Travelogue VIII: Dubious Observations

November 10, 2008

I am in a reflective moooood at the moment. Past posts on this blogotron have contained mainly elongated anecdotes of dubious interest about my vapid tourist activities. Go to some place, take a photo of it, have lunch somewhere, take a photo of it. This to me is the most honest way of traveling. Before I left Australia I got into hot soup with some people I barely even knew because I vehemently stated that travel doesn’t offer you much in the way of useful insight about other cultures (nb: I am fun to be around). This applies particularly to fly-in-fly-out stays in cities, during which your main exposure to culture is commercial transfers and tourist books, but it also applies to longer ones like mine (which, by the way, is also dominated by commercial transfers and tourist books). I may have lived in the US for three months but I still have only a superficially better insight into what it means to be American than I did before I left. This is partly because I am not an extrovert so I haven’t gotten amongst the culture on a deep level, plus I’m not that interested in finding out what it means to live and be born here anyway, but still, I’d like to venture some observations about the US and its people, regardless of how insulated from the truth such comments might be.

First of all, Americans (that is to say, the Americans I’ve met and eavesdropped on, which is to say the Americans at SUNY New Paltz who take my classes, live in my resident hall and eat at the dining hall I use, which is to say a few hundred middle-class Americans from Long Island between the ages of 17 and 20) appear to have no internal environment. They seem to speak every thought they have. Thoughts like, “I want an ice cream cone.” One will say to another, “They’ve got the strawberry sorbet out tonight,” and the other will reply, “I like sorbet,” and this will be said incredibly loudly and rapidly, and it will be followed with a non-sequitur like “Dude, when did you wake up?” There’s a lot of the saying of “dude”, that much is accurate in college films. Less commonly portrayed in film is the saying of “yo”, which I think is used as frequently as “dude” to start a sentence. There’s a lot of “Yo are you going to Hasbrouck?” (The main dining hall.) Or “Yo she has got mad titties.” “Mad” is still a popular intensifier. This kind of speech pattern is used by guys who still take their stylistic cues from Fred Durst – backwards hat, little beard, t-shirt and jeans or shorts. I did not expect that. I thought the people here would be much more urbane, and if they weren’t I thought they’d be dressed in a shitty style that was lifted from someone more contemporary than Fred Durst. I hoped for the common mode of dress to be that douchey Brooklyn hipster kind of look, but mostly people have adopted a relaxed but colourful hip hop style. Particularly true of the black and Hispanic students, who are probably the best dressed kids on campus. To relate this paragraph’s most recent digression to its topic sentence, the black and Hispanic kids have a similar habit of immediately voicing whatever is in their heads, or seeming to at least. In their case it’s most often hip hop lyrics: there’ll be silence outside my room in the resident hall, then suddenly “YOUNG MONEY LIL WAYNE” rings out, followed, further down the hall, with “THEN THE MUSIC DROP”. But it might also be, “Oh fuck no, you did not just crash and lose my paper, you asshole.” This was said in the computer lab by a girl who spoke many such sentences to herself. This has been one of the alarming commonalities to Americans: it’s not just the insane and homeless who talk to themselves. Someone will be walking towards you, all normal-like, then they’ll suddenly say, “She a bitch anyway.” I swear they aren’t speaking into a headset, they are talking to themselves. The other most common piece of aberrant behavior I’ve witnessed has been public, superfluous spitting. It crosses barriers of ethnicity, age and class.

Getting back to black kids, my wigga friends will be happy to know that they speak in hip hop-isms in casual conversation. This is often satisfyingly rap skit-like when they say stuff like “Where the party at? Them niggas bounced already.” But it feels weird when they say something more mundane, such as, “We all out of detergent son. We been doin’ mad laundry.” There is also, in general, a lot more contribution from students in class. I was shocked the first time a teacher called on a class I was in to find that a number of hands shot up, instead of everyone embarrassedly looking at their desks and hoping that someone will break the silence with some comment. The class dynamics remain the same as in Australian universities, there’s the older student who loves to make himself heard (not always me), a younger, affable student who contributes modestly when the class most needs it, the completely stupid kid who never says anything worthwhile and complains about things they don’t understand, and a morose young man who spouts cynical, Naomi Klein-style clichés. But then there is also the senior who has embraced Buddhism, and the freshman whose puritan upbringing bars her from sympathising with Clytaemnestra. There are also a ton of severely disabled kids around. One class I’m in contains both a partially deaf girl who is recovering from severe depression and a girl in a wheelchair who reminds me of the boy in a wheelchair from Malcolm in the Middle. As I was entering class one time, she was being helped by a different girl in the class while suffering frequent abdominal pains. Then there’s the girl who walks like she’s just gotten off an incredibly wild and fat horse, the other girl in a wheelchair, the blind girl, the guy who might be physically and mentally disabled, or from Eastern Europe, or just weird, and the guy whose left side of his face has about 20% extra skin and tissue mass, and is sloping downward like it’s melting. There are also a number of students who had children in their teens. Plus, basically everyone smokes weed, and talks about smoking weed. Some girl outside the dining hall was playing checkers while blazing up a huge pipe. Which is ballsy, considering that police cars patrol the campus 24 hours a day.

