Posts Tagged 'Americanness'

Notes on a Visit to Occupy Wall Street

Here’s something really New York for you: the people most excited about Occupy Wall Street aren’t in New York.

Again and again, the conversation went like this:

“Yo, you been down to that Wall Street shit?” (I don’t really talk like that, I’m just pretending.)

“No. I’ve been meaning to.” Or: “I went past once.” Or even: “Aw, I heard about that. What’s it all about?”

It seems like the rest of the country is stoked, excited, curious, enlivened—reposting photos and quips and words of encouragement, a newsfeed cluttered with that shit. But here in New York, it seems to have fallen into the static of the city—one more thing to negotiate, maneuver around, one more cultural phenomenon in a city of never-ending, never-sleeping cultural phenomena.

But I’m not a New Yorker, so I had to go down there. Check it out, see it for myself.

It was busy and crowded and loud at Zuccotti Park, in the shadow of the new World Trade Center—but not that much more than a normal street, at least not for how much virtual buzz I’d been hearing.

The park was surrounded by people stoically holding signs, standing still for the passerbys and the cameras and the statement it all made. It was a pretty even split between the protesters and passerbys—a mix of locals and tourists, curious expressions and viewfinders, everyone stopping to read signs and snap photos. I even saw a few Asian tourists posing for photos with the protesters.

I moved around the periphery, then headed into the center of the square. The encampments had been cut with makeshift streets, pathways where people buzzed around. An internet station and a free kitchen had been set up (dispensing, of course, pizza). Tables with leaflets and fliers stood before volunteers who answered questions and otherwise engaged with folks passing by.

Amidst the revolutionary fervor, there was also a distinct, well, Telegraph Avenue vibe. For those not from the Bay, this basically means young gutterpunky white kids with backdreads, bandanas, and a herd of mangy sniffing dogs, most often seen clumped together with sleeping bags, spare-changing. I think these were the kids critics were referring to when they critiqued the movement as being all unemployed, dirty hippie kids.

Or that they were entitled middle-class kids. To be fair, there was a decent mix of people. (“I haven’t been arrested for civil disobedience in 35 years!” I heard one man gleefully exclaim.) But the majority of the protesters appeared to fall into that category, at least to me. Which makes sense. I mean, who was it that started the Vietnam War protests? Who was it that was out there marching for women’s suffrage? Educated, middle-class young people with the leisure time to protest are usually the group with which change starts.

And yes—there yoga mats and Tibetan prayer flags and a band that included a bango and a stand-up bass. So there was a lot one could get snarky about. And I did decide that it was no coincidence that Occupy Wall Street cropped up a week or so after Burning Man.

But, really, that stuff aside, it struck me as really cool that people were out there, actually talking. Apathy is the poison of the MTV generation, my generation, so even if there isn’t a totally clear agenda or consensus on why they’re even there, it’s a start, and I guess that’s the most important part.

But more than the protesters themselves, it was cool to see the passerbys. People lingered, read signs, made comments, engaged. Which is so incredibly rare to see in this country. Occupy Wall Street was inspired by the events of Tahrir Square, but I also couldn’t help but think about recent protests in Chile or Israel (didn’t hear much about those, did you?). Somewhere along the line, we Americans have learned not to protest, and when we do, the backlash is incredible. Just look at the media reaction to the protests.

So the fact that there were people out there, who wandered down just to check it out, was really exciting. Sure there were frustratingly ill-informed debates going on, but shit, at least people were talking—as if every person that came by would take a little piece of something with them, a thought or impression or just the idea that we could try to do something a little different.

Because that’s the thing about New York—even if the majority of the city doesn’t make it down to Occupy Wall Street, even if it gets lost in the frenetic buzz of life there, of sidewalks and subway cars and trying to keep your fucking head above water—even if it’s just a small percentage that comes by, that small percentage ends up still being a pretty decent size. And it’s still there, and it’s still doing something, changing something, if only the way we think. And it’s a start.

This dude: most definitely not an entitled college student

Headcheese, Chicken Feet and “You Are What You Eat”: How Travel’s Beaten the Squeamish Eater Out of Me

Jeffery was taking a machete to the disembodied pig’s head when I walked into work.

