Looking for America
Ryan Kim ’14 wanted to discover what it means to be an American.
So last summer, the California native hit the rails, traveling 15,348 miles during the course of seven weeks. Not surprisingly, this exploration of country also became an exploration of self.
✪ New Orleans, Louisiana
My journey began in the Crescent City, where, two days into my trip, I began to feel as if I were in a foreign country. I was dazzled by the strangeness, the novelty of everything: brightly painted colonial French houses, jazz horns, dancing all night, bikini-clad greeters in the doorways of Bourbon Street cabarets, Mardi Gras beads and Spanish moss hanging from the trees, the steam of hot, powdered French beignets. On this second day, I took an eight-mile trek north of New Orleans into the city of Metairie in the thick midday humidity of the Southern summer. Seeking respite from the oppressive heat, I decided to stop at an unfamiliar supermarket called Dorignac’s.
Inside, I wandered around admiring some of the store’s unique features, like its aisles, which I learned were spaced 30 percent wider than the industry standard to accommodate elderly regulars. When I’d indulged my supermarket fascination and stopped sweating so profusely, I asked a passing employee for directions before leaving. I must not have enunciated clearly or spoken loudly enough, because he looked at me quizzically without response. But rather than recognize one of these obvious causes for his confused expression, I immediately leaned on my instinctual habit of noticing the exotic, and I asked him if he spoke English. Without waiting for his answer, I walked away quickly, cheeks still flushed, but now from embarrassment, leaving him both confused and affronted.
✪ Yazoo City, Mississippi
In Yazoo City, Southern hospitality was in full effect. I met a local family, the Adamses, and they spent an entire Saturday touring me through their hometown.
We started at 9 am with a family breakfast of bacon, eggs, and buttery biscuits for a grand party of nine. Then we covered what seemed like every inch of town, including the federal prison, a catfish farm, lumberyards, neighborhoods of dingy and destitute government-built housing, and wide boulevards of fancy homes with well-kept lawns and gardens. They showed me devastation wrought by a recent tornado. And we concluded the tour by observing monster-truck mud races.
That night I had dinner with three of my guides, and I felt comfortable enough to bring up the subject of regional accents. “I consider you all to speak with a Southern accent,” I said. “What kind of accent would you say I speak with?”
D’Ann, one of my hosts, stunned me: “We speak with su-thern draw-ul, but you, you don’t have an accent. You speak like an educay-ted person.” D’Ann and her sister-in-law, Libby, are teachers, and the man who sat between them, Paul, is an accomplished businessman.
On the playground growing up, my friends and I used to ignorantly adopt Southern accents to caricaturize simplicity and stupidity. I’d never thought about how that was probably rooted in a stereotypical belief in the cultural superiority of the Northeast and the West.
✪ Cadillac, Michigan
Hermann’s European Café and Hotel on the main street in downtown Cadillac is owned and operated by a world-renowned Austrian chef named Hermann Suhs. I’d walked into his establishment and proudly negotiated the nightly room fee down from $80 to $65 by taking Room 5, which had a broken air conditioner. I thought I’d simply open the window. Yet at 11:30 that evening, while I was brushing my teeth, I felt my room had become uncomfortably warm. I was dismayed to find a sign on the windowsill that read, “Do not open window.”
I disregarded the note and pulled up the shade, only to find another note taped to the glass, which read, “Seriously, do not open the window. The alarm will go off, and the police will have to come.”
Remembering that the hallway outside my room had been particularly cool, I decided to step out for a quick breather. As I was standing there, in the upstairs hallway of the seven-room hotel, above the restaurant, I heard a quiet click behind me. I turned in horror to find myself locked out—wearing nothing but boxers, with my mouth full of toothpaste. I spit the foam out at the back door of the building, and then I began knocking on the doors of the other six rooms. Finally, I managed to rouse an elderly man, bleary-eyed and reasonably suspicious. He gave me a cup of water to rinse out my mouth and called Chef Hermann to come rescue me. I waited for 20 minutes, feeling hangdog in the hall, as Chef drove over from his house by the lake to come open my door. Grumpily, with his shoulders slumped by interrupted sleep, he let me into my room. “I told you not to take Room 5!”
