State Swap

I enjoyed Knoxville immensely. Not so sure it felt the same way about me.

Despite United Airlines best attempts to keep me in Washington D.C., I got back from a trip to Tennessee yesterday. My friend Melissa and I went to The Volunteer State with our usual intentions: to make friends with locals, and get outside of our liberal enclaves and see something different. People are almost always baffled by this desire to visit what you might call The Middle-of-Nowhere. People at home, and in the towns we visit, can’t understand why we would want to visit these places.

With all the TravelZoo deals in our inboxes, you’d think we’d be spending our precious vacation time in Jamaica. But the couple of days we spent in Los Banos, CA still stands as one of my favorite trips of all time. The people there were so kind and  gracious to us that we still send them postcards any time we head out on another trip — and at Christmas. Tennessee was an altogether different experience though.

I can’t say for sure if the climate of the country has shifted so greatly since Melissa and I visited Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama last year that all of those conservative “red states” have grown hostile, or if it’s just Tennessee, but something was definitely different. We expected to be one of hundreds of tourists while we were in Nashville, and we were. But we spent our second day in Lebanon, tasting the entries at a Dumplin’ Cook-Off and hitting the rodeo.

It was at Lebanon’s Fiddler’s Grove (like Historic Williamsburg for hill-folk) that we encountered — for the first time in all of our travels — the “rude Yankee” stereotype. I am more sensitive to this stereotype than others. I’ve got a lot of Southern family, and I’m always bothered by their claims that us “Yankees” are rude. We may be a little colder than others, but I am unfailingly polite to people who don’t give me a reason not to be. I hold doors for strangers, always say please and thank you, and — when I’m in the South — even go out of my way to say hello to strangers. And, even when a complete stranger who knows nothing about me, says to my face that I am rude simply by virtue of where I am from, I don’t even bother to tell them how rude it is to tell someone they’re rude.

It wasn’t just this silly, old stereotype that bugged me, though. On more than one occasion we were confronted with disturbing hostility toward President Obama. Normally, I’d say I was just being defensive. After all, if they’d said the same things about W. I would have laughed or agreed. But when an effigy of the President was propped up in the middle of a rodeo ring and mocked, I couldn’t help but think, “These are the same people who would have had anyone who spoke ill of the President after 9-11 sent to Canada.” It seemed to be the height of hypocrisy to me. Well, maybe it’s beat out by those “great patriots” who insist on flying the Confederate flag — you know, the one that symbolizes the splintering of our country.

Now, I don’t generally talk politics or religion with the people we meet in these places. Those are divisive issues and I am on a mission to make friends. So, I was surprised by how often the people of Tennessee brought up their conservatism, and our inherent “blueness.” One gentleman — a kindly grandfather type and retired cop — told us he was wary of discussing it in front of “Yankees” because he knew we’re all liberal. This struck me as funny. It was as though he thought we’d jump down his throat for disagreeing with us, because that’s what political discourse has come to. So, I simply reassured him that, “We’re not Communists yet.”

As we carried on with our travels we met several former Marines, including a sniper, and a guy who used to work on a pit-crew for Nascar. We were also greeted with a rather vehement dislike of President Obama, and repeated gay slurs. Everyone is entitled to their opinion on the President so we just let that pass, but the homophobia doesn’t fly with me — and I told the most offensive of them I didn’t appreciate his choice of words.

Normally, people are surprised to see us in their small towns. Once, we even ran into a man who told us he’d never wanted to go to NYC but had won a trip and ended up liking it. When we asked why he’d never wanted to go,  he said, “I  guess I was just always taught to hate it.” I always found that statement to be telling, but as we experienced some of the worse culture shock of our travels, it sunk in that this sentiment was widespread.

There seems to be a complete lack of curiosity about the way our fellow countrymen live. This goes both ways. As much as the people in big cities may look down on those folks out there in the middle of country, those folks out there in the country feel the same about the people in the cities. We’re not just politically polarized, we’re culturally polarized. Somewhere along the way it seems like America forgot how many different kinds of people it takes to keep this country running.

I think it might just be time for a sort of “State Swap” — where people from all over America are forced to visit the parts that are completely foreign to them. You know, like Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie in The Simple Life but without all the stupidity.

But, it just so happens that Dan Hoyle’s The Real Americans came to my attention today, and frankly, I can’t wait to see it. He says it so much better than I can.

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