Regional Truths

The summer before my junior year of high school, my AP Comp. teacher gave us a list of definitions of the American dream, and asked us to choose one and use it as a basis for a journal we were to keep over the summer. The other day, digging through the upper shelves of my closet, I found that journal, and the quote I had chosen. It was taken from the novel The Killer Angels, in which it was spoken by Civil War Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain:

This is free ground. All the way from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was. Here you can be something. Here’s a place to build a home…It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me…

In my journal, I followed this with, “This is a powerful representation of what America is, in the eyes of its people and (hopefully) those abroad.” When I wrote that sentence, the farthest abroad I had been was Victoria, BC to the north and Tijuana, Mexico to the south. I did hope, fully, that those abroad saw America in this light, but implicit in my statement was the worry that they might not–that, instead, they would see it as something else, something oppressive, maybe, or else just clueless and annoying. I didn’t know which.

Now, I have had the privilege of traveling much more than my 16-year-old self had–to South America, to Asia, and to Australia–but the changes I found have little to do with how foreigners see the United States. (I saw everything from utter indifference to fevered love on that front.) Rather, they have to do with how Americans see the US–and how wrong I was there.

A little background: I spent the past year living and working in Taiwan as part of the Fulbright program, the US State Department’s flagship intercultural exchange program. Fulbright had selected 28 Americans, myself included, to come to Taiwan to teach English, in addition to a good number of scholars who came to work within their chosen fields. In all, Fulbright Taiwan consisted in nearly 60 Americans, if memory serves. (A similar program sends Taiwanese people to America, but we had little contact with our Taiwanese counterparts, since we were never in the same country at the same time.)

With such a large group, we were guaranteed to be diverse, in hometown, ethnicity, politics, religion, and anything else you could name. Within my small group of the 12 ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) living in Kaohsiung, we were from Oregon, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Texas, Washington D.C., Hungary (turned Boston), Virginia, Louisiana, Hong Kong (turned Arizona), New Jersey, and Georgia. All over America, in other words.

Now, I hadn’t exactly been globally isolated before moving to Taiwan; my high school had a proportionally huge foreign exchange student population, and some of my closest friends and roommates in college were from Romania, Moldova, Uruguay, and Thailand, to name a few. But what I lacked was contact with people from places in America other than the Northwest. My school was in Seattle; the vast majority of its students hailed from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California, along with a strong contingent from Colorado, which is, culturally if not geographically, an honorary part of the Pacific Northwest. ONE of my friends was from Virginia; that was it.

So I walked into Taiwan, and into my apartment, with a strong knowledge of how I thought America looked: exactly like the Northwest.

In my apartment, there were four people: a white girl from Oregon (me); a white girl from New Hampshire/Florida/Illinois; a black girl from Washington, D.C.; an El Salvadoran-North Korean girl from Virginia. We confused our neighborhood fruit vendor when we insisted we were all Americans.

And within our apartment, whenever we got on any sort of conversation with the bigger issues, I was the one who was confused. Suddenly, everything I thought I knew about America came into question. Conversations about racism, in particular, made we want to duck and cover, even as I vehemently tried to defend my observations about how America was. But here’s what I learned: I was wrong. Or, at least, unfairly generalizing about a whole I had never really explored.

And here’s why. Say what you will about Oregon, but diverse it is not: 88.6% of the population identifies themselves as white, compared to 78.8% nationwide. Washington’s not much better. So when my roommates began describing institutionalized racism to me, I had absolutely no concept of what they were talking about. My world, unfortunately white-washed as it was, did at least have the benefit of never having institutionalized any latent racism anyone may have harbored.

To be clear, I am not saying racism doesn’t exist in the West. Yes, I knew–and know–that in the Northwest, as everywhere, there are isolated incidents of racism (man, I wish THAT statement were false). I was–and am–just saying that whatever of racism hasn’t been stomped out yet exists in the Northwest more sparingly, and in a massively different, and less blatant, form.

