Leave it to a Google+ discussion about American candy imports in the UK to get me thinking about cultural comfort zones, branching out, and embracing the unfamiliar. It seems that his local Tesco now has an endcap dedicated to “quintessential” American imports like peanut butter Snickers, strawberry Fluff, PopTarts, and Butterfinger bars. The prices were quite ridiculous on some items and the selection was, well, strange. He couldn’t understand why such common and random items were imported at all, especially at those prices. I decided it must be because people like to seek out something familiar when in an unfamiliar place, and Americans make an art out of it.
When traveling, Americans prefer to seek out McDonald’s or Subway instead of local fare. We reach for Coke and imported American snacks instead of finding out what the locals enjoy. Yes, this is a generalization and many people do branch out, but Americans tend to be creatures of habit and comfort. Even when traveling or moving within the US, we seek out the familiar first. We need to feel “at home” as soon as possible, and that means making the new place seem as much like the old place as possible rather than truly adapting to something new. It’s natural behavior. There’s no shame in it, and I’ve certainly done it, myself.
Not long after I moved to Delaware in the early 1990s, I was tickled silly when Rite-Aid started “importing” GooGoo Clusters from the Deep South. They also got Chick-o-Sticks, which were an unfamiliar site in the area. Even though I hadn’t consumed them regularly back in Mississippi, I snapped them up and shared them with Delaware folk whenever I could—just to feel a little bit of “home.”
But I never shied away from new things. I became a big fan of bagels, subs, and Ben & Jerry long before they existed back in Mississippi. I adopted a fairly “foreign” lifestyle while living in Newark, biking to the grocery store and the laundromat and exploring new areas on public transportation—gasp! I tried many of the “strange” grocery items at Acme, especially the cheeses! (We only had cheddar, American, and pretend-American cheese growing up.) The point is, I grew and evolved. I didn’t forget myself—I just found more in life.
When I moved to Vermont just over a year ago, I made an easy adjustment again. As much as I can, I try the local fare and live like a native Vermonter. Vermont makes it easy though, with the laid-back atmosphere and absolutely delicious local flavors of candy, coffee, and produce. I’d still like to find a fresh Chick-o-Stick, but life will go on with or without it!
Call it flexibility, adaptability, or just insanity, but I even fit right in when maneuvering through New York City, and would have loved living there. I felt right at home in New Orleans when visiting there in the mid 1990s, as well. I’ve always traveled the US without any culture shock, and I’m pretty sure I could do the same abroad, if the opportunity ever arises.
What makes this all a bit odd, though, is that most folks in my family are NOT like this at all. Sure, my father had the “gypsy gene” and wanted to be in new places whenever possible, but he really didn’t adapt well to change or difference. My mother has never had an interest in traveling, and when forced to do so, she can’t wait to get home. My older brother enjoys two places: home and the woods. My sister seems to enjoy some travel, but I know she’d never move too far from Mississippi. (The old homing instinct.) So how in the world did I end up so different?!
I think perhaps my insular upbringing in Mississippi inadvertently instilled in me a yearning for the unfamiliar. For most of my childhood, we lived in the same town. We saw the same people, and we ate the same foods. Our family vacations were to Jackson or New Orleans—never further. I had known the same 200 or so classmates all the way through school, and while I always yearned for something new, most of my peers were obsessed with their current experiences. My teenage years were spent “trapped” in my bedroom, listening to music that came from across America and reading about far-off places. I guess that explains why I was more than ready to go 1,200 miles away to learn Russian at Delaware!
None of this means I dislike the familiar—and I certainly love comfort. (I can still cook up some mean Southern food, and top it off with Mama’s peach cobbler!) It just means that just being comfortable has never been quite enough to calm me. It also doesn’t mean I’m just always seeking something better. For me, it’s just that I know there’s more—more to see, more to taste, more to hear.