Rediscovering America —
“I walk around here, and the people are so friendly, they all say ‘hi’ and wave. It is not like this is Amsterdam, we hate tourists there: they don’t know how to cycle and they mess everything up . . .”
A traveler from Amsterdam was sitting at a hostel breakfast table in Flagstaff, Arizona speaking words that made me smile. He was right, USA culture is different than in most other places in the world. The people here are prone to saying hello to strangers — unless cultivated otherwise from urban living.
I am rediscovering my own country, rediscovering America. The people here rank high on the global scale of friendliness.
I was once unable to clearly see my own country. I needed to be outside of it for a long time — A LONG TIME — to be able to return and see the cultural dynamics of the USA clearly. I previously could not see the culture of the USA because it was all normal to me — I was raised here, I grew up here, I first began traveling here.
A person’s own culture is like white rice, you do not notice it. It is normal, lacking spice, taste, spikes, and furrows. The nonsensical sharpness of foreign cultures do not hit a person the same in their own land. In Tibet, Tibetan culture is like white rice, in China, Chinese culture is like white rice, in Guatemala . . .
To an America, American culture is like white rice. You can not taste the spices on the meal because you are far too accustom to its taste. I understand why Americans tend often say that they don’t have any culture — it is because American culture can blind with its vibrancy. It is a culture that has been imported all over the globe, it is a culture that has woven itself into the periphery of many others — for better or worse.
American culture is like white light: you cannot see its components without a prism.
Traveling has given me a prism through which to view the light of my own culture. I can now taste the white rice and say, “Man, that white rice is good.” I remember the moment this prism was dropped down in front of my face:
I was searching for Tom Helling walking with his giant cross in Connecticut. I pulled up to a stop light in some no name section of some no name city. I looked around. There was a twenty year old fat white kid in a big wheeled jeep blasting bad hardcore music next to me. A black bag man was walking on the sidewalk with his plastic garbage bags slung over his shoulder, a couple of teenybobber girls where bobbing to pop music in the car behind me, an extremely obese woman in too small gray sweat pants and a too small red t-shirt that revealed more than sneak peaks of her bulk crossed the street in front of me dragging behind four dirty brats and an equally beat Latino man, and a middle age black lady with a half grown out bleach blond afro, daisy dukes, and a sequin top rolled by on a bicycle.
“Wow,” I thought, “this country is pretty neat. Maybe I should take a look at it, again.”
This was the start of my rediscovery of America. Since then I have departed from the Northeast and driven a 3,000 mile diagonal route across the country to Arizona. I have been working in the deserts and mountains. This country is beautiful.
I remember sitting in a Santiago midnight bistro with a German backpacker back in 2002. We were drinking beer. He asked me about America. I began a line of rantings about how beautiful and expansive the nature in the USA is.
He cut me off. “There is nature everywhere,” he said, with more than a touch of German stiffness.
He was right, there is nature everywhere, but I have now been to that “everywhere” and it just ain’t America. Not even close. My country is big, expansive, friendly, and beautiful. High mountains touch the sky, long coastlines touch both seas, rivers crisscross the terrain, deserts have conquered the Southwest, the cities — the famous ones — are among the most metropolitan places on the planet, and the infamous cities show the underbelly of historic trends rarely made available for the viewing (So, what really happens when civilizations collapse? Visit the cities of the Great Lakes).
Why do I so often run away from this land? The land of Muir, Abbey, and Whitman? There is still a song to be song here, the song of America — I know the words but the tune for so long has escaped me. I have now stepped back — back to the beginning perhaps — and am learning to sing this song as it should be.
Singing the song of America.
And I am taking another look at a land worthy of reinspection, reintrospection. A new look through a fresh prism. It is time to taste the flavors in the white rice of my homeland again.
Vagabond Journey series on USA culture