Saturday, June 28, 2008

Back from Big Ohio

"For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."
John Winthrop, 1630

Once you have been away from "home" as long as I have, the very image of that place might take on nearly mythical proportions, both positively and negatively. Here in Singapore, many expatriate Americans like myself tend to see America in exaggerated terms, like headlines, and we forget the nuances: The Bush White House. The Iraq War. The Falling Dollar. Bulging Oil Prices. Global Warming. The Celtics as NBA champions.

When I'm in America, a horizon of other, finer details makes itself known, rekindling my emotional connection (and in some cases disconnection) to the place and people. In the airport in Chicago, I'm suddenly struck by all the white people and how once again I'm not a minority. (It's an odd feeling for me, actually.) In the airport in Columbus, Ohio, I note all the stores selling clothes, bags and other items with the name Ohio State University emblazoned on them, and I think about how university branding more so than intellectual development and often connected with college sports teams is so "huge." As I drive 30 miles east down I-70 (Interstate Highway) from the airport in Columbus to my hometown of Thornville, waves of other impressions and emotions greet me. In June the landscape is verdant, the trees and fields myriad hues of green, but there is so much less humidity here in central Ohio than there is in the tropics. On the road I'm also shocked yet again by the size of the cars, the number of SUVs, the speed of the semis (big trucks), and the wide median strips.

18 days in Ohio gives me one remembrance and discovery after another. The size of people is one of those. In Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and elsewhere in Asia, one rarely sees people who are "overweight." In teaching at NUS for one year, I have only had two or three students who seemed even slightly "weight challenged." In America, the large number of obese people becomes apparent the minute you walk through an airport. I remember entering a store, a "supermarket," and noting immediately that virtually *everyone*, every shopper and every check out girl, was heavier than they should be. Some ladies I saw were as wide as their shopping carts, which were invariably overflowing with meats, bread, giant bags of chip snacks and cartons of diet drinks! In fact, Ohio has been ranked as the 17th most obese American state by the Trust for America's Health, with 27% of its population being obese.

How does this happen? Why are so many Americans notoriously big? Well, a visit with my own family tells the story. I've seen family members bake a pan of brownies, then finish them all off within a couple days. I'm generously offered cookies, pie, cake and "soft" drinks at every turn. Dessert, like rice in much of Asia, is the staple, and ice cream a daily pleasure. Maybe what surprises me most though is how little water people drink and how, instead, it's Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Coors Light and Busch Light, and other "light" drinks. At some point though I stop noticing body size and see mainly the wide smiles. I start to feel like a coherent part of the scenery again.

Of course, I do get shocked back to reality: I'm especially struck by how overtly patriotic people are. We all have heard politicians, no matter where they are from, praise their own country as "great." Citizens of most countries can sing their national anthem, recite the names of past leaders and list great accomplishments, and they feel strong affection for their homeland. But in America it takes on a religious fervency. In my mother's neighborhood, a "subdivision" of Thornville called Foster Manor, many homes have flagpoles with the Stars and Stripes held high aloft. On one of my last days in America I even saw a motorcyclist, a guy on a big Harley, cruising nonchalantly down a street with a beach-towel-size flag fluttering above his muffler. On American TV talk shows, pundits routinely extol the "greatness" of America and discuss how that is being threatened by today's oil prices. Such patriotism is not just about celebrating America's history and tradition though, but about deeply believing in its exclusivity. It is also about economic privilege, and some may say "dominance." The age-old myth of America as the shining "city on a hill" for all of humanity to envy and emulate is still alive and well (though this may be mostly in the minds of Americans these days).

When I'm in Ohio, in fact, many people ask me if I'm going to stay away "over there" forever, as if no one really wants to live on a small island with small people. That's a funny question for me, because while I enjoy living in Singapore (and generally out of the USA), while I do view excess quite negatively, I continue to feel rooted in the "American experience."

A social psychologist might say that I have become the person I am because of the opportunities afforded by my social (more so than national) background and by the "big" allowances made in upbringing. And it is true that as a kid I was given a tremendous amount of leeway, or space, to spread my wings. I was encouraged to be independent, self reliant, and exploratory. I was pointed toward the big horizon, and through a childhood appetite for travel books, TV programs and films (Moby Dick, Gulliver's Travels, Call of the Wild, Around the World in 80 Days, Star Trek, Easy Rider) that described other places and other ways of life , I developed a desire to venture to the end of the highway, to dream "big," to think beyond my backyard. Those influences also became a motivation for me to give up the creature comforts and travel. I have no doubt that kids in other places in the world have been given the same sort of support and were instilled with the same values. In my case, it just happens to be an American background.

Of course, there is much to gain from America, too. A person only needs to consider American "contributions" to see that really a sort of "greatness" abounds there, in scientific discoveries, technological advances, scholarship. There have been Olympian achievements in nearly every field. Yes, there are opportunities that life in America can afford to many of its citizens (and many visitors!). Think university education!