The other boys stood around watching. They looked up when they heard the door, grinned sheepishly at me. “Headcheese,” Colin said by way of explanation. “Sorry.”

I looked at the knives, the smeared aprons, the hunks of pig scattered about the wooden cutting board, and shrugged. “I think Southeast Asia has cured me of any squeamishness towards meat,” I laughed.

Food culture, it can be said, is a microcosm of culture. Traveling around, I’ve discovered that a society eats and its attitudes towards eating can be simultaneously one of the most telling and easily accessible aspects of a culture. In this way, eating in a foreign country is both a lofty, anthropological glimpse into the psyche of a culture, and a visceral adventure that often sends one dashing to the nearest squat toilet.

Case in point: there’s a certain semi-green queasy look Westerners wear when walking through a Southeast Asian street market. The plucked bodies hanging limply from hooks; the still-alive fish flopping out of their plastic tubs; the women waving fans at the flies that settle on heads, hooves, chunks of body; the smell of raw meat blooming in the humidity like irony mold—it’s all so utterly unlike the shrink-wrapped FDA-approved supermarket culture of the Western world.

And I’m not gonna lie: I was a bit unnerved at first. The literal rawness of market culture in Southeast Asia is jarring. Watching a teeny little woman crouch down in her pajama suit and hack off a chicken head seems brutal, surreal. Ordering a bowl of soup and seeing a chicken foot poke out of the translucent tangle of rice noodles is startling. And not at all appetizing.

Yes, I eat meat, your Westerness seems to say. But I don’t want to think about the fact that I eat meat. I don’t want to be confronted with the reality that I’m eating another living being.

When I was London a few years back, there was a big stir about Marcus the Lamb. It was being discussed on the talk radio station that played through my friend’s basement flat while we brewed morning coffee.

The story was this: as a lesson in the breeding and rearing of livestock, a primary school had adopted a lamb. The kids named the lamb Marcus, and did cute things like bottle feed him. Six months later, it was time for the lesson to culminate: Marcus was to be slaughtered. A shitstorm ensued.

Parents freaked, animal rights activists threatened, the headmistress was branded a murderer and some of the pupils were reported to develop stress-related insomnia. To their credit, the school officials remained firm: this was the point of the lesson—teaching urban children where their food comes from—and they weren’t going to cancel the lesson. A national debate raged, centering, it seemed, on the extent to which the urban, Western world has become disassociated from its food.

I considered this all as I chewed my toast in the gray London light. I’d been a non-vegan/vegetarian for a little over a year. During my 12 year run as a non-meat-eater, I’d maintained that meat eaters should know and acknowledge the reality of meat consumption. I wasn’t one of those PETA people plastering horror-movie pictures of slaughterhouses around town, but I’d always thought—Fuck, you eat the shit; you should be able to handle a head or a hoof or something.

And I had to hold myself to that when I started eating meat again at age 25. If I was gonna do it, I reasoned, I was gonna do all of it. I wasn’t going to hide from the fact of it, and I wasn’t going to be wasteful. Living in the Bay Area and working in the restaurant industry, it’s easy to make mindful, informed decisions about where one’s food is from, to nestle in the cozy, bedtime-story feeling a Cruelty Free label provides.

Way of advertising a butcher in Morocco. Flickr photo.

But then there’s the Southeast Asian food market. Or the goat head stew in a Moroccan medina. Or cabeza tacos in Mexico (or the Fruitvale, whatever). And by being confronted with heads and eyeballs and recognizable anatomy that doesn’t seem so different from our own, you’re also confronted with your Americanness, your Westerness.

But people are amazingly adaptable, and after a couple weeks you normalize your surroundings. You don’t look twice at the rows of raw meat, and you even acknowledge that while eating a fertilized duck egg is a mind-fuck—a bit like eating an abortion—it is goddamn delicious.

And then you come home and wonder what the fuck everyone is riled up about. Yeah, it’s headcheese, made from head meat, you think, What’s the big deal? Or you wait on a dude who sends back the whole shrimp on his plate cause the little head and eyeballs “Just ain’t cool.” And you think, Really, buddy? You’re a grown man; that’s just a lil ole head. But you laugh and shrug and say, “No problem,” cause you know that that’s just the culture he’s coming from. And it’s your job to make him happy, not to judge what kind of food he’s comfortable eating.

