When asked about all things ‘American’ while living abroad, my standard answer was (and is) that the land area is too vast and Americans far too diverse to generalize about the country or its people.
The same can be said when comparing various regions of the country — the ‘highly educated’ Northeast, the ‘blue collar’ Midwest, the ‘Left Coast’ and so on.
I remember the shock on the faces of my wealthy Bangkok students when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and unleashed a fire storm of international media images showing the city’s desperately poor residents attempting to survive the government aid vacuum which followed the 2005 storm’s devastation.
“We had no idea there were SO MANY poor people in the USA,” they said in unison, as if they all had rehearsed the line.
In response, I repeated my standard answer above, while cautioning them to be aware of the stereotypes that existed within and about Thailand as well.
Indeed, I lost count of the number of times American acquaintances and relatives asked me about Thailand’s sex industry during the three years I lived and taught in central Bangkok.
Mind you, this was back in the day when the TV soap “Friends” was being used in many English classes as a teaching tool, so international students can be forgiven for believing that a waitress in New York can really afford to live in a spacious loft in Brooklyn with a killer view of the Manhattan skyline.
Stereotypes often die a slow death, and more often than not, are simply replaced by another, equally unfair visual label.
In truth, we’re all continually entertaining thoughts — whether consciously or unconsciously — that help determine our world view.
We all construct the reality in which we live to some degree, and unfortunately, cultural stereotypes still persist.
Despite our collective belief that we humans exist outside the laws of nature, all humans are subject to habitual thinking which leads to specific actions and a predictable outcome.
Call it our little comfort zone.
Along with all the other discomforts that the years 2017–2020 bestowed upon us, it seems we’ve harvested a bumper crop of distrust, fear, ambiguity and hatred.
I’d venture a guess, and say this is karma in action.
So Back to Stereotypes
Consider the following…
The aim of my previous post, Hillbilly Archaeology, was certainly not to perpetuate stereotypes of the folks who live in the rural USA in general, nor the region known as Appalachia in particular.
After all, I’m a product of this very region.
While I haven’t been blessed with skills that would make me rich or famous (#2 would be a curse), I don’t seem to fit into any of the cultural boxes that people from other regions may have of Appalachian folks.
Surely, this is a testament to the fact that this region of green hills and deep valleys is no longer the backwater it was once presumed to be.
Despite the red/blue political divide, rapid demographic changes are taking place across the South, especially in the metropolitan areas.
Georgia’s blue turn in last year’s election (isn’t it nice to think of that time in past tense!) may be the most obvious evidence of these changes.
Rural vs Urban Lifestyles
My short answer is that lifestyles are similar but world view may be very different when comparing rural populations with urban ones.
For that matter, belief systems can change dramatically based on the zip codes within a given metropolitan area.
During the 16 years I lived in Seattle, I was often shocked by the fact that voting patterns changed dramatically once the city limits were crossed, as if there were magical dividing lines between world views.
Based on my own observations (and I dare you to say you know anyone who’s moved as much as I have, sad lot that I am) of American lifestyles — things like shopping at big box stores or online rather than at a locally-owned small business — have become more homogenous country-wide over the past few decades.
Aside from a few major cities, the majority of Americans still drive their personal vehicles everywhere they go. This is certainly true in rural areas of the country where there are no other options and in most sprawling metro areas as well.
The depth of the love and desire to possess cars, trucks, RVs, motorcycles and basically anything invented that has a noisy, fossil-fuel burning engine seems to be similar from sea to shining sea.
Without the financial means to buy a car and pay for expensive comprehensive insurance, one’s choices are limited.
It seems that the days when it was acceptable to ask a neighbor for a ride or to pick up something at the store for us may be over.
Such common courtesies are still readily offered by neighbors in both urban and rural parts of the developing world, even if the helpful neighbor will be doing their (and your) shopping on foot.
