Goin’ Down South

I’m road tripping.  This has always been my favorite state of existence. As a child I took long journeys during the summer with my folks, who as teachers had long summer holidays.  The longest with them was from Long Island to Alaska by car.  I was pretty young, but the back of the Volkswagon van and state parks rank as some of my clearest and best childhood memories.  While other kids were at summer camp doing whatever kids do at summer camp, I was pretty much living in state parks, hiking, fishing with my dad and eating lots of bologna sandwhiches. We never actually caught any fish. I think my dad did that on purpose.

I never went to Disneyland, but spent weeks in gorgeous places like Yellowstone, Glacier and the Badlands.  It was awesome.  As a teen I went on a 50 day cross country trip with classmates that took me to nearly every state.  After university I drove solo cross country twice.  There is really no location I find more comforting and enjoyable than the distance covered between two places.


If I marry, that woman better be OK with bug spray as perfume, sleeping in tents and showering with a cold water hose in a Canadian provincial park.  If I have spawn, they will meet moose and bear before I trust them around Mickey Mouse.  I’m a believer that if you want to grow up in America you need to spend some time growing up on the road.  The vast roads and natural beauty are probably my favorite things about the US.

This trip has me going from pretty much the Canadian border to Florida along I-95.  Somewhere between Philadelphia yesterday and North Carolina today I passed into “The South.”  I love the South but find it foreign, amusing and occasionally a little scary in that “Deliverance” way.  I suppose I officially crossed over at the Mason-Dixon line, but it hit me when I stopped to eat at “Bojangle’s Chicken & Biscuits.” A smallish southern fast-food chain, basically a KFC or Popeyes. The food wasn’t particularly different, though the “fixins menu” included dirty rice, Cajun pinto beans and grits. A “Yeah, I’m in the South now” moment to be sure.

The accents, attitudes, posture, clothes, mannerisms and many other subtle changes became immediately, though almost imperceptibly, different.  As an American I immediately felt them.  When I first moved to Tokyo, these sorts of differences in Japan were completely invisible to me.  I dated Japanese girls, who had I met their American equivalent would never have been likely matches.  I became friends with folks who were wildly different from the type of person I’d normally hang out with.  Because they were simply Japanese to me, all the other cultural, social, political or educational differences were moot.  They were just Japanese.

I went to the Sanja Matsuri festival every year.  A crowded, monstrosity of a festival with something like a few million participants each year.  But it was only after about 5 or 6 years in Japan, as I was wandering through the back alleys of the festival snapping photos, eating, drinking and making merry that it hit me.  Oh my God… these are the same people who go to state fairs in the US.  I am not a butter sculpture, pie eating contest and fried cola at the state fair kind of person.

I’m not saying this to sound judgey or elitist. Quite the contrary, it was kind of fantastic in Japan having zero preconceptions of people based on the thousands of little things we use in our home countries/cutures by which to categorize people as being “my kind of people” or not.  They were just people… fun, interesting and wonderful people.  When the South was recently turned into a disaster area because of two inches of snow, I immediately thought in snarky New England style, “Of course, it’s the South. They can’t drive in snow.”

I remember when I first moved to Los Angeles my East-coaster relocated uncle warned me, “Just because there are palm trees, doesn’t mean it is a good neighborhood.” It was true.  My natural sense of “good” or “bad” neighborhood didn’t apply in LA.  This same uncle also told me “Oh good!  You are living in a 310 area code. You don’t want to be in an 818 area.  Nobody takes that phone number seriously.”  That was a truly frightening statement to me, but seemed like an obvious one to a lot of folks I met in LA.

As my knowledge of Japan grew, I’d say in some ways I became more ignorant.  I lived next door to former Prime Minister Taro Aso for a time in one of the  nicest neighborhoods in the country.  But my time spent in east Ikebukuro (not the nicest!) was easily the best.  I went out for drinks with my ardently Nationalist neighbor, and swapped recipes with the housewife next door. It is a natural part of the brain to start categorizing, but categorizing doesn’t really add to our understanding or enjoyment. Anyone who has taken a foreign visitor around Tokyo knows that they will probably get as much enjoyment (if not more) out of a visit to a low-rate izakaya than they will from a high-end fancy ryoutei.  When you see the bill, however, you immediately think, “OH! That WAS a good meal.  I didn’t really enjoy it, but it was good!”  It’s kind of like watching people who don’t know anything about wine choose bottles based on labels.

I’m trying to apply that same logic to North Carolina, but a lifetime of “understanding” the US invades my thoughts and leaves me laughing to myself… “Ooooh Southerners.  Do you really need to wear full camo gear to the Wa-wa?  Are the canned goods in aisle 4 going to get spooked and run if they see you coming?”  This is the reaction I did NOT have to a drunken Japanese construction worker in an ill-fitting jimbei showing off his neck tattoos to a bleached blonde overly fake-tanned Japanese girl in a florescent pink Don Quixote yukata. I just thought, “I want to get a beer with that guy.”  The more I learned about Japan the more I pigeonholed myself into what I conceived as my appropriate section of society.

I’m attempting to be more open to the awesome variety inherent in having 50 states.  I’ve started looking at jobs and thinking about a place to live while I’m back here.  I saw an opening at a TV station in South Dakota.  I immediately laughed when I looked and saw the top news story on their site was “Man Uses Cattle to Propose to Girlfriend.”  I laughingly mentioned it to my Dad who reminded me… “South Dakota is a beautiful place.”  He’s right, and I think 10 year old Kevin would have agreed.  10 year old Kevin was a truly adventuresome kid with an open mind.  I need to be more like him.

So… I put it to you.  If you had an open road, to go anywhere, preconceptions aside.  Where would it take you?