To say that Westerners, especially Americans, have become disassociated from our food is an understatement. (“Where does ketchup come from?” a friend asked her inner-city students once. “The store!”) You think of the old adage “You are what you eat,” and you wonder what the hell that means for us. It can’t, you reason, be anything good.

If you can tell a lot about a person by how they eat, what does a society’s food culture say about them? They say, for instance, that girls from alcoholic homes are exponentially more likely to develop eating disorders. If you extend that on a societal level, it’s a fascinating if unsettling picture of a national psyche. The ability of Americans, for instance, to feed themselves nourishing food in a way that’s free of drama and control and fad diets seems to have shattered, gotten lost somewhere; I think that the sanitized, shrink-wrapped, mass-produced foods we eat are a part of that.

We in the West, and especially the States, don’t know what the fuck we’re eating—or are so far removed from it we flip out at the potential of exposing our children to the age-old reality of meat eating. (For the record, it was the students themselves that voted to slaughter Marcus the Lamb. But one has to ask: would such a lesson ever even happen in the US? Assuming, of course, a school even had to funding for such a lesson…)

Growing up, my mom was convinced that the demise of the family dinner was inextricably linked to the break-down of the American family. She thus insisted that we all sit down, no matter how much homework we had, for a nightly family meal. This was, as you can imagine, infuriating for a moody teenager; I’d scowl at my plate until eventually someone would say something funny and we’d all sit and laugh and linger for an hour.

I’m grateful for that now, in the same way I’m grateful to have traveled to five different continents and gotten the squeamishness beaten out of me. There are some things I still won’t eat—shark fin soup, which is just plain wasteful; or that monkey-brain stew they make in China by pouring boiling water into a live monkey’s recently cracked skull—that’s just plain cruel. I don’t think I’m a particularly enlightened eater, nor do I think I’m gonna change the world by shopping at farmers markets.

I just think that I’ve gotten a bit more realistic, had a bit of my own barriers broken down. At least to the point that walking in on the making of headcheese doesn’t cause me to look twice.

Okay, so maybe I played with the eyeballs...

Good Lord, That’s A Lotta Money: A Trip to the US Embassy

The culprit

Damn these full-page visas.

When I started traveling, I loved getting passport stamps. They were like tattoos—when you first starting getting tattooed, all you want is more, more, and you stare at the ones you have, and you look at the remaining blankness and fantasize about the ones you’ll get. Western Europe, I thought, was a real bummer—you got only one (extremely boring) stamp for entry into any of the Schengen Zone countries. Lame.

Enter SE Asia—the land of senseless beauracracy and full-page visas. They hungrily consume your passport, taking up space that could easily fit five to six entry stamps to more modest, reasonable countries. Two of these, and I realized I was quickly running out of room in my passport.

It was time for a trip to my Embassy.

Here I should interject—for the non-Americans and the non-traveling Americans, which is most Americans—that filling up my passport does not make me a world traveler of epic proportions. It simply means that the US issues the skimpiest passports you’ve ever seen.

“Look at this thing!” I exclaimed, holding my passport up sideways, showing Anna its anorexic profile.

“Aw, that’s the cutest little passport I’ve ever seen.”

“And guess how long it’s good for?” I paused, preparing her for the indignity. “Ten years! Ten fucking years! What am I supposed to do with this—go to Canada once a year?” And I flung it on the cafe table like the mildly offensive thing it is.

American passports have improved; they now come with 24 pages. But when mine was issued, they still came with a measly 14 pages. Which is annoying, but serves as yet more evidence that Americans don’t travel like the rest of their Western counterparts.

But we recently hit a record high: a whopping 30% of Americans hold passports. (Tell this to a person of any other Western nationality and they laugh heartily.) And, I’d soon find out, there’s evidence of that too.

So it was off to the US Embassy. I’ve never had a reason to visit an Embassy before, and it felt a little like a field trip. I was mildly excited. I queued up under a shady awning at 1pm, eager to be one of the first in line for the two daily hours allotted for walk-in services.

