Thursday, July 23, 2009

Confessions of a Transplanted Hillbilly

Have you ever had a window seat on a domestic flight? Did you happen to look down at some point once you reached cruising altitude? You know where this is going, don't you? I'm from an area that is frequently labeled "Fly-Over Country".

I do remember thinking that those airplanes looked really, really tiny when I'd see them flying above as a child. My home town is located in the Southwest corner of the Show-Me State. Joplin, Missouri is proud to be the capital of the four-state region, sharing its fancified services with residents of neighboring towns in Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas. Although I have not possessed a Missouri address or driver's license in nearly fifteen years, I still qaulify as a transplanted hillbilly. You might say, "But Missouri is flat!" The Ozarks are not flat, and those hills are my cultural roots!

Sometimes it's fun to recollect the moments of my life spent in Paris, London and New York City, where my hillbilly origins managed to illuminate the cosmopolitan shadow of city life.

My baptism by fire into the realm of mundane city dwellers occurred at the tender age of 15, in a city no less glamorous than Paris! And that's the one in France, not Texas. I spent a month living with a French family in the chichi 7th Arrondissement. Oui, dans le septieme. The family was descended from nobility, no less. I remember glimpsing the French mother for the first time at the airport sporting a short spiky do, a black leather mini-dress and a pure-bred dog on a leash. I knew then that I would have to muster some chutzpah to survive those four weeks. Surprisingly, we hillbillies don't have a corresponding term for chutzpah! 

Among the more notable initiation experiences of that month was my introduction to my host sister's pimp boyfriend.  Apparently French nobles tend to rebel as teenagers.  This preppy young man in his early 20's told me that he could get a high price for me due to my exotic Amercian hairstyle and a darker skin color than he had seen on many blondes.  I think that was a polite way of telling me that Redneck women were a rarity in Paris.  It is of course possible that he was not really a pimp and this was a fun ruse to play on the hillbilly freshman!  My first foreign exchange experience was also my initial exposure to the subway.  The very first time I rode the Paris metro I fell down when the train started moving.  I didn't realize people were supposed to hold on to the bars! I was so proud to learn to balance on two feet without holding on by the end of the month.  I think it changed my life forever!  Another eye-opener was the plate of raw meat that arrived when I ordered