And it’s not because we’re somehow better people or something–we’re not. People are people are people, no matter where you go or who you talk to. But I’ve come to conclude that the Northwest is helped by the fact that, in addition to never having been part of the old guard that battled it out back in the Civil War (and those who did battle did so on the Union side–both the state of Oregon and the territory of Washington backed the North), it is absolutely defined by its militant individualism. And individualism, by its very nature, requires equal rights for everyone.

Here’s my theory on that one. The West was one of the last places in America to be populated by non-native settlers. First there were the rugged individualists heading west to explore, or to find furs. Then there was the Oregon Trail, which ended in the Willamette Valley, not far from where I grew up. To get to the West, you had to be a special sort of person: the sort of person with a wanderlust and drive so deep that you were willing to uproot your whole family–or be uprooted from them, if you were traveling alone–and set out on foot and on horseback with just a few crucial belongings, across 2,000 miles of rugged, inhospitable terrain, to a place where you’d never been and where everything was guaranteed to be harder for you, all with the belief that once you got there, you could build a better life for yourself. It all hinged on you. And when that’s the case, people who’ve “made it” are revered as having done it for themselves; people who haven’t are encouraged to keep trying for themselves.

Now, granted, the West Coast has undergone massive changes since the 1860s, but those are the principles the West Coast culture was built on–on being a place where “we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was.” Where “you can be something.” In many ways, it was founded with the same principles which led the original American settlers to the East Coast, but the comparative recency of the journey and the comparative distance from the hierarchies of Europe has, so far, left more of them intact. No one cares where you came from here: what they care about is where you’re going. There is no “Old Money” in the West–“old money” is maybe your grandfather founded something that was successful, and passed it down to you. In other words, “Old Money” in the West is the nouveau riche of the East Coast.

This is how I was raised to see the world; this is how I was raised to believe America was. Having spent little time outside of the Northwest, it was all I knew. So when I began chatting with my roommates about overarching American issues, it was a bit of a shock to realize that, in the end, you can’t really talk about American issues, so much as you have to talk about American issues in the context of whatever region or regions you’ve experienced. The concept of racism looks different in Washington DC than it does in Louisiana or Wisconsin or Kansas or Oregon. The concept of “The American Dream,” while it has a fairly standard interpretation, is true to varying degrees depending on where you have lived. My roommates talked about impossible-to-escape expectations; they talked about old money families who were unreachable in every way; they talked about hierarchies I had never imagined could exist in the ardently-claimed democracy of America.

So maybe my view of America was idealistic and naive; maybe it was simply a regional truth that I had never had the chance to realize was, in fact, regional. Probably a little of both. But looking back at my high school junior self, I wish I had known how much cause I had to question, not just how others saw us, but how we saw ourselves. Because, from what I can tell, what others think of us stems from how we think of ourselves–and arrogance on our part only draws others’ attention to our flaws, of which there are many. And the American Dream, no matter where it exists, or how you define it, is only a dream if people lack the power to enact it.

If I were commenting now on the quote I chose back in my junior year, this is what I’d say:

This is a powerful depiction of what America should be. I don’t know where, or to what extent, it is true, but we should all continually strive to take this dream out of dreaming, and into reality. After all, what else is America about, if not striving for the apparently impossible?

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Life behind Glass

It’s gorgeous outside–gorgeous for Eugene, anyway. The sun is out, the flowers are blooming; my dogs lie, half-dead to the world, on the long green grass, awaiting a companion. And yet here I sit before my computer, chilled to my toes. Yesterday, it was the same thing.

And there it is, another aspect of reverse culture shock: the re-containment of my life between wall and window. While I was in Taiwan, I complained often about the weather– because, in Taiwan, you live in it. You swim through the sticky air from door to door, slice through it on a scooter, and maneuver through it in the schools.