The door opened at 1pm exactly (ah, American punctuality) and a grim-faced guard waved me in. I passed through a metal detector, was told I need to check my bag. I left that room, walking through a manicured courtyard (ah, the American affection for well-groomed lawns) and into another room, where another man examined my passport, wrote down my info, handed me a visitors badge and waved to enter the next room.

It was like a little air-conditioned slice of America. Posters on the wall: “From Sea to Shining Sea,” portraying different landscape shots; pictures of smiling, racially diverse faces; a sign suggesting that I like the US Embassy on Facebook (now, why on earth…). There was a drinking fountain—not a water cooler, but a drinking fountain—and I took a sip just for the novelty of it. A picture of Uncle Sam pointed down at me, and I smiled.

I lined up at a service window, fenced off with red partitions. I’d heard that they’d recently started charging for additional passport pages. I’d assumed that, now flooded with an influx of traveling Americans, this would be some sort of modest administrative fee; I had $30 in my wallet. I got to the window and told the clerk I needed more passport pages, and asked how much it would be.

She handed me a form. “It’s $82.”

I blinked. “$82?” I repeated. Maybe I heard her wrong.

She nodded. “$82.”

I briefly considered quoting the old Chris Rock skit from I’m Gonna Get You Sucka: “$82? Good lord, that’s a lotta money. How much for one page? How bout I photocopy a page and staple it in myself?”


Apparently the original skit doesn’t have the tag line. But you know what I mean…

Something told me this would not be an effective bargaining technique. Besides, this was the little slice of America, and in America, we don’t bargain.

“Um, okay,” I said slowly. “Well, I didn’t think it would be that much. Do you take credit cards?”

“No,” she smiled. “Cash only.” So it wasn’t totally a slice of America.

I asked the clerk’s opinion on whether I’d actually need more pages. I showed what I had left—two unstamped pages, plus the back amendment pages. I told her the countries I’d be going to. Did she think the customs agents will be able to squeeze the stamps in? (If it were Mexico or Italy, it’d be no problem; those fools will stamp right over of other stamps.)

“I think it’ll be okay for this trip. But it’s the same price here as in the States. So if you think you’ll need more pages anyway, you may as well get them while you’re here.”

Ah, American customer service: she was right. I don’t even know where the Consulate is in San Francisco. Right now I’m living a 5 minute walk from the US Embassy; in Phnom Penh, the task would only chew up an hour or so, as opposed to a whole day.

I nodded. “Okay, thank you. I’ll be back.”

And so I went back yesterday, went through the whole process again. And I must say that there’s something vaguely comforting about the whole thing—even though I don’t feel myself missing the States at all, there’s something sweet and reassuring about being surrounded by the Americana images, the American accents.

The funny thing about the Embassy here—and I’ve been told this is particular to this Embassy—is that services for Americans and services for Cambodians are done in one room. You sit in little chairs and wait for your number to be called, which sounds boring (and it is) but you’re provided with some pretty keen people-watching. Conversations between clerks and customers are done through a glass window, over a small speaker, and that provides for some pretty keen eaves-dropping.

A Cambodian man was trying to secure visas for his family to come to the States. He’d failed to follow the correct procedures and was stumbling to answer questions. He didn’t seem to understand the concept of needing to provide DNA-test results for his kids. I felt embarrassed for him.

I also saw the most Mexican Khmer man in, well, perhaps anywhere: cowboy boots, cowboy hat, big belt buckle and blue jeans, one of those air-brushed Cholo shirts with a picture of a foxy lady on the back, saying something “Por Vida.” I was ravenously curious to find out his story, but he left before I had a chance to sit down next to him and get nosy. Sometimes Khmer people with especially round faces look vaguely Mayan, and in my mind I imagined him having resettled in Texas or California and one day deciding: “Fuck it, if everyone thinks I’m Mexican, I’m rolling with it—por vida.”

A man next to me struck up conversation. He was Cambodian; having lived in the US for 10 years, he’d recently returned and was hoping to get a job at the Embassy. He asked why I was there, and we shared a laugh about how ghastly expensive my simple task was.

“I think it’s because more Americans have passports now—they’re milking it.” I leaned in, lowered my voice, “They found a new way to rip us off, you know?”

He nodded. “Maybe the pages be made of gold.”

I chuckled. “We can only hope.”

