Monday, June 2, 2014

Another Country

I did not grow up in the United States. Alaska was a territory when I was taken there as a baby and it didn't join the Union until I was ten. Even after it became the 50th state, the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite was beamed into Alaskan living rooms a day after the rest of the country had seen it. Alaska was six hours behind New York City then (no Daylight Savings Time for us in those days) and many of us lived a full century behind midtown Manhattan.

Twenty years or so after statehood, I moved with my husband and children to Seattle, a city that had always seemed a part of Alaska. Its flowering came into being because of the Klondike gold rush and its economy depended heavily on Alaskan fishing. It was a scant three hours away by plane and the Alaskan Marine Highway System ended at a downtown pier. It was a city that always felt as though it was our colony, instead of the other way around--Alaskans used it to transfer to another plane to another place or for shopping. With no internet, the only way to buy good books or fashionable clothing was to head for Seattle, stock up, and go back home.

So I was truly shocked to discover how foreign Seattle felt to me when we came to live here. Shopping malls and fast food outlets, beer and wine sold in drugstores, roses blooming in front yards in December--these were only the beginning. In Alaska I'd worked valiantly to keep up by subscribing to the NYT city edition--not the national version--but it arrived three to five days late. When I began to read the local city papers in my new home, suddenly the news was immediate and threatening. Without that barrier of space that Canada provides between Alaska and the lower 48, every disaster, everywhere, was on my doorstep.

Since then, I've traveled very little in the United States--New York, San Francisco, brief moments in Los Angeles, Oregon of course, Montana as a hiccup, and Tucson. Except for NYC, all of my US travel has been in the West. Until last month when I went to South Carolina.

By American standards, the South is Old Country and I spent a week in a southern landscape that is still largely unchanged from centuries past. Farmland on gentle, rolling hills, forest as thick as any jungle, houses that date far back into history, towns that truly have a Main Street, and wide spots in the road that have a cafe, a church, a vegetable stand. People have good manners there; even small children say "Excuse me" as they walk past. Speech is colorful; one man in a diner beside the Pumpkinville Highway described an acquaintance as being "as bipolar as yesterday." And no, I didn't understand that at all.

In the small town of Pickens, the only reading material for sale was in the Walmart and the supermarkets--and then all that was for sale was People magazine and its equivalents. When I learned that a book I'd edited had been reviewed in the New York Review of Books, I had to go to Greenville to find a place that carried--or had even heard of--the NYRB, and then I ended up having to go to a Barnes & Noble.

For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who were completely white. I saw one black face, doing cleanup at a Walmart. In Greenville, a few Latinos were waiting tables at a "Mexican" restaurant. Otherwise everyone, in the shops, in the libraries, in the supermarkets, were white--friendly white people with good manners and stultifying conversation.

I came back to Seattle with a newfound and profound appreciation for the creativity, eccentricity, and diversity that characterizes this city. Yesterday I walked with two young children through a multi-racial neighborhood, through a Vietnamese enclave, into Chinatown and on to the heart of the city--two or three miles of layers--wonderful layers of excitement and discovery. And I realized that if I am going to stay in this country, probably no place in it suits me and delights me as much as my home in Seattle.

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