That’s another thing: in my half-assed cultural theory internal monologue I have often supposed that people in a society that is highly policed will suppose that they are doing something wrong, even if they aren’t. Drug use is made such a big deal of by the legal age being 21 and parents playing such a huge role in the life of students on campus (every few Sundays the dining hall is full of families visiting their siblings/children and college brochures address parents more often than students) that even though I am allowed to purchase alcohol and can do so at more places and with less money than I can in Australia, I often can’t bring myself to do it because I’m afraid someone will disapprove. I feel intense scrutiny at every stage of the process – while I’m looking, while I’m carrying, while I’m buying, while I’m walking home, while I’m drinking. When I drink I do it in the computer lab when it’s empty at 2 in the morning because I don’t know what my roommate will think of it. (On that note, my roommate is the exception that disproves all the rules about Americans that I am setting up here. He is very nice, thoughtful, quiet and doesn’t spit.)

There is a slightly different tone to interactions between students and teachers. They are more adolescent. I had a professional writing teacher at Curtin in around 2003 who was old, about 60, but had just received her PhD. She had been a longtime high school teacher, and we were one of her first university classes. One time some of the students asked some standard clarification questions about an assignment and she refused to answer them, condescending that we were in university now and we had to take responsibility for ourselves. Ironically, her exhortation for us to be more mature undermined our maturity. The same thing happens with some of the teachers here. It’s inscribed into a lot of university rituals. They don’t tell you their first names a lot of the time, for example. They just write “Prof. Tromanhauser” on the board. I think I mentioned before how anyone who teaches a class is called a professor, right? One of the teachers takes that attitude to a second level by prefacing all her comments with “students”. “Students, I want to show you a video on YouTube today, but I can’t operate the screen. Can someone help me?” The other day, two days after Obama won the election, this same teacher showed us a video of Kennedy’s inaugural address. (In fact she showed it to us twice because the one she selected had about 30 seconds worth of “important” material cut out of it.) Afterwards she was crying, which engendered an incredibly awkward silence. Then she goes, “Am I the only one crying?” Yes, you are the only one crying about the YouTube video broadcast onto a whiteboard in front of 18 people who were born 20 years after the 60s. Eventually she got mad at us for not being as moved as she was and threatened to dismiss the class if we didn’t appear to be more interested. I don’t know what her point was, exactly. She enjoys showing us YouTube videos without unpacking them. Before we started to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas she showed us a series of YouTube videos of Hunter S Thompson. In one of them he was silent and expressionless while about five non-noteworthy people talked to each other. In another he talked about how he wanted to be buried, and she cried during that too, after conspicuously positioning herself next to the projected image. So, when she threatened to dismiss the class and wouldn’t move on because “this moment” was “too important” or whatever, people ventured half-thoughts on the election which she cut off by barking Why? at them. Then if they tried to explain why she said Why? again, getting inexplicably more irate. Then she goes, “Why do you think the world is so rapturous about this result? What does Australia think about it, Matt?”

I look up from the scribble I’m working on and go, “Hm, oh, uh, well, I don’ t know, I have a lot of friends who – ” then she cut me off and started talking about how America has alienated the international community by being too bossy and not listening to them. Irrrrrony.

Anyway, I have gotten bored of this topic so I will put it away for now and bring it out again another time. Ladies, please, try to withhold your excitement. Save it for the next chapter of Matt Giles Keeps a Blog.

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4 Responses to “Travelogue VIII: Dubious Observations”

  1. Phil Says:

    I am glad that you have confirmed two of my theories about Americans (that they are fucking loud and that they’re constantly stating exactly what they are doing, whether anyone is listening or not). Is it also true that they walk REALLY FUCKING SLOWLY? And that all males own one of those checked frat party shirts, and every group of three or more dudes will contain at least one sporting said variety of clothing?

    I’m basing these on the sailors who swamp Perth twice a year, and the swarms of tourists who are always on Swanston St.

  2. Leonie Says:

    what has two thumbs and really enjoyed reading this? this lady! (I am pointing the thumbs at myself. also it is my attempt at bein’ ‘merican.)

  3. Tristan Says:

    Haha, rap-skit language. Awesome. This post was highly informative and engaging!

  4. soda Says:

    man yeah the spitting is just so unnecessary and i also noticed how it transcends all barriers. yes i’m lookin at you, old lady dressed like you is on your way to church. whyyyy?

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