Fat Tuesday in America

Today is Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, which begins the Christian season of Lent. In the US, we also call it mardi gras (which is French for Fat Tuesday), but in my area we call it “Paczke Day”, after a type of Polish jelly doughnut that everyone here (whether Polish or not) eats on that day.

After I finished teaching my morning class at a community college in suburban Detroit today, I walked into the student center and heard mardi gras songs in creole French being played over the loudspeaker. As soon as I walked in, a Chinese girl offered me a cup of jambalaya, which is a spicy Louisiana dish made from rice, shrimp, chicken, vegetables, and sometimes pieces of sausage. The name jambalaya originally comes from the Provence region of France. However, the Chinese girl serving it thought it was gumbo, which is a similar dish, but more like a soup. The word gumbo comes from an Angolan word for the vegetable okra. When I went into the student cafeteria, they were, of course, offering those Polish jelly doughnuts, paczke, as well. They may have come from a local Polish bakery, or they could have been from one of the German or Belgian bakeries, which on my side of town are almost all owned by Macedonians now. Once I tried to buy bread on Fat Tuesday, but I couldn’t, because the bakery was completely filled with paczke.

Some people would say that this kind of crazy cultural mix could only happen in the US, but I know it can also happen in Canada, and I’d be willing to bet you can find it in London and Frankfurt, as well.

What do you think?

Hi Jamie, I have not been to the US yet but from what I know I think it is the most culturally diverse country in the world. Here in Switzerland we too have a lot of people with different cultural background but I think there is a difference between European countries and the US when it comes to cultural diversity. For example I know that are large Spanish or Chinese speaking communities within US cities like L.A., Chicago or New York. Of course a lot of European cities consist of different nationalities but they usually don’t have the level of freedom ethnic communities in the US have. What is your opinion on this subject? You have lived in the Czech Republic so you should have substantial experience regarding different cultures?
Speak to you soon,

Nicole, don’t forget that Canada is just as ethnically diverse as the US.

I think a good explanation of the whole thing is what some woman said on TV a couple weeks ago: “The United States is the only country that was founded not on an ethnicity, but on an idea.” This affects society here in quite a few different ways.

A couple I know can serve as an example. An Indonesian woman married an Austrian man, and they lived in Austria for a few years before his company transferred him to the US. Then they started having conflicts about where to live. The trouble was that he loved Austria and wanted to live there until he died. She had a problem, because even if she took Austrian citizenship, people would still not consider her Austrian, and most people would not think of their Austrian-born children as “real” Austrians. However, anybody can be American. This made the wife want to stay in the US, even though the husband wanted to go back to Austria.

One thing I used to notice about Czechs was how they talked in their own language about a Czech who had lived outside their country for a while. If a Czech woman married a German and came back five years later, they called her “that German”; if she had lived in the UK for a few years, they called her “that Englishwoman”. I knew a Czech man who’d had trouble with the police during communist times and had to leave the country. When he could finally move back there, the people of his own nation called him “that Swiss”.

You’re right about London, Jamie. It is said to be the world’s most diverse and multi-cultural city. The English capital is a huge cultural melting pot, with resident communities from over 90 countries (and probably as many different national cuisines), where over 300 different languages are spoken. How’s that for a cultural collage?