USA Cultural Diversity, a Conversation with an Italian Traveler —
“What do you think,” asked an Italian traveler in a hostel in Flagstaff, Arizona, “do you think that the people from the east coast of the USA are different than the west coast, do you think the people of New York are different than they are here?”
I answered quickly: “Yes, there are many different cultures in the USA, the people in the east and in the west are different.”
Then I asked him what he thought.
“No,” he said, “I think the people are very similar.”
I shrugged and nodded, maybe to an Italian the entire swath of American culture seems the same, perhaps I am able to notice differences more acutely because I can see this place from the inside out: it is my home country, I know the bumpkins as bumpkins and the slick suits as slick suits.
I know that I have been in many situations in foreign lands where a local friend whispers an under the table hint about another local resident in our proximity. Usually the hint is something like, “They are from the country side” or “Don’t trust that person, he is from . . . ” Often, in these situations I could not distinguish the person that was being talked about from anyone else. If nothing else, a person knows the cultural differentiations of their own country like their mother’s home cooking.
A local sees lines, divisions, and separations strewn through their own culture where a traveler often only sees a single cultural blanket.
Nobody likes to be placed in an errant social group. Blanket terms such as “Latino culture” seem to mean little in practice. No, it is not Latino culture, but Salvadorian culture, Chilean culture, Nicaraguan culture, Tico culture, Ecuador culture and on and on.
You better not tell a Nicaraguan that Gallo Pinto is from Costa Rica, and you are best advised not to say the converse to a Costa Rican. Just like when you are in Chile you agree that chicha is Chilean, and then when you cross the border to Peru chicha is, of course, Peruvian.
The cultural groupings and divisions of planet earth become endlessly more refined as you progress further into a given culture. Each culture is divisible by country, then geo-political region, then state, then city, then neighborhood, then street, then family, almost down to the stark naked individual himself.
Culture is nothing if not a spiderweb inside of a spiderweb inside of a . . .
Just as the complexity of biology just grows ever more complex with each increase in the magnification of the microscope, culture becomes more complicated, categorized, and highly defined the further you move into it. It is almost to the point where you come to think that the people who live in neighboring valleys in the Himalaya are more different from each other as you, an outsider from over the seas, are from them.
Cultural divisions are nothing if not overly specific, minutely absolute: ridiculous. So I just shrugged my shoulders and wrote off my assertions that USA culture is incredibly diverse as being the same as the people in one mountain valley saying how different they are from the folks who live over the next hill.
But then the Italian said something very wise:
“Maybe I think this because I have only been to the tourist places.”
I smiled big — he hit the nail on the head: if you travel the tourist circuit of any country, you will not see that country. Your travels will be as though you are being transported through space and time in a bubble. A comfortable, playful, choose-your-own-adventure type of bubble through which your vision is short sighted, opaqued, where you can only hear sounds as though you are wearing ear plugs under water.
This is how the bubble is designed: its modus operandi, and sole reason for existing, is to show its occupants the country they came to see. The show is based on expectation alone — you see what you came to see, and anything that differs or contradicts this is filtered by the outer membrane of the bubble.
No problem. People pay a lot of money to travel overseas, why risk their business with surprises. So the Han Chinese dress up as Naxi minorities and dance “traditionally” in large circles with tourists in Dali, the Tibetans remove their gray Chinese slacks and replace them with yak hide coats, general laborers the world over relearn, amend, and prepackage the crafts of their great great grandparents, and the traditional Indian woodcarvers — who once carved incredible architectural edifices — now make statuettes of anything that even looks remotely “Asian” to sell to tourists.
You are in the tourist bubble, in which reality is suspended and you hover over a place and flutter about in the wind until your return flight ships you back home — with a pictures of sights, funny dressed people, and a carton full of neat-o souvenirs.
The Italian missed America, and he knew it.
I must wonder how many countries I, too, have missed? There have been a few, I know it.
Though knowing that you are in the tourist bubble is the first step towards breaking out of it — if you want to.
“Where do you think I should go?” the Italian asked.
He wanted out of the bubble.
I shrugged my shoulders and named some far off places out in the desert. In travel, I know that if I stay away from any place that I have ever heard of before, I will be prone to make more friends, meet more people, be invited into more homes, and come out with a deeper experience of the place.
If I travel through tourist tracks, I need to be prepared to be another proto-human in a mass of proto-humans, floating around in our respective bubbles. This is OK, sometimes, and even enjoyable at others — it is sometimes a welcome break to walk down a street of a foreign city while being as much of the background as fire hydrants, automobiles, buildings, trash, and smog. But the Italian wanted out, so I rattled off some far out places in the USA that he had never heard of.
He grunted a little, and then sought more expedient means.
He promptly got up off the couch that he was sitting on next to me and walked across the room. He began hitting on a prettied up American blond who was also staying at the hostel. He invited her out for dinner, she accepted.
I suppose this is one way to break out of the tourist bubble . . . and get inside of the place through which you travel.
Vagabond Journey on USA Culture
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