✪ Astoria, Oregon
While jogging along the tracks of the waterfront trolley in Astoria, Oregon, I came across a conveyer belt lifting thousands of small fish into an industrial building covered in grey sheet metal. I’d found Bornstein Seafood, one of the few fish canneries still operating in this historically maritime town. After I snapped a couple of photos and asked the workers lingering outside a few questions, the plant’s mechanical engineer, Rick, offered to give me a tour.
Inside this noisy metal box of a building, Rick steered me through a fantastically complicated maze of conveyer belts staffed by dozens and dozens of workers spread out along the assembly line. He explained every step of the process: sorting for deformities; removing the head, tail, and guts; packing in equally weighted boxes; conducting random inspections for waste efficiency and quality control; adding unique labeling dependent on destination; and following the procedures for refrigeration and shipping. Approximately 130 workers are paid about $10 an hour, working in 12-hour shifts to process 20–25 tons of fish every hour.
In about 45 minutes, I received a crash course in the vertical structure of the cannery business, from the way fishermen use phosphorus or plane-spotting to locate schools of fish to the fact that most of the sardines they process (the world’s largest sardine) are shipped to Asia and Australia for consumption, since Americans don’t have an appetite for sardines this size. At the end of the tour, I asked to capture Rick with a photo—wire rimmed glasses, Steve Jobs turtleneck, long grey ponytail, and encyclopedic brain of all things fish and machinery.
✪ Trinidad, Colorado
Though I’d taken the train into this attractive town with red brick-laid streets, I left Trinidad on a Greyhound bus to Denver, where I could switch to a train line that would take me to Iowa.
Interestingly, though perhaps more common than I’d realized, the bus met its passengers at a gas station that doubled as a bus stop, where the attendant inside printed tickets behind the counter. With nowhere else to be, I patiently stood outside, sweating, with my bags on an unshaded curb under a cloudless summer sky.
A few other passengers restlessly paced and grumbled, seeking reprieve from the afternoon’s dry, blazing heat. They made repeated inquiries as to the whereabouts of our ride, but their agitation did nothing to truncate the delay.
Amidst this simmering, the door to the station swung open, jingling with greeting bells. A teenager of maybe 17 strode out, wearing dark jeans and an overstuffed camping backpack, all as dirty as his blond hair. Unabashedly, although there was plenty of space around, he squatted just a few short feet away from me. I tried to mind my own business, watching cars pass on the interstate.
He looked up at me over his left shoulder and asked, almost rhetorically, “Waitin’ on the bus?”
“Awesome.” With little pause, “Hot dog?” He eagerly offered one of the steaming, plastic-wrapped purchases he cradled in each hand.
✪ Fort Madison, Iowa
During a casual ramble through town on my first day, I found Fort Madison’s historical society museum, housed in the former train depot, wedged between a busy road and two heavily used train tracks. There was an old man in front wearing a red cap and denim overalls stretched over his T-shirt and enormous belly, watering a small garden of shrubs and flowers. His name was Andy Andrews.
When he saw me, he dropped his hose and invited me inside to guide me through the small exhibit that documented his town’s history, all the while incessantly chewing an unlit cigar that wobbled precariously on his lower lip.
Over the next couple of days, I ran into Andy a number of times—and some of his fellow retirees, who also volunteer to keep the museum open. Andy made a conscientious effort to help me with my principal traveling objective, to familiarize myself with each town to the greatest extent possible, by introducing me to residents and inviting me to community events. I only had three days in Fort Madison, but friendships form fast in small towns and kind men are easy to like.
At the end of my stay, I went back to the museum to say goodbye and to return a bike I’d borrowed. Andy looked at me wistfully and said,
“Maybe if you ever come back, I’ll still be alive.”
✪ Malvern, Arkansas
I walked into the Hot Spring County Building looking for someone who could tell me about Malvern’s economic history. I was in the right place. County Judge Bill Scrimshire (“Call me Judge Bill”) and his pals were seated around the foyer of his office shooting the breeze about times present and past. They had me take a seat, offered me some coffee, and continued meandering their way through the last half-century, letting me interject with intermittent questions. I had a wonderful time listening as they remembered, misremembered, recounted, clarified, and verified facts and anecdotes against each other’s memories. I stayed on until the workday ended and the men stood up to go home.
The next day was my last in town. I swung back by Judge Bill’s office for yet another “farewell forever.” After he and I posed for a photo, his honor reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of change, which he dropped into my hand.
“You must be hungry as a traveling student. Get yourself some lunch! Here, is that enough?”
He turned around and marched into his office. I followed him in and found him digging through unruly piles of paper. He located his wallet, pulled out a five-dollar bill, and pushed it into my hand.
✪ Wells, Maine
A fleet of trolleys runs a continuous circuit through town, offering cheap rides to the tens of thousands of visitors who flood Wells every summer. After hopping off one of these trolleys to get some saltwater taffy at a beachside confectionary, I boarded another one on the other side of the parking lot. Not knowing that this wasn’t an official stop, I hopped up the stairs and was immediately berated by the driver. Though she shouted at me quite aggressively, she took no action to kick me off. I quickly sat down, but then found myself on the first bench directly behind her, in clear view of her rearview mirror in the otherwise empty car.
At this point, I felt pretty irritable myself, feeling unnecessarily reprimanded for a harmless and honest mistake. I stewed for a minute, wondering if I should make a retributive, sarcastic remark and return the negativity she’d given me. After all, I was 20, tired, and lonely after seven weeks on the train, and someone had to get it! I paused for a minute longer, just long enough to notice the warm breeze washing through the windowless cabin. I extended the pause and wordlessly acknowledged that most disagreements are rooted in misunderstanding.
I apologized. Perhaps the silence had cooled her down, as well. Unsolicited, she started to tell me about the town, and for several minutes we carried on a great conversation about Wells, about my travels, about her job.
When I disembarked, she didn’t punch my ride card, giving me the lift for free.
✪ Somewhere in the middle of America
I was aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder on a 46-hour journey from Chicago to Portland, Oregon, seated at a table in the lounge car to kill time watching cornfields.
A chubby preteen entered through the sliding doors ahead of me, clutching a deck of cards. I realized, as he did, that all the tables were full, so I invited him to join me at mine. We introduced ourselves, then I taught this 12-year-old Kentuckian named Cameron how to play War.
We flipped cards mindlessly, pushing them back and forth across the table, chitchatting. Cameron uncorked with little prompting, telling me a series of unconnected and delightfully earnest anecdotes.
I listened, amused and content, as he opined about anything that came to mind, from his disgust for Kentucky Fried Chicken to his distaste towards reading. “I’d rather eat a dog crap than read a . . . ” He couldn’t finish. But then, Cameron talked about his love for writing: “When we write at school, I just write . . . I just write paragraphs.”
It was peaceful; it was late afternoon, and we were chug-chugging our way across southern Wisconsin. Suddenly, Cameron stopped. He slowly cocked his head and stared at me with a suspicious squint.
For a moment, neither he nor I said anything. Then he asked, “So . . . do you wake up every day at six in the morning and go running or something?”
Though I’d felt relaxed throughout our conversation, Cameron had still seen me for who I was: a high-energy, intense person, the type who rose early each morning and “went running or something.” He revealed what I’d find all summer. I thought I was out studying strangers, when in fact I, too, was being dissected, inspected. I was meeting other Americans; they, too, were meeting me. And as they met me, I met me. It was easy to feel like a wallflower in unfamiliar moments, when I was watching the world operate as if I weren’t there.
But my presence was actually an intrinsic part of the novelty; I discovered myself as I discovered America. A foreign man in his native land.
Ryan Kim blogged extensively about his travels at ryankim.blog.com. This story arose from a spring-term independent writing course with Jay Parini.