I got my passport back and the new pages were not, in fact, made of gold. They were made of paper. Very smartly decorated paper, with fanciful American images—totem poles and majestic eagles and buffalo so darkly colored I don’t know how a stamp is supposed to be readable over it. There are quotes from famous Americans about democracy and freedom and something from Ronald Reagan about living in a world “lit by lightning” that I’ve been unable to make sense of.

The new pages are insultingly over-priced, audaciously gaudy and not entirely practical—in short, very very American. And what can I do but shake my head, both annoyed and amused, with the vague affection one feels for their native land, their home country, their home.

My new plump passport

A Morsel of Americanness, Here in Cambodia

If you look deep, deep into my center of my American soul, you will find that it’s not composed of car owning or monolingualism or even rock n roll.

It’s filled with peanut butter.

Australians have their Vegemite and the Swedes have their Muesli and the whole of Europe has their Nutella. But I am American, and my heart pumps, not red blood like yours but thick, chunky, light-brown swirls of peanut butter.

In previous posts, I’ve claimed that this love of the ground peanut is my number one American qualifier. I’ve gone so far as to consider a peanut butter tattoo, which I envision coming complete with a traditional-style banner that reads: “From my cold dead hands.” I effing love the stuff, and I miss it dearly when I travel. Usually, when homesickness and the craving for healthy fat gets the better of me, I search and search for a jar to no avail.

So imagine my sheer delight when I found this little gem of patriotism staring out from the shelf at me:

Not only is it delicious and nutritious, it comes with a prominent display of national pride. Now that’s what I call proper marketing.

Americanness on the Road, Part II: It Ain’t All Bad

Yes, really: George W Bush Street, in Tirana

“America is the best country for a person with a disability to visit.”

This was Rob, sitting cross-legged on the roof terrace of the Tirana hostel. He continued, “For deaf people, it’s like a dream. It’s like going to Disneyland. Actually,” he ashed his cigarette, “Disneyland is great for people with disabilities too. Wheelchair accessibility and all.”

Chad looked confused. You could see the information smacking up against the wall of prejudice, his brow wincing from the pressure.

Chad didn’t like the US, and Chad was American.

Rob continued on, citing the revolutionary wonders of Civil Rights legislation and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in his English accent. Rob was in Tirana doing NGO work in the deaf community; Zhujeta, Rob’s girlfriend who helped run the hostel, also did work with the same NGO. Rob rattled off the comprehensive services available to deaf people in the US—from resources in public schools to telephone interpreters—vastly different from any other country in the world, including his native England.

Chad nodded, soaking it all in. “Wow,” he said thoughtfully. “I guess that’s one thing we didn’t fuck up.”

It’s easy for Americans to be jaded about our own country. There’s a lot of fucked-up shit going on in it, and we’ve caused a lot of suffering, both abroad and at home. It’s easy to fall into a sort of naive cynicism: our country is completely fucked. As young travelers, little ambassadors on hostel terraces, we feel it our duty to decry our country and lament its shortcomings, its sins, its unforgivable and deplorable acts. And there’s a lot to decry.

But it’s something like the Guilty White Person syndrome, the Bleeding Heart Liberal. This perspective—and God knows I fell prey to it for several years in my early traveling—lacks complexity, nuance. The US isn’t the evil empire, as easy and convenient as it’d be to think that. Just when you want to write it off, there’s something like the ADA to remind you of the revolutionary notion of equality written into the fabric, the very law of the land, that you can’t get away from—that, no matter how far we sway into the other side, keeps showing up and shaking things down.

It was funny to watch that information try to sort itself in the mind of someone who thought they’d neatly washed their hands of the issue: US = bad. Because the fact is, we only have ADA legislation as a product of Civil Rights legislation, and we only have that because of that little blip written into our constitution that declared all the men equal. Sure, it’s not what a bunch of rich white dudes in powdered wigs meant at the time, but too bad. And this is what, in my mind, makes our country such a complex, contradictory and ultimately fascinating place: this space for change, this tension built into it. That, and the incredible cultural cocktail that keep colliding, exploding, bubbling over and making something new.

It was even funnier to watch Chad struggle with the information that Bush Senior was the man who signed the ADA into effect.

