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Home Sweet Home?

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Home Sweet Home?

Craig Morris 02/05/05

Culture Shock USA - Part I

I had not been home for almost eight years. A lot had happened in that time. From Europe, my fellow Americans seemed to have lost their capacity to think straight. Some in Europe and the States rightly spoke of a slippery slope into totalitarianism. I long hoped that my country would at some point understand what the Patriot Act (1) represents. But not even the disgraceful conduct of our soldiers in Abu Ghraib was enough to keep the current administration from winning a majority in the elections of 2004.

Would I come home to an America too scared of terrorists to understand my fears? Would I understand my fellow Americans at all anymore? And would they understand me? What is life like in the heart of the Imperium Americanum? Would I be held at the border if I was not able to provide officials with an address of where I was going, as happened to my sister-in-law ("Erwartest du heute Besuch?" (2)), or was my name on a no-fly list (Will the World Finance the Imperium Americanum? (3)) because of the criticism of the current administration's foreign policy I had already published?

Put all of your bags on the conveyor belt, take off all watches, jewelry, belt buckles, and other metal objects and put them in a bin, also take off your jackets and put them in a bin, take your shoes off, whoever has a six-pack can come right on up front, we'll also be checking for smiles - you back there: stop yawning!

The security guard at the international Airport in New Orleans obviously wanted to become a standup comedian. Instead, he spent his time keeping people in a good mood by interweaving nonsense into the deadpan commands he was barking out to the passengers waiting to undergo security checks.

Ever seen a crowd of laughing people at the metal detectors in an airport?

Let's get right to the point: I had a great time in my 30-day stay in the US. What's more, little had changed. Sure, lots of things were different, but it was all mainly just the continuation of where the country was headed in the mid-1990s. In other words, for me the US had changed as though September 11 had never happened.

Recent American Homeland Security policies remind many shocked Europeans of the barbaric practices of the Nazis or former communist East Germany. But I did not by any means have the impression that I was entering a country about to lose its democracy; this was not Nazi Germany in 1933, as some fear. However, this realization also left me at a loss, for it meant that my country did not have to change its character fundamentally to bring about the things that had made such a comparison imaginable for so many people.

When I was in school, I learned that the anti-communist tirades of Senator McCarthy were an un-American aberration. What my country had done a few years before in Vietnam had not yet made it into my schoolbooks.

And when I was getting my master's degree at the University of Texas during the first Gulf War, then-President Bush Sr. went on television to explain why we had to intervene militarily in the Gulf. In his hands, he held a report by Amnesty International about Saddam Hussein's terrorist régime. "They're gonna laugh him out of office", I thought, expecting the media to point out the next day that Amnesty International has similar reports about most countries, but we are not invading everywhere. But the media did not report this.

Instead, students at UT Austin were soon selling T-shirts with I'd fly 10,000 miles to smoke a camel (4) written on them. Every day, I walked by such a stand, but I always managed to spare myself the embarrassment of pointing that there are lots of camels in Saudi Arabia, the country we claimed to be defending.

So I come from a country that is able to produce something like McCarthy, Vietnam and the Gulf Wars I and II every 10 or 20 years. These events are not un-American aberrations; they are defining moments in my country's history. For many Americans, they are something to be proud of.

1.jpg

The "old" Hardy Street in downtown Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where I went to elementary school. Four lanes with a turning lane in the middle, and the stores are close to the street

What had changed?

The US is moving further and further away from an infrastructure that would allow people to get around without a car. Urban sprawl continues unabated.

2.jpg

What looks like a highway is actually just the extension of Hardy Street. It still has four lanes, but now there are also four turning lanes - a total of eight lanes instead of five. In addition, there is now a wide median. To the right, the first free-standing stores are being built - but the storefronts are no longer directly on the street, but rather behind a ditch. The strip mall is so far behind these free-standing stores that you wouldn't even expect there is one in this picture. Lots of space for cars, but you'd better not try to walk anywhere - or catch public transport. No bus stop here.

When I visited the old part of Hattiesburg that I used to live in, it was clear why there was so much development on the outskirts of town: the old part of town has been written off. Whites know why: blacks have "taken over" - "there goes the neighborhood". And when white flight sets in, the money moves out. As a friend of mine in Germany from Baton Rouge put it, "America's cities look like a bomb has gone off in the middle of them. But in the suburbs, everything looks OK".

3.jpg

When I was a boy, I used to eat pizza here - right in the middle of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The fine print on city-limits signs in the US reads, "No deposit, no return".

Meanwhile, indoor shopping malls have come up with ways of attracting senior citizens: they are marketing themselves as air-conditioned exercise arenas with in-house ambulance services. The elderly can have their daily walk without suffering from the heat of the South, and if anyone has a heart attack, help is not far - right between the ice cream shop and the everything-for-a-dollar mart.