Heck, in much of the USA, I’d think carefully before approaching anyone’s door to even ask such a favor.
It seems fair to suggest that rural residents shop at Walmart more often than at Target and tend to drive pickup trucks rather than SUVs, but their aims to satiate their thirst for shopping are both satisfied in similar fashion.
And, me, me me, mine, mine, mine appears to have become a national mantra, repeated as each credit card number is carefully typed into the purchase agreement on Amazon or a similar shopping site.
And GUNS. Well, this discussion MUST include those cursed killing machines since they are, as a dear local lady recently told me, “Loved more than the Lord.”
I thought hers to be a fair estimation of local beliefs, even as mass shootings continue unabated across the country.
Who am I to argue? After all, I’ve been insulated within a variety of developing world cultures for the past 18 years, cultures where owning a fire arm of any sort was rare.
And guess what? All those societies felt much safer, even with all the insecurity that comes with being a foreigner, wandering dark streets while alone, lost and without being able to speak the language.
I must admit that I find myself paying much closer attention to store layouts and exit routes since returning to the USA in March.
For some odd reason, I don’t feel safer seeing a firearm protruding from the waistband of the man in front of me at the supermarket checkout, the same gun that was in his toddler’s face while his back was turned and he stretched to place his items on the conveyer belt.
I’m also being vigilant when I hear repeating gun shots as I take my daily walks here along country roads.
Those rapid repeats, which I visualize ripping through a paper target and burrowing deep into the side of a sturdy tree, seem oddly incongruous while I gaze across van Gogh-esque fields of yellow canola and listen to the sweet songs of the birds flying overhead.
Hopefully, I won’t be mistaken for a deer.
Even though I’ve learned that awareness of one’s surroundings is an important aspect of travel in general, I was rarely worried about being shot in the streets during my recent 3-year stay in Colombia.
While the vast majority of Colombian citizens give thanks daily that the violence of the past is mostly history, it seems that many Americans are far too willing to accept violence as merely another lifestyle factor.
Those killed become mere statistics, and their lives seen as being less important than satisfying individual wants and desires.
Fear, A Powerful and Lucrative Emotion
So, at this point in this rambling post — let’s call it an exhalation which I fully blame on reverse culture shock and my ongoing attempts to adapt to daily life back in rural NC– I’m asking myself to what degree fear is responsible for many of America’s current ills.
Some of the gun rights/fake news/Covid-19 is a hoax crowd would say that I’m living in fear because I wear a mask in public and eschew owning a firearm.
I, on the other hand, would say they’re the ones with fear issues. What other reason could there be for an average citizen to think it’s necessary to possess an arsenal of weapons, some of which are military grade?
And, maybe that’s our biggest problem right now in the USA: We’re all living in fear.
For some it’s a fear of being gunned down at work or in the milk aisle of the local supermarket or of getting sick and dying from Covid-19.
For others it’s a paranoid fear that something is being taken away from them, whether it’s their ‘liberty’ or taxes from their hard-earned wages.
And, make no mistake, fear can drive markets. From stocks to pharmaceuticals to cloud computing to gun sales, there’s money to be made off fear and the misfortune of others.
You may be thinking, please stop with the negativity. I get that. I too have tried to curtail my daily dose of national and world affairs.
Certainly, at a time when the disparities between the richer (mainly Western) countries and much of the developing world (particularly places like Brazil and India) seem to be at their most exaggerated, many of us have a lot to be grateful for.
If you’re reading this, it means you’ve survived the coronavirus pandemic so far, and some of us have even been fortunate enough to be vaccinated.
And, last, but certainly not least, we must give praise to the tremendous levels of personal sacrifice and caring that have been exhibited by those in the healthcare profession as well as many other essential workers over the past year.
Still, I can’t stop asking myself the all important questions: Where are we now as a society and where do we hope to be in five or ten years?
Feel free to express your thoughts in the comments. Just be aware that I may be too filled with fear to reply.