Because things as big as people or countries are never that simple, never all one thing (“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes”—when in doubt, always quote Walt Whitman). It reminded me of a Middle Eastern friend of mine, an ethnic minority from Iraq, who told me her mother still thinks of Saddam Hussein as a great man, because he didn’t persecute Assyrians.

And there’s more than the ADA on the list of “things we didn’t fuck up.” But it wasn’t my job to teach or explain that to Chad; he’d have to figure it out for himself. I just sat back and watched the lightbulb turn on, a small flicker of awareness.

Later on, we sat playing music from someone’s iPod. “Welcome to the Jungle” came on, and I indulged in a moment of cheesiness. “To me,” I said, absently, not really thinking about it, “this is the epitome of America. This is what the US sounds like.”

Chad looked slightly taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s rock, good ole’ 80s hard rock. Which came out of rock n roll, which came out of the blues, which is about as fucking American as it gets. It comes from the core, you know, the soul of the country. And I fucking love it,” I added. “American music is my favorite music. In all its permutations—folk, country, soul, hip hop, grunge…”

“I guess I never thought of it that way,” Chad said. “I think of American music as, you know, the corporate Britney Spears shit.”

“Well, yeah, it’s that too. But that’s only a small bit of it.” I lowered my voice and leaned in. “No one can deny it: our music is pretty bad-ass.”

Americanness on the Road, Part I: Letting His Issues Be His Issues

“I hate your country’s politics.”

This was K, and this was the first thing he said to me.

We sat on the dark patio of a Tirana bar, table of ashtrays and beer bottles, the headlights and footsteps of surrounding streets obscured by a criss-cross fence. I’d arrived in the city only hours earlier, and had already found myself chasing fun with the group of people I’d hang with for the next five days.

K had just come in from Kosovo, in town for a gig where important record executives would be. He sang, or he played the guitar, or did both—it wasn’t clear. He had a red Adidas track jacket and the straw Fedora of male insecurity: a little too self-consciously cool.

He sat down at the table, said his hellos to old friends, was introduced to me. He asked where I was from, then crossed his arms, leaned back, eyes narrowed to a challenge, as if to say, “Come on, step to this, I dare you.” He announced his personal aversion to my country’s politics with smug satisfaction.

It was like K was trying to hand me a big bag of his bullshit. And I, in turn, got to firmly but without malice reply, “Actually, this is yours. And I’m just gonna let you hang on it.”

There was a time when I would have had to jump up and down to prove to K that I wasn’t one of those Americans. I would have cited my city of residence, my family’s long history in activism, personal lifestyle choices that reflect my commitment to anti-corporate, anti-imperialist values. I would have lamented the pervasive culture of ignorance and fear that paved the way for predatory politics, and when the bitch/blame-session reached its crescendo of discontent, I’d have thrown my hands up and announced my ultimate goal to marry someone with an EU passport and flee the whole mess.

I would have, in short, run laps to prove who I was to K, to win his validation and approval, this person I had just met, in some sort of attempt to resolve my own insecurity about my nationality.

Instead I shrugged, sighed, “Yeah, join the club, buddy.”

The rest of the tabled groaned at K. “What is that?” Robo asked, shoulders hunched and flicking ash, seeming a little uncomfortable at K’s underhanded assault on me. “That’s the first thing you say to someone?”

“Well, I do hate the US’s politics,” K defended himself.

“Yeah, but as the first thing to say?” Zhujeta cooed in her gentle, loving way. “Not even, ‘Nice to meet you.'” She titled her head in the same way as when she spoke to the begging gypsy kids that cruised past the table, “It’s rude, K.”

“Okay, okay,” K waved his hands as though they were little white flags. “Sorry, nice to meet you.”

I shrugged again. Whatever issue it was—whatever insecurity in K made him want to challenge someone, get them to prove themselves to him—I wasn’t going to get involved. That was between K and himself, not me. Or my Americanness.

Domestic Travel for the 25% Club

It’s a tired, tongue-worn statistic that staggers gasping into travel discussions across the internet: only 25% of Americans hold passports.

