Thursday, June 25, 2009

Real America

Do you ever picture what a stereotypical American is? Like, when people from France or Russia or China or Nigeria or Iceland think about America, what do they think?

Do they think of the Statue of Liberty, and crazy taxi drivers, and Broadway shows, and the New York Stock Exchange, and hot dog cart vendors on every street corner?

Or do they think of surfers, grilling hot dogs, chilling out on the beach, listening to their i-Pods?

Or, do they think of southern-drawl sounding people with cowboy hats and boots, saying "Howdy Y'All" and offering you a piece of apple pie?

I have no idea what a stereotypical American is. I think our country is such a melting pot of customs and cultures that it's hard to define what a stereotypical American could be.

However, I know what I love about America, and I experienced it this week. I went to visit the little country town in rural IL where we used to live. This town represents everything I love about people and is exactly how I would describe "America" to a person from a foreign country, if they ever asked me.

People are humble. They are willing to do more for others than they'd do for themselves.

Military people are celebrated and respected members of the community. If one is lost, the community mourns together.

Hard work is a virtue and people who try to sidestep an honest day's sweat are not called "industrious" or "entrepreneurial", but instead considered untrustworthy.

American flags line the street every Memorial Day, Flag Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, and Veteran's Day.

Stopping by a person's house unannounced is not an inconvenience; it is a reason to sit on the porch with some lemonade and catch up on who's getting married, who's taking a vacation, or how the crops are coming in.

A typical traffic jam might include a tractor or a cow, or both.

Everyone waves at everyone else as they pass each other on the street.

The community church still has an ice-cream social every summer and Christmas Eve service wouldn't be the same without a crowd of toothless children singing "Silent Night" around Mary, Joseph, and the dolly Jesus, all of whom are wearing bathrobes for costumes.

On a clear night, when you go outside to walk your dog, there are truly more stars in the sky than you could ever count and the song of crickets is a lullaby.

THAT is what I picture when I think of America. I miss it so much. It was actually a bit painful to leave today, not knowing when I'd be back again. Living in that small community for 4 years taught me so much. I grew as a person, and I'd like to believe it was for the better. This little town that I thought I would never grow to accept, grew on me. I didn't have a choice. It became a part of me. The people, the sounds, the smells, it all became a part of who I am now. I grew up in St. Louis. I thought I could never survive in a town that didn't have a mall. The idea of living in a community without it's own stop sign was out of the question. The concept of the nearest "big town" being 3500 seemed insane.

And yet as I passed the Dairy Queen on the town square, the little league ball field, and the town library contained in one floor of a tiny house, I began to cry. I love the simplicity of life in a small town. I learned to embrace the ease of moving at a slower pace. And it was a real joy to learn how NOT to keep up with the Joneses, especially since the Joneses, the Smiths, and the Taylors all were pretty much in the same boat as everyone else. People live simply and are proud of it.

I realize that maybe the reason I like it so much is because it's safe. I would never have to worry about maxing out my credit cards from a shopping spree at the mall, or gang members influencing my kids at school, or carjacking, or murders, or terrorist attacks. I also know my kids would never be exposed to people of other cultures or religions, and I was concerned about that too, but it just felt so right to put my arms around my kids (an myself) and say, "Don't worry, nothing is going to hurt you" and feel reasonable sure that I was telling the truth.

Any change is hard. Moving away from my protection was pretty scary. There are so many parts about Texas that I love, but there are also parts of Illinois that I miss. But I think that if I had to live in any part of America, I'd probably go back to that little speck-on-the-map-without-even-a-gas-station in Illinois. It's part of me now.


Em said...

Excellent post!!! Really. This one should stay up until the 4th.

I'd like to think most people outside of the U.S. think of us as a hardworking, inventive, caring society. But I'm pretty sure most of them would just lump us into one large group of "obnoxious" and "loud."

Sturgmom said...

Sounds like a beautiful slice of Americana!

HaB said...

That is exactly why my husband and I chose to move back to my hometown. I didn't want to raise my daughter in a place that forced her to deal with things at too early of an age. This doesn't mean that we are shelter her - just that we want more of a choice of when she is exposed to different things in society.

I often find myself telling people, I spent the first 22 years trying to find a way out of the town we live in and it took me 5 to find a way back in (finding a house to buy) when we decided that was where we wanted to be. And, I can not imagine living anywhere else - other than a small town.

Jennifer said...

This is truly one of the great things about our country, the differences. And (mostly) the acceptance of those differences.

Now... really all you would have to do is throw in a BBQ and you would have tons of small towns in Texas. I could show you several. You just happen to live in a big one, but they are out there. Trust me.

McVal said...

I love our small town too. We do have a Casey's general store tho... so it's not AS small. And I think our population is roughly 1300. And our hometown grocery store just closed it's doors last summer. But we're within 20 minutes of the bigger ones now and that far from a mall of any kind too.
The attitudes of a small town are great too. You're right! It's like you're in a parade every time you drive up our street, waving to everyone else and they wave back.
I'll move only when I'm ready for the nursing home.

Karen Klemens said...

I grew up in Illinois and yes, I remember with fondness walking along the corn fields in the October sun right before they harvested it. I miss the fire flies, the crickets in August, and the warm muggy nights.

Hot Tub Lizzy said...

MMM - that's beautiful. And I know that town... or at least one very like it. My favorite thing about that town is that they have their big town celebration the same weekend as Father's Day, every year. So when they have the parade with all the surrounding towns queens and princesses, they invite their dad's to ride on the floats with them. In some cases the dad's even wear the crowns which is a HOOT.

I love America.

stephanie (bad mom) said...

So bittersweet. I'm glad you got to visit; sorry it's difficult coming home.


Bridgett said...

I always think about living in St. Louis as so mundane, so not a big deal. And then some of my Aussie readers learned I lived through the '93 flood and they became so enamored with the idea that I lived a short bike trip away from the Mississippi River. That's what they thought of when they thought of the real America: Mark Twain's America. Which is where I live. It put a new spin on "flyover" country.

Aleta said...

There are pro's and con's to big city and small town living, but any way you cut it, it's good living in the States.

As for what people think is "American..." well, I'll shine a small light from an experience I had about 2 years ago.

A lady by the name of Maria came to work for us. I don't know how the conversation started, but I heard Maria say, "You look like an American."

The sentence caught my attention and I asked, "Do I look like an American?" Maria replied, "No." I was shocked. I thought for sure she was teasing, but she wasn't. She point to two other employees and she said, "THEY look like Americans, but you look... like a European."

WHAT?! Then I looked at the two people she thought were Americans - blond hair. That was it. She thought all Americans were blondes. I'm a brunette and she said I looked French. Wow... that was funny to see what she thought of Americans. By the way, she's from Honduras.

Wendy said...

I'll bet we're just as wrong about other countries that we generalize into a few news clips.

Small towns are a wonderful place to raise kids, and simple, and seem so easy.

It's easy to forget that they are also cauldrons of overflowing gossip, and where every single thing you do is up for discussion by every person in town.

Last time I lived in a very small town I found out (belatedly) that I was considered standoffish because I kept my garage door down (an open garage door was a "come visit" sign there!). I said, "if I leave the garage door open my toddler can bolt into the street and the neighbor's cat pees in my car."

Didn't matter. I was still a snob.

And when the realtor put a for-sale sign up in our yard at 6 a.m.? I had gotten five calls by 8 a.m. From people who didn't live anywhere near me.

I kind of hate small towns. I like small cities, though. Just big enough that everyone can't know your business (or they don't care).