4.jpg

The Turtle Creek Mall offers two oxygen units and an external defibrillator.

So are American shopping malls finally turning into a sort of neighborhood after all, where people bump into each other and chat without necessarily wanting to buy something? When Americans ask me why I like to live in these cramped old European inner cities, I usually try to sell the idea by comparing European town centers to our malls. Imagine there are apartments and parks above the two floors where everyone goes shopping. Most stores are then closer to your front door than your own car is. Everyone likes to walk everywhere, neighbors bump into each other all the time, and eventually everyone just hangs out without wanting to buy anything. Up to now, every American I have talked to has found that notion appealing, but I have yet to see any apartments on top of malls.

Culture shock?

I really only experienced culture shock once during my stay, and that was on the very first night. But it lasted the whole 30 days.

My brother picked me up from the airport in New Orleans, and we went to eat Mexican with his wife. I was a bit jetlagged, but my brother and his wife said that I shouldn't miss the place they wanted to take me to.

The food was great, but everyone in the restaurant was sitting on rinky-dink benches, and the ventilation, lighting and plumbing were hanging down from the uncleaned ceiling without any further decoration. It was a dive, and everyone seemed to like it that way.

For four weeks, I went from one hole in the wall to the next. In a bar in Austin, Texas that was even called The Hole in the Wall, the ceiling was covered with nothing more than grey fire-resistant foam that had been sprayed on. But the best part was the shack on the outskirts of Hattiesburg, Mississippi that by all accounts had the best barbecue in town.

"Leatha's" had obviously been built by the people who did the cooking. The floor was cheap plywood that groaned under the weight of Big Mama Leatha, the hospitable chef whose own girth was the best recommendation for her cooking. They must have spent days picking out the furniture for the place, for no two chairs were alike. But the food was great, and our waitress popped up with a pitcher of sweetened iced tee before I had half-finished my glass - all you can eat & drink, a concept practically unknown in Europe.

Near the end of my stay, I spoke with my brother about this culture shock. He said that everyone just wants to have good food, and if the place is done up too fancy, you just have to pay more.

You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy

This culture shock was not, however, severe enough to prevent me from feeling right at home, especially in Leatha's shack out in the country in Mississippi. No one felt any need to hide their poverty or their wealth. And anyway, the people who had money did not want to go to some fancy restaurant with white tablecloths, wine glasses, and more silverware than you can shake a stick at; they would rather drive an expensive pickup to a shack where you can eat piles of great meat with your hands.

Strangely enough, after reading all the hubbub about SUVs, I suddenly found myself unable to understand what the big deal was. Southerners have been driving pickups for decades, and these Hummers (which I had not yet seen in real life) did not look that big at all next to the pickups I was used to seeing. And anyway, the biggest vehicle you can buy is not an SUV, but a CXT (5) - a real cabin for an 18-wheeler with a permanently attached bed in the back instead of a trailer hitch.

Probably, SUVs have only raised such commotion because soccer moms outside the South began using them as family cars. In the South, Hummers fit well into the landscape. After all, it was not so long ago that we really needed off-road vehicles. (I may be wrong, but somehow I can't imagine "soccer mom" being spoken with a Southern drawl.)

I knew that I had really made it back to the Deep South when Leatha's son, said to suffer from a slight mental impairment, came to our table after we had placed our orders and asked us what song he should sing. We chose the Christmas classic "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire", which the young man promptly began crooning after sticking his hands in the pockets of his overalls.

Frank Sinatra would have sounded similar shortly before dying of thirst. To make matters worse, our crooner was singing the lines of the lyrics in a more or less random order. That made it difficult for him to know when he had finished. So when he hit a spot that could be taken for a finale, we all began clapping to convince him that the song was over and that he had made everyone happy.

Which he had. I felt like I was in one of William Faulkner's stories; it is often so hard to tell which of his characters still have all their marbles. The people with no psychological excuse are often the worst. Everyone a potentially crazy Southerner. But common Southern decency - or as one of Faulkner's characters (6) once put it, "Dammit, sir, will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?" - demands that you not go around judging other people, for nobody is perfect, and those who are without sin should cast the first stone.

"There you go", I thought to myself, "now you're thinking like someone from the Bible Belt. Welcome home. And now pass me some of them beans."

Links

(1) http://www.truthout.org/docs_02/04.02A.JVB.Patriot.htm

(2) http://www.telepolis.de/r4/artikel/14/14893/1.html

(3) http://www.telepolis.de/r4/artikel/14/14556/1.html

(4) http://www.no-mac.com/site/639008/product/B-7

(5) http://www.internationaldelivers.com/site_.../severe/cxt.asp

(6) http://roads.virginia.edu/~drbr/wf_rose.html

Telepolis Article-URL: http://www.telepolis.de/r4/artikel/19/19386/1.html

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Copyright © Heise Zeitschriften Verlag

Edited by ShiningKnight

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