In Taiwan, they take very few cares to separate the outdoor from the indoor; very few climate adjustments to overmaster their environments. There is no internal heating–an obvious adjustment in the warmer parts, but apparently abominable in places like Taipei, where, in the winter, the cold humidity pierces layers without mercy. The little shops that line the main streets frequently go door-less, opening directly onto the covered qilou (騎樓) which serves, alternately, as a sidewalk, scooter parking lot, cafe, shop extension, and front porch. (The concept of the qilou is, itself, fascinating: it’s legally considered a privately owned public space, meaning its owners can do what they like with it, but must, technically, leave a way through for others–even if, as is often the case, that way through is just a narrow passage between clothing racks.)

Even in the tropical south, in Kaohsiung, where I spent the past year teaching, where the temperature routinely rises above the bearable, air conditioning is rarely used, and house plans commonly include an outdoor sitting area–walk down the streets in Kaohsiung, and you’re likely to see people sitting on little red plastic stools outside their houses; go to the local park, and you’ll find elders playing mahjhong in the shade, flapping themselves with fans rather than seek out an air conditioned spot. And that’s normal: the climate is the climate, they live where they do, and there is no apparent reason to ignore it and live exclusively in a climate-controlled bubble.

Even the schools are built to integrate naturally into the surrounding climate: wherever you go, you see classroom walls lined with windows which open onto covered open-air walkways overlooking lush green courtyards. It’s a gorgeous way to build a school, and, in the cooler winter months, it works quite well–but for the majority of the year, teachers and students find themselves at the mercy of the massive heat, all windows and doors flung open, but to little avail. Some rooms have AC, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.

Not so here. Here, in the temperate Northwest, we are utterly spoiled when it comes to weather–mild summers and mild winters, with beautiful springs and falls in between–and yet despite, or perhaps because of this, we shut ourselves off from it, except for on the occasions when we determine we would like to “experience nature.” We sit in our air-conditioned rooms, our chosen temperature a mere 5 or so degrees cooler than the outside, and look out at the sun, or we sit in front of a fire or curled up on a couch beside a forced-air heat vent as the sharp air and ice webbing waits outside, unappreciated.

And what do we gain from this isolation? We gain the ability to feel cold in summer, and hot in winter. We gain the ability to control our environment; to reverse nature at will. We gain, as we would tell ourselves, “comfort.” But is that really such an important thing?

When I was a kid, I played outside incessantly. I am fortunate enough to have grown up in the country, and my brothers and I spent countless hours running back and forth by the river, climbing trees and making forts and riding bikes and playing make-believe until the sound of my mom’s dinner triangle (yes, really) called us back in. When I hit high school, that changed, and I remember becoming aware one day that the only time I spent outside was the short trip from my back door to my car; my car to the school, and back again. Even then, I saw that for what it was: a sad waste of my days.

Yet here I sit, gazing out the window as though I had no way to change my situation; no way to stop living within my self-imposed, self-controlled pocket of creature comforts and get out and enjoy the natural beauty of the world as it is; as it’s meant to be. I still find myself choosing, many days, to stay behind glass, like a bug stuck by a pin, or an artifact in a museum, rather than the living, breathing person that I am.

Perhaps it’s time to apply what the Taiwanese taught me, shatter the glass and step outside. The sun is calling.

Fresh First Impressions

Americans are fat. And pale, really pale–unless, of course, they aren’t. All the signs here are in only one language. The air is clean, and smells like sweet dried grass. And the sun–you can actually sit out in it without being drenched in sweat!

They warn you about reverse culture shock. They say it, over and over again, until it becomes a cliche festering in your mind: You’ll notice how big everyone is. You’ll be disgusted by the consumption and waste. You’ll make yourself sick on the food. Yeah, yeah, I get it, you say to yourself. I’ve been gone a while. It’ll feel different to be back. Okay, yeah, sure, whatever.

Then you actually do it–you actually go back. And you realize just how right they were.

