I felt strangely Amish today . . . in a bizarre, science fiction, alternate universe, I live in China where there are no Amish people kind of way. From now on I will be blogging by candlelight.
I grew up in a part of America that we call the Midwest. Actually, if you look at a map, most of the “midwest” is geographically closer to the East coast but no one in that particular part of the country prefers to say they live in the Middle East . . . so we call it the Midwest.
Midwestern values are simple. Sit up straight, don’t cuss in front of your mother, buy American and don’t stare at people. Like all values though, there are exceptions. For example as important as it is to buy American products (we start riots over this) it is acceptable to buy imports if and only if said imports are 1. cheaper . . . 2. better quality . . . or 3. closer to where you live. Hence Wal-Mart . . . and Toyota . . . and everything else.
The two exceptions to the “no staring” rule are as simple as the value itself.
1. Staring is allowed if the person or persons being stared at are obviously unaware that the staring is taking place. It’s a little-known fact that Midwesterners have distinctively overdeveloped neck muscles and a keen sense of peripheral vision. The neck muscles are developed by repeated “glance aways” which is the proper response when one is caught staring. The peripheral vision allows them to intuitively sense when it is all clear to turn back and commence staring.
2. It is acceptable to stare if the person or persons being stared at are the exact combination of really “unique” AND not a threat to your physical well being. Ironically “unique” can encompass a broad range of traditionally non-midwestern characteristics but non-threatening is pretty cut and dried. For example, large tattoos on a pasty white teenager with orange hair leaning against the wall outside of the Wal-Mart smoking a Virginia Slim cigarette. Ok to stare. Large tattoos on a huge, bearded man with a ponytail and black leather jacket that is embroidered with a human skull and the words “Kill em’ all, let God sort em’ out” straddling a Harley Davidson, smoking a Marlboro Red . . . Look away. Determining who fits the exception and who doesn’t is complex and confusing to the outsider but for the midwesterner, it is second nature.
The Amish fit perfectly into exception number 2.
They are a fascinating group of people who migrated to the States from Europe in the 18th century and have been led by their religious convictions to live the simple life, free of modern technology such as electricity, automobiles, telephones and iPads. They also embrace very simplistic, non-commercial fashion guidelines similar to that of Ma, Pa and Laura from Little House on the Prairie (all of which makes them really “unique” . . . at least in the spying eyes of the common mid-westerner). They are famous for outstanding craftsmanship, building barns in one day, long beards with no accompanying moustache and non-violent, pacifist living (which makes them non-threatening and even a little bit cuddly).
Prime for staring at.
When I was a kid we would occasionally drive through “Amish country”. There was a giddiness that came with the trip. My mother, who was generally the prime enforcer of the “no staring” rule, would transform into some kind of Amish marketing rep. “We’re in Amish country Jerry . . . better look out the window we might see one . . . I wonder how many we’ll see today”. Now that I have kids I realize that this was just a sneaky parent trick to buy a few minutes of peace and quiet but it worked like a charm, every time. I would sit with my face pressed against the window waiting for the adrenaline rush of a big black horse and buggy. Just being in proximity where I knew we MIGHT see a real, live Amish person was electric. In my mind I drifted to a strange place, dreaming of how awesome it would be to live the Amish life and knowing full well that I wouldn’t like it one bit.
“There’s one! There’s one!” It’s like we were whale watching.
Dad would slow down and as we passed I would wave as excitedly as if they had been Mickey and Minnie themselves. They waved back with less enthusiasm than I would have expected from the Disney’s but still . . . they waved.
Several times on our recent trip to the States we had an occasion to drive through the Amish communities and the magic lives on. The moment I would see the big yellow horse and buggy sign I would have the kids perched on their lookout. “There’s one! There’s one!” One day we counted eight. Good times.
I live in a Chinese community that is also home to a lot of foreigners (like me). While we come from all over the world most of the foreigners around here share two characteristics. We are really “unique” and generally non-threatening. Walking home today I saw a mother grab her daughter and playfully whisper something into her ear. The little girl laughed and looked at me.
It wasn’t hard to figure out what the mother was saying . . . “There’s one! There’s one!”
Nothing new. That happens everywhere we go. It’s the price of being “unique” and non-threatening but I wonder if it’s different around our apartment where so many the foreigners live. Do Chinese parents elbow their kids and say, “hey we’re in foreigner country, pay attention you might see one”? Do kids keep track of how many they see? Do they dream about what it would be like to live the life of a foreigner and know that they would never like it?
As they passed the little girl smiled and gave me the all too familiar, “HALLO!” I smiled back and with the enthusiasm of an Amish Mickey Mouse said, “HALLO!”
Sometimes its good to see myself through the eyes that I use to look at the rest of the world.
I’m so Amish.
this post was originally posted on The Culture Blend