Tired Old Meme but Still I Respond as Would Pavlov’s Dog

I’m coming late to Stephen G. Bloom’s “Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life,” in the December Atlantic Monthly. (Thanks to Iowahawk – and for being Iowahawk.) A fly-over person, I remain surprised (so repeated rants here) by the insularity of people who after twenty years don’t enjoy the eccentricities of whatever culture they’ve been dropped in. Sometimes true of immigrants, it’s as often the experience of coastal people in the midwest.

I’m not from Iowa and Iowans can defend themselves. Some people do not view other’s religious beliefs as affronts to their own, for instance. I would like, however, to make two minor points. The first is what kind of journalism professor (and one with visiting gigs to more impressive schools) writes articles requiring the closely packed concluding two paragraphs of “Corrections” either he or the Atlantic Monthly felt the need to add. Those of us who dabble in personal narratives often make mistakes – I’m as prone as the next. But, this was not a casual blog post, rather it’s a lengthy essay on an edited site. (For instance, he was probably paid.) And those corrections are an interesting window into Bloom’s mind – of what he is sure he knows, of how he teaches.

The second is his argument that the mid-west has always been homogeneous. Of course, Iowans import Chinese students:

Few speak passable English, almost all congregate in majors that require little English (math, biology and actuarial science), and many drive around town in brand-new sports cars. It’s a strange sight to see in Flyover County — dozens of Chinese students moving together en masse, the girls chattering away in Mandarin, always holding each others’ hands. These wealthy, ill-prepared bonus babies are seen as the future of the University. If Iowa has fewer and fewer young people each year to fill the University’s cavernous lecture halls, and the state is still a tough sell to coastal American kids, then it’s China that’s the next frontier as state support for higher education dwindles.

I can sympathize – grading papers by non-native speaking students is seldom easy. My husband (a fly-over boy if there ever was one) has spent the last dozen years editing a scholarly journal in which many contributors are not native speakers. He has felt exhilarated about the communication across international lines as much as frustrated by the problems such work entails. But it is work. Again, Bloom hardly embraces his responsibilities, as journalist or teacher.

Difficulty in understanding the “other” is human nature. Still, he seems unaware that fly-over country accepted and assimilated large groups of immigrants for well over a century. In 1870, for instance, 25% of Nebraskans (a neighboring state) had been born in another country, although the large waves of groups coming to homestead on the plains was during the 50 years that followed. I grew up in a town of 500; my father said you could hear 3 or 4 languages being spoken on main street in the thirties. Fly-over country assimilated polyglot immigrant groups at the beginning of the century so well it was snarked at as too homogeneous by its end. Now, of course, the groups are different – the Hmong, the Somali, the Bosnians.

One of my brother’s roommates was from Pakistan. A sophisticated urban colleague chose to raise her children in a small north Texas town; her anecdotes describe the pleasure she got from its customs. She now finds herself with a jet-setting German Syrian son-in-law, whose grandfather had been killed by the late and unlamented Assad, senior. My husband and his cousins grew up in a town of 3000; one married a Chinese girl he met in dental college and another a Vietnamese girl he met in film school. Our daughter married a German, another is dating a Nebraskan/Thai from another American village. In fly-over country, work is important and ethnicity interesting, something to celebrate and enjoy. No, we don’t live isolated lives.

I wouldn’t mind the average academic’s xenophobia if proof of it weren’t almost immediately followed by remarks on other’s parochialism. My husband’s colleague, who clearly felt this cow college beneath him, was surprised at an opened book on my husband’s desk – it wasn’t in English. (And my children, my friend’s daughter, others who grew up in this great wasteland can handle several languages each.) Later, he mentioned how sad must be the lives of those in my husband’s (and his cousins’) home town. A renter who didn’t believe in paying rent proudly announced he was from Manhattan. Generally fed up, I asked if he meant New York or Kansas. My point, of course, was his parochialism, but I’m pretty sure it was lost on him.