Coming back into an English-speaking, ethnically diverse country after a year in a predominantly Chinese (and Taiwanese and Hakka and other languages which I don’t speak)-speaking one, and one where being white marks you as the one foreigner in any group, is an intensely bizarre sensation. I wrote about it a few weeks ago when I visited Australia; the best way I can describe it is complete sensory overload. Going from a world where you can’t help but take notice of the one non-Asian person in any crowd and subconsciously perk your ears up at the slightest English syllable to a world where people from every background swirl about, bandying English about as if it’s no big deal–and, what’s more, to actually have it not be a big deal–is disorienting to the point of incomprehension. When you’ve trained your senses to seek out and highlight everything “foreign” from a Taiwanese perspective, putting yourself in a world where everything is foreign is like overloading the circuits on a computer.

Or, here’s a better analogy. Imagine you’re watching a movie in a dark room, on a small monitor with a broken speaker. You lean forward in your chair, squinting at the screen and straining your ears to catch even a few words of the dialogue, so as to piece together the story. Over the course of the movie, you get pretty good at this, your ears and eyes completely attuned to the tiny screen and speakers.

Then, just as the movie enters the shoot ’em out climax, someone switches on all the lights and, simultaneously, the movie theater-sized screen and speakers on the wall behind the tiny monitor you’ve been watching. Instantly, the room fills with bright lights and full-volume explosions.

What do you do? Clutch your ears and close your eyes, of course! It’s just too much, too fast, for your quiet-and-dark-attuned senses to handle all at once. That’s what it’s like to come back into your native environment after a year abroad.

Fortunately, I had that experience–an experience which, I realize, also mirrors Plato’s allegory of the cave to some extent–along the Esplanade in Cairns a few weeks before coming home to America, leaving my homeward observations to look like those in my first paragraph, rather than leaving me rocking on the floor of the plane as the seats around me filled with people who looked like–gasp–me!

My new impressions of the West  certainly do not fit into any sort of neat and tidy box.

They are negative: We’re all so fat! Why don’t we have any bilingual signs even in international airport terminals? What’s the deal with our crappy airlines? Why do we have such negative election press?

They are positive: The air is clean, and smells great! I can drink water from the tap! People are friendly! We have fully stocked bathrooms!

They are indifferent: The flies here are different. The sun is cooler. People are still people.

It’s odd, though–the things that strike me the most are utterly random and, usually, utterly small. I’m currently listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd on Pandora; last night I watched Downton Abbey on Netflix. Neither of those sites are available in Taiwan. I’ve been eating my fill of bagels, croissants, peaches, and cheddar cheese. None of those are common or quite as good in Taiwan. My rotisserie chicken doesn’t have the head attached, and it tastes just better somehow. Today I walked past a Redbox, and shopped for toiletries in a Bi-Mart. Redbox triggered a twinge of nostalgia, of all things, and Bi-Mart seemed cavernous and full at the same time–despite the fact that Carrefour has always been at least as well-stocked.

And, perhaps it’s because I’ve recently returned from abroad, or perhaps it’s because I’ve come unarmed into the middle of an election year, but I can’t help but look around me and wonder how American politics fell into the hole it’s in now. I love America, and hate to see the insularity which seems to be creeping over it. Again, I realize my bias, but I wish that every young person would live abroad somewhere for at least a few months, maybe adopt the phenomenon common in places like Europe of taking a gap year to travel and work abroad. It changes your perspective radically, as I’ve written about before.

Perhaps the best aspect of living outside your country, and one which I didn’t talk about before–indeed, couldn’t have talked about, considering that I had yet to experience it–is the comparatively clear-eyed view it gives you of your own country when you return. So now, I see beyond the cliches into the truths on which they are based, and try not to perpetuate them. I can see how big everyone is and that thought may temper the longings of my homesick stomach. Having spent a year breathing gray air and drinking only bottled water, I can fully appreciate the ability to take in a deep breath of pure farm air and see the hills across the valley; I can fully cherish turning on the tap and getting a cup full of water both clean and tasty.

Soon, I’m sure, I will no longer think twice about such little luxuries as free music streaming over my speakers, or a piece of cheese bread in my hand. But maybe, in the process, I’ll be able to cling to these first impressions of my home, both good and bad, and to keep them from festering into false memories.