Friday, March 04, 2005

Corn dogs

City boy Matthew Yglesias is in Red America. I, too, once went to Red America. Rolla, MO, to be precise. I'm embarassed to say that I experienced culture shock. I got stared at constantly and I never figured out quite why. (Weird clothing? Paler skin and darker hair than most were used to seeing?) I didn't understand the twang. I paid a lot less than I ever had for shampoo. While this was not the first time I'd seen trailers or fast food restaurants, it was the first I'd seen them on such a large scale. In Blue America, WASP ancestry often means wealth. In Rolla, many people with hair naturally the shade of blond that Upper East Side women pay good money for were buying their clothes at Walmart. (Non-whites in Rolla were, it seemed, engineering students at the local university.) What stuck me most, and what definitively proved my NYC provinciality, was the role of religion, not just in conversation, but on billboards, and the huge number of churches. How could there be enough Rollans to fill that many churches? Was it like three to a church, or were some churches busy and others empty?

As a Blue-Stater in a Red State (or an urbanite in a rural area) there's really no acceptable reaction to your new surroundings. Either you sneer and note the lack of Vietnamese restaurants/museums/sample sales, and you're an elitist ("What, corn dogs again?"), or you bubble over with David Brooksian enthusiasm for wholesome exurbia, in which case you're seen as smug and patronizing, or as pro-rural only to make a political point ("Mmm, corn dogs!"). A rural person visiting a city can act either awed or horrified, and either reaction is generally considered to be understandable. So what's a stranded-feeling, smile-forcing Blue American to do? I'm not sure I can answer my own question here, so I'm leaving it up to my Red State readers (including the Rollans) to help me out on this one.


Maureen said...

Okay, I grew up in Tennessee as the child of Yankee expatriates, so I think I can answer this one: I'd suggest looking at the South like you would a foreign country about which you knew much of the language and some of the culture--like France. Where France is aggressively laique, much of the Red States is aggressively (Christian) religious. Few foreigners can understand either very fast French or a very thick mid-Appalachian accent. Personal relationships, even in commercial transactions, are valued. And some of them are still touchy about the war.

Kathy said...

Hmmmm, no synagogues, I notice, on that very long list of places of worship.

Think I'll stay in new jersey.

Kathy said...

Hmmmm, no synagogues, I notice, on that very long list of places of worship.

Think I'll stay in new jersey.

JG said...

I suggest relaxing and acting normally (i.e., how you'd act in any public place). The options you sketch out above are absurdly polarized. One needn't be either David Brooks or a sneering urban elitist. Believe it or not, there are other ways to go about this. And you don't need to force a smile.

Anonymous said...

Learn something about sports. I grew up red and now live blue, and unfortunately it's really the only noncontraversial thing we have in commen to open conversation. Learn to ask "How about those (substitute local pro or college team)?"


Anonymous said...

Vietnamese restaurants are overrated. That soup they serve is weird. The service is never very good. I prefer Thai.

Anonymous said...

Let me ask a question: if you had visited Missouri at any point before the terms "red-state" and "blue-state" had become part of the cultural mythology would you have felt as out of place? Most places you might visit are going to have cultural differences: it is after all a really big country, in a really big world. I think perception can be its own reality some times, and the popular notion that there are "red states" and "blue states", rather than an enormously complex blend of different cultures and conventions can make you overly attentive to differences that might not have seemed so ridiculous a few years ago.

I agree with JG: you wouldn't necessarily react so strongly if you visited Mexico or France or Japan. You would hopefully be aware of differences and slowly get used to them. Why is Missouri elevated to a place one can't understand?

Barbara O'Brien said...

Corn dogs? No biscuits and gravy?

Don't let anyone criticize you about the culture shock. I did the opposite -- move from rural Missouri to a stone's throw of the Bronx. Big culture shock. I am comfortable in both places now, but when I go home I have the same question about the churches; there seem to be more churches than people.

I graduated University of Missouri (school of journalism) in 1973. A couple of students from New York City enrolled in the J school the same time I did, and didn't last the semester. They were too weirded out by Columbia, which isn't nearly as much of a planet unto itself as Rolla is.

Same country, different planets.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Northern New Jersey (about 1/2 hour bus ride to the city) and have lived in Northern Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.

Now I live in South Carolina, which is only slightly more religious than Mississippi.

As posters above have mentioned, Christianity, football, and barbecue are pretty big down here. People smile and say hello just because you're another human being. The pace of life is laidback. There's a lot of small talk.

My advice? I urge openmindedness. There's nothing so limiting as jumping to conclusions about a place. An honest reaction--either, "that's different and it really sucks" or "what a charming habit!"--is a much more worthwhile take away than any predetermined judgment that might prevent you from seeing some of the subtleties of a new environment.

Anonymous said...

If I were in that situation, I would just stare right back at them. There's no need to try to ingratiate yourself to the locals, so just be polite and go about your business. The worst thing is to wear your culture shock on your sleeve - that's like wearing a giant sign that says, "I THINK YOU REDSTATERS ARE ALL WEIRD!!!"

The persistent complaint is that liberals seem uncomfortable in such earthy situations. Its one thing to prefer more sophisticated environs, but its another thing completely to be almost unable to function without those luxuries which, I think, is a legitimate comment.

Knemon said...

My Blue credentials are second to none - born and raised in Ithaca, currently ensconced in Berkeley - and yet, I love me some corn dogs.

My point? These labels aren't always useful.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the poster above and the cultural mythology of the red and blue state tags. I find them completely useless and frankly quite stupid. Given that the reddest state of all, Texas, voted something like 30% Kerry, and the bluest state of all, Mass, voted 40%Bush, what exactly is the point of making the color distinction? Not to mention, there are a hell of a lot of podunk towns and rednecks in, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. In fact, wouldn't Massachusetts and New York essentially be "red states" if it weren't for Boston and NYC?