America Abroad

Whenever people ask me about America I feel like they’re after a very different kind of country than I remember. US Army boots, the Big Apple, Stiff-Suited Politicians in Sleek Cars, the glam of Hollywood and excessive commercialism in L.A.

But see, for me, visiting New York felt no different than visiting any city in China for the first time: I took the same approach to both, as neither were familiar to me. Exploring, wandering, observing everything with new eyes.  Taking in and analyzing a new culture.

My first camping trip (one of *dozens* if not hundreds during my childhood), unless my mother 'nabbed someone else's blond and half-bald baby for the photo

My first camping trip (one of *dozens* if not hundreds during my childhood), unless my mother ‘nabbed someone else’s blond and half-bald baby for the photo

When I’m away from America what I miss most are my Minnesotan roots: summers on the wave-sprayed rocks covered with iron-colored moss at Artist’s Point in Grand Marais, mint hot cocoa and the smell of a pine fire filling a log cabin, dirt under our fingernails at organic community farms, bike trails that stretched across the countryside and looped around the city’s lakes, the smell of sand and mud in the shade by the river and canoeing past turtles sunning themselves on the banks, green sprouts and black beans at the Hard Times Cafe, summer heat swelling the sweet smelling grass, llamas waiting for a post-dinner rub and a badminton court in the backyard, Potluck holiday dinners and brunches filled with a dozen different dishes savory and waiting for us to sample and guests who had all read – and would opiniate on – the latest Times editorial or ‘epiphany moment big ideas’ book of the year,  summer barbecues where we played street soccer as kids, tiger lilies bursting in fragrant orange between sidewalk and street, living room libraries filled with books well-read and still ready for argument, jest and defense. A Minnesota that was close to it’s natural roots and commitment to community, emergingly hip and somewhat abashed (embarrassed and yet proud of the fact that it what it had been doing all along was now hip), always self-aware.

jesse-ventura1-247x300Of course Minnesota is no paradise – the winters are cold and harsh, self-awareness and abashed behavior are sometimes taken to extreme. Not to mention that, when I was in elementary school, voters got so fed up with the campaign bickering of red and blue candidates that they elected this boa-clad former pro wrestler as state governor. (He’s now running for president, though I don’t think Minnesotans will make the same mistake twice)

But some of those core central values are what I keep going back to, what I miss when I’m living abroad, why I get so enraged at Bishkek traffic (or the simple inability of people in our own apartment complex to take the extra two seconds to straighten out there car and actually park within the lines, thus leaving enough room for people to park on either side).  These aren’t American values, or American experiences – they’re Minnesotan. (It didn’t help that I attended college in Portland, which is – to overgeneralize – a rainier and less-abashed mini version of Minneapolis with inferior Ethiopian food and better public buses).

Or rather, as this article and map explain it (in better terms than I’ve found before), “Yankeedom” values.  While I’d argue that “deep Wisconsin” with it’s deer hunters, penchant for pick up trucks and bud-light-branded boondock bars is closer to “Greater Appalachia”, I think the map overall makes a relevant point: we don’t all come from one America. News or custom from another part of the country may seem as foreign (or often more foreign) to us than those from a foreign land.

11 nations of the USThe short descriptions basically sum up the guiding cultural climate of the areas where I spent the most time in the states:

Yankeedom values education, intellectual achievement, communal empowerment, and citizen participation in government as a shield against tyranny. Yankees are comfortable with government regulation. Woodard notes that Yankees have a “Utopian streak.” The area was settled by radical Calvinists…

Colonized by New Englanders and Appalachian Midwesterners, the Left Coast is a hybrid of “Yankee utopianism and Appalachian self-expression and exploration,” Woodard says, adding that it is the staunchest ally of Yankeedom.

While there’s definitely more mixing within the states than mentioned here – Minnesota certainly has pockets for very disparate communities – I would agree that it’s generally true that the US has several very distinct cultures with different sets of core values and aspirations that are true for the broader populations in those areas.

And thus I’m often as befuddled by “my” country as everyone else:

And yet I understand how we could have a presidential candidate who promotes his platform by sizzling breakfast off an automatic weapon and programs that partner with potential gangsters to secure professional training and stay away from guns all in the same country. Because, of course, America is not mono-cultural.  Neither are the majority of countries.


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