously appeared on Fox News Latino.