Or was it? We all indulge in projection and often it is defensive; I find myself doing it, why should I blame others? But a sense of humor, a little more curiosity might make those like Bloom not only more knowledgeable but happier. A stronger sense of what motivates and brings pleasure to the people around you – after twenty years for God’s sake – might perfect a different tone but also develop sympathies. Bloom believes Obama’s statement about fly-over country was truthful, but surely he could understand why some might not see it that way. And he might give them credit for a deeper theology than some who dismiss others so easily. Certainly, the attitude toward religion of some of my husband’s colleagues borders on the bizarre (one said my husband was different from other believers – they thought, he said, that God was a bearded guy in the sky). Bloom apparently sees a “white” blob – even if his understanding is not statistically accurate. The state that (it would seem to me to its everlasting shame) catapulted the first African-American president to the front of the primaries might be given props for its choice not to see the world through a racial prism. That the man they voted for (as well as one they hired to teach their children) does is not a sign of their narrowness but rather his.

11 thoughts on “Tired Old Meme but Still I Respond as Would Pavlov’s Dog”

  1. One of my students a few years ago, is Chinese. Her mother was a professor at Beijing U. My daughter was interested at the time at improving her Mandarin and we talked about getting her into a history program that dealt with the terra cotta figures but it didn’t work out. My daughter is now in a five year PhD program in Spain and is fluent in Arabic. Personally, I would have preferred the Mandarin program which was difficult to gain admission to.

    My student had many interesting observations on Chinese life, for example, her father is a mechanic although he trained as a physicist. And her mother was advised not to marry him. He is Christian. She also has brother and I found the one-child policy is often evaded, especially by elites. My student frankly explained to me that she came to America to prepare herself to support her parents. She learned English (which is excellent in spite of her apologies) from a grandfather who returned to China at an inconvenient time (for him). She is now in a surgical residency planning a breast surgery practice. I consider that a complement. I hear from her from time to time. Her mother was here a couple of years ago.

  2. Yes – no native English speaker (or few) can reach the richness of Conrad, who went to his grave, apparently, with the thickest of accents. On the other hand, our language may be infinitely evocative but it can also appear infinitely complicated. A student this week wrote a brief paper on Diane Thiel’s “The Minefield.” He thought it was about the happiness of childhood and took “scattered” to mean a youth moving across the field in a scattered pattern. I’m not saying I don’t get equally narrowed readings from native speakers, but as I talked to him, I realized the problem was that he didn’t think of mine-fields as scattred with explosives but rather as a field where some mineral was mined. This can be remedied easily, but it is a step not always necessary with native speakers. I also think the idea of seeking lettuce because they hadn’t eaten in the great zone between Prague and Dresden sends off alarms that a culture less closely connected to Europe might not note. Here is the poem, which I like:

    The Minefield
    He was running with his friend from town to town.
    They were somewhere between Prague and Dresden.
    He was fourteen. His friend was faster
    and knew a shortcut through the fields they could take.
    He said there was lettuce growing in one of them,
    and they hadn’t eaten all day. His friend ran a few lengths ahead,
    like a wild rabbit across the grass,
    turned his head, looked back once,
    and his body was scattered across the field.

    My father told us this, one night,
    and then continued eating dinner.

    He brought them with him – the minefields.
    He carried them underneath his good intentions.
    He gave them to us – in the volume of his anger,
    in the bruises we covered up with sleeves.
    In the way he threw anything against the wall –
    a radio, that wasn’t even ours,
    a melon, once, opened like a head.
    In the way we still expect, years later and continents away,
    that anything might explode at any time,
    and we would have to run on alone
    with a vision like that
    only seconds behind.

  3. My daughter, the one who speaks Arabic, also can get by in Mandarin and has been to China a half dozen times. She has friends there and almost all Chinese college students speak English although they frequently revery to Mandarin in casual conversation. She has learned the lessons savvy kids learn by traveling. For example, don’t east the fluffy muffins in the breakfast shops you see everywhere. Detergent has been added to them to make them fluffy. Her brother, who has traveled extensively in Mexico says to always eat the meat that is covered with flies in the open air market. If it is not covered with flies, it has been sprayed with RAID. Little practical hints for the unwary.

    My partner, about 40 years ago, got an illegal alien nanny for his kids. She arrived direct from El Salvador and was sick for three days from the American water. EVery time I went to Mexico, I got sick, usually from ceviche and the raw fish. A bunch of us went on a race to La Paz about 30 years ago which was followed by a reception at the governor’s home. We were all sick for days. A famous sailor who had been on the race was still sick a month later until one of my friends told him to tale vibramycin. I’ve since learned that it is even effective in malaria.