Usually meant as a sad accounting for the geographic and cultural ignorance of Americans, it has the opposite effect on those of us in that illustrious quarter percent. We are the daring, the open-minded, the shrewd and worldly elder all the glowing faces at the campfire are huddled around. We have seen the world, and we have stories to tell. (Whether you not you really want to listen.) The only real travel is international travel—all else (minus the notable exception of New York City) is a petty bourgeois venture in the money-sucking heart of homogeneity.

“Is domestic travel really travel?”—it’s the kind of inane question that you unwittingly discover yourself debating (with yourself) over a slice of open road and steaming cup of gas station coffee. Travel within one’s own country is never an exotic thing—a kind of half-traveling, going through the motions, faking the orgasm of discovery. But when you’re American, and that country is a sprawling continent composed mostly of people who never leave it, domestic travel can sometimes seem like the antithesis of travel: giving up, giving in and coping out. And paying entirely too much for hotel rooms.

I got to thinking a lot about domestic travel on my very unglamorous, utterly unworldly last trip: driving through Southern California. It was so different from the type of travel I’d been doing the last few years: I had my car, I spoke the language, could use my cell phone and credit cards. There was no hassle, no “other”—but it most definitely was still travel. And now, as I’m getting ready to dash off to one equally unexotic locale (Texas) and the ultimate “paradise without a passport” destination (Hawaii), I’m thinking even more about what domestic travel means as an American.

I didn’t grow up traveling. International travel was one of those unfathomable luxuries of the wealthy. So when I left the US for the first time, it was literally like the world opened up to me. This occurred during a very dark time—namely, Bush’s presidency. The prevailing image of America, and Americans, was pretty much everything I was against. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was Canadian when abroad, but I didn’t want to be associated with anything American: capitalists, Christians, blond suburban girls. I was also broke, so traveling in places where rooms cost $7 a night was pretty much the only way to go. Thus, I left the country more than I left the immediate Bay Area and my ignorance went inverse: I knew the geography of Latin America better than the Midwest.

It’s true that the political tide has shifted, but it’s more than that. There’s so much to be against in the US—imperialism, corportatization, people who don’t believe in evolution—that it’s easy to forget all the good things. Our art is amazing; from hip-hop to punk rock to graffiti, pretty much everything I love was spawned out of the raging, pulsing cultural cocktail that is the United States.

And when I travel here, at home, I’m more able to dig in to those things that interest me—poke and scratch beneath the surface and get closer to what it means to be this, from this, born out of this. It goes beyond using the Yelp app in my phone to find a good coffee shop (which is goddamn useful). It goes beyond even just speaking the language, or doing so without an accent. Because I know the culture, am the culture, I know how to approach people, how get right in there and smile and make friends and discover cool shit I wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

The number one benefit of traveling within my own country is that I’m more able to dig in to what really fascinates me: people, how they live, the weird art/shit they make and the stories it tells. Domestic travel is a totally different beast from international, and I gotta admit that you don’t get the same knock-you-over-the-head rush. Rather than exploring the “other,” you’re exploring the known, and in that way, exploring yourself.

What does it really mean to be American? I used to think it had mostly to do with narrow-mindedness and consumerism. Maybe I’m just a cheeseball, maybe the Obama campaign really did give me some kind of hope, but I think it’s something much deeper than all that. I’m not sure what all it is, this being American, but I’m certain that somewhere down near the core of it is travel. There’s something very central about travel to the American psyche, a kind of open road that flows through the veins of the place, a Manifest Destiny born into us, to set wheels over earth. Stagecoaches, trains, automobiles, a country based upon more, upon Going West and Getting Yours. It’s not the jet-set , passport-stamping kind of travel. It’s visceral, grounded, rooted down into the earth, the dusty, craggy, bayoued and fertile earth.

Perhaps I’m settling into myself. Perhaps I’m just becoming accustomed to being a traveler and building a life around travel; being a member of that elite 25% isn’t so much a novelty anymore, it’s my life. I’m not the anxious teenager with a self-conscious mohawk; I’m the cranky old punk who doesn’t give a shit about dental-floss-sewn patches and would rather go to bed than party/do blow backstage (an actual anecdote from my weekend). And while my heart is in international travel, it doesn’t mean travel within the US is a waste of time and money (what I honestly used to think). It’s just a whole different experience, uses a whole different side of the brain.

Besides, what other country has Chaos in Tejas? (I’ll see you in the pit.)


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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