There is also that material availability. One also only needs to look at the availability of consumer goods and take note of the relatively low cost of food, books, computers and other appliances, cars, land and houses (especially now!). In America, a working class couple, like a mailman married to a store clerk, can own their own house, have a couple cars in the garage and computers for their kids and they can spend at least one day every weekend boating, horseback riding or cruising on their Harley.

There's also quite a bit individual freedom (some might argue too much). The freedom to vote, voice political opinion (well...), the freedom to worship as you wish. The freedom to act "crazy." Look at the Youtube videos "Amish Paradise" and "White and Nerdy" by parody singer/ songwriter "Weird Al" Yankovic, and see what a wide berth the "freedom of speech" principle of America is given, and think about how such freedom is often pushed to the limit in song lyrics or TV scripts. (I guess you can see that in many Hollywood films and in the wide availability of written social criticism as well.) In a positive sense, look at how many Americans "largely" do their own thing.

Big isn't always better though, not even for Americans. Witness how now they are complaining about gas that costs 4 dollars a gallon. (That's because they remember that recently it was half that price. My mom remembers it being 25 cents a gallon!) Big is also bad when we think of military spending, health care costs, and national debt.

So I guess big is not just a physical form, and Ohio is not only a place but also the mental image that I've come to discover!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Mowing: On An American Odyssey

I'm lying in a reclining chair on the deck of my mom's house. My eyes are closed. But my senses are being bombarded, by the hot sun and the feeling of being home. How comfortable it seems. Crystal blue sky, perfect temperature. When I look up I see the tops of maples planted by my father 40 years earlier. The air is fresh. All is well with the world. Then I hear it, a low humming motorized rumble. Like the buzz of a 300-pound gas-guzzling mosquito. It's the power mower. My mom's seen fit to cut the yard's grass again. There she goes, riding high and tight on the soft cushion seat of the yellow and white machine. Her bonding with backyard nature is outlined in a fit of starts and stops, then a drop of the rotary blades.

And now my meditation has been broken by the kiss of those blades bearing down on the inch-high grass cover.

Just three days earlier, I had my own turn with the mower. Mom had been mowing then as well. Before I knew it, daughter Billie was on the beast, a Cub Cadet, lifting her foot off the clutch, moving forward, easing into reverse and across my camera shots. Then I climbed aboard and helped out by mowing a large swath of the yard myself. It brought back memories of cutting the same grass when I was a teenager, the only difference being that my brothers and I didn't ride then; we pushed the mower, and it would take hours to do our weekly yard chore.

Not anymore. My mom can whack the whole quarter-acre yard, neatly circumnavigating the house and a wide range of furs, maples and bushes, and Dad's old pigeon house, in a matter of ninety minutes or so.

But the act of cutting the grass three days after it was last cut now strikes me as a huge waste of energy, and time. I look down at the neighbor's place, the broad yard of another happy gardner. Yep, his grass is golf-course-green cut, looking like the fairway! How had I missed that happening?

I look up at the other neighbor's, the Micks' yard. It's longer, perfectly fine at an inch-an-a-half in height. Then I note the rumble of the mower again, smile at the wide brim of my mom's straw hat and her fixed look of concentration. Or is that accomplishment?

America is said to have 4% of the world's population, but it uses 25% of the Earth's resources. 5 days at my mom's place in suburban Thornvile, Ohio, shows me how that is possible. Every house in the neighborhood has at least 2,500 square feet of floor space, and each is now fully engaging its whole-home air conditioning unit. Each broad driveway has a fuel-inefficient pick up truck in it, in addition to two or three other vehicles, one of which is probably an SUV.

Mom cruises by the edge of the deck, the mower's audio force splitting my solice. She looks quite stately as she turns the Cadet's steering wheel with calm know-how.

If she wasn't doing this, I guess, she'd be watching Oprah or driving us to the mall again. (God love her!) Yep, most likely we'd all be back down in Lancaster, or back up in Newark, perusing the bargains that seem inescapable in America today: from jeans for seven bucks and a pair of BBQ sandwiches for five dollars to half-price luxury rental cars and mansions for 30% off.

The mower roars past my head again, Mom on yet another sonic round, and I feel like I know why, many years ago, I began questioning some of the values of small town Ohio in the first place. (God bless this home!)

Quite a few Americans, people who have grown up in hometowns like mine, don't "question" mowing, or the way many things are done; many of them don't consider conservation of resources so important, unless it's good for their wallet. That's just not part of their grammar. What they do know and value is the "good life," which means, basically, material well being: i.e., achieving as much as they can achieve, obtaining the things that represent the good life ---and more. Finish school. Jump on a career path. Make money. Buy a car, a house, whatever. (At a family reunion this week a cousin praised her stepson, aged 23, for just putting down the money for his first house.) The bigger the better. To be in the real in group, landscape a BIG YARD. Even if it means cutting the grass 2, or 3 times a week: so be it.

Of course, America is not the only country where people value financial security. It is a place, however, where the value of ownership, or being a proprietor, is very strong. Just look at the yards, and the mowers!

Oops! My mother has lifted her blades and looks in my direction to ask whether or not I want to give a hand!