  4. The trouble is – IMHO – with the illusions and delusions of the bi-coastal elite with regard to the denizons of flyover country; we (the people in flyover country) know them – the bicoastal elite, but they don’t know us. They know a caricature of us, gleaned from the droppings of Hollywood and television, and from friends of friends of friends of theirs who have actually (shudder) visited that vast hinterland between coasts, and of certain outposts claimed by the culturoi like Aspen, or Taos, or Austin. They know us through the prism of the likes of Professor Bloom (may his classes be lightly-attended and his pretensions be mocked mercilessly, as Iowahawk has already done)… but they don’t really know us.

    We know them – through having read their magazines, and watched them on TV for decades. We know them, at a geographic distance, of course. We know the restaurants that the glitterati and intelligentsia favor, the social displays that they prefer, the correct opinions (oh, key-rist! do we know the opinions) to be mouthed by the ‘in-crowd’, the favored accessories and fashion, the child-rearing strategies, and all the tedious minutia of their terribly interest and relevant lives … but they know nothing of ours; only the warped and inaccurate fun-house-mirror version of ours.

    I think that I could probably go to New York with access to the literary version of the glitterati through my books striking it big (hey, it could happen!), have a couple of media appearances, do some book events, check out a couple of cultural attractions, eat at some fantastic restaurants, connect with people – and have a perfectly wonderful time. I’m sure I would be able to conduct myself with aplomb and circumspection, and not find too much to be surprising … but picture a Nooo Yawk literary/intellectual type come to my town? Oh, dear. It is to laugh. Really.

  5. When I was married to my first wife, I knew some of the Hollywood crowd. Many of them, like Jane Russell who let us use her house for our wedding reception, never outgrew their roots, so to speak. Even though she had grown up in the San Fernando Valley, Hicksville for LA elites, she was more midwestern in her tastes. She ended up rich by buying real estate and saving every penny. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were similar savvy businessmen. In the old Hollywood days, the studios kept stars like Humphrey Bogart on a very short leash and didn’t pay them all that much. Old Hollywood mostly socialized with each other, often at each others’ homes. The flagrant spending and globe trotting we see with this generation was unknown. There was no way George Clooney could live in Italy or even Tom Hanks in Montana with the transportation system then. Newport Beach was an exotic locale for them.

    It’s interesting that, to me, old movies are much more representative of real life. Now it seems to be special effects or superheroes. I watch few movies since The Godfather.

    Actually, my first wife, who was an only child, looked down on my Chicago family who were of a different social class. This changed after our divorce, interestingly enough, but my mother and sister kept their distance.

  6. “was sick for three days from the American water”

    Yes, I’ve known a number of Mexicans who had the same experience. La Venganza de Pershing.

  7. I wonder if the old studio system wasn’t a better apprenticeship; lately we’ve been recording old movies from some of the movie channels and we are almost always happier with the coherence and writing of even the old film noir, cheaply thrown together, B movie. I suspect that those old studioes with their constant demands on everyone – writers, actors, directors, crew – helped people develop skills (the 10,000 hour rule). There may be more of that in television today. Not that I know anything about it except that some time in the 70’s or early 80’s Hollywood stopped making movies we like much, too.

  8. Sgt. Mom
    I’m sure I would be able to conduct myself with aplomb and circumspection, and not find too much to be surprising … but picture a Nooo Yawk literary/intellectual type come to my town? Oh, dear. It is to laugh. Really.

    In general, I would agree with you. There are exceptions. A relative by marriage is a Noo Yawk artiste – not a wordsmith. He is from flyover country, and owns a house in flyover country which is not located in a chi-chi place like Jackson Hole, Taos, or Austin. Most would call the town where he owns a house a S-kicker kind of place.

  9. I’m from Minnesota and I got quite a few chuckles. Bloom is a godless, socialist babykiller and his prejudices are obvious. Nobody is perfect. OTOH, he does turn a clever phrase.

    If people are willing to walk all the way from Argentina to Iowa in order to get a job, then that makes Iowa pretty special.

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