You know you are home when…
One of the most common questions you get as a returnee is probably “When did you feel like you were back in America.” (“What did you miss most?” Is another, but I’ll save that for another time.)
A friend of mine named Spring joked (maybe) that she asked a Japanese tourist this question and he said “When I got on the airplane and the flight attendants were ugly.” Harsh I know, but if you have flown an Asian airline you know that JAL and Asiana burn a lot less fuel because of their waif-ish flight crew. And the retirement is the same age as it is for beauty queens and Disney princesses. Though if terrorists were to seize the control of the plane I’d rather have 200 lbs of 48 year old, no-nonsense sass between me and a fiery death… not a Morning Musume reject who thinks being a cocktail waitress at 30,000 feet is as glamorous and liberating as it was in 1950’s America.
For me being in America didn’t really hit, mostly because of a thick wall of denial, until I was walking through Walmart. Walmart you will find is the distillation of America (good and bad) for many returnees. So much about Walmart or Target typifies America: its size, its customers, its staff, its selection of items. If archeologists of future generations (or invading alien species) unearthed a Walmart, like some Egyptian tomb, it would say a lot about present day America. But of all the myriad things you find there this had me muttering in aisle 243, “Ahhhhhhhhhmerica.”
First off, I was confused by the fact that it was beef jerky, not duck jerky. After all, this is merchandise for a show with “Duck” in the name, right? In Japan, I can almost certainly promise it would have been duck jerky. No one would have batted an eye. But being the only nation more obsessed with cows than India, it had to be beef. America is, by far the largest consumer of beef in the world. I actually saw a program on the Travel Channel yesterday titled Steak Paradise. And yes, from what I gathered its a show about people eating steak. Of course it had to be beef, because for some… “Duck… ewww.”
Food is undoubtedly one of the most revealing aspects of a nation or culture and part of our self-definition down to our very souls. Never impugn a Frenchman’s cheese, a Japanese person’s rice or a New Yorker’s pizza. Not if you plan to continue eating with teeth.
One of the questions Japanese most often asked me was: “So what is American food? You know besides burgers?” This question, harmlessly asked, caused me intense fits of inner rage. The burger, a fantastic dish when done well, is probably America’s most emblematic contribution to world cuisine. But the range of food you’ll find from Maine to Hawaii and Alaska to Florida is near unknowable. The idea that burgers are the sum total of all American eating was insulting. It is insulting because cuisine is so often viewed as an estimation of a culture’s level of advancement and refinement. “Burgers, huh?” Is to me the same as saying America is a nation of unrefined junk. Some may agree with that statement, but I never have and never will.
But the question, so often asked, gave me pause to really think, “What is the most definitively American food?” Oddly enough, I think the answer is jerky. Jerky, like any iconic food from any culture is born of history, environment and often necessity. Colonization and the centuries of “taming the west” are essential experiences in defining our American-ness. Though, the people already living there might have thoughts on how much taming it needed. That experience touches everything from our our vision of a manifest destiny, to gun ownership and a sense of American individualism. So, too, is the need for food that could travel long distances, last through harsh environments in sometimes unforgiving times.
I’ve noticed in my time living in London and in Japan that the period they find most captivating is the American Old West. The cowboy image defines America like no other for island nations that never had their own “go west young man” culture. One of my favorite questions to annoy Japanese people is the rhetorical, “Who was that famous Japanese explorer who discovered all those foreign places?”
There really is none.
The idea of going somewhere far from home, with little but some dried beef in your backpack and a general direction is one of the more interesting, noble and brave characteristics of American life. I’ve gone coast to coast by car six times in my life, a trip that takes about a week, longer when you have no particular place you are heading besides “west”. In every gas station along the way, you’ll find it unassumingly sitting by the cash register. Jerky, it’s what you eat ’cause sushi goes bad really fast when you’re on a 10 hour leg of a drive across Texas.
What do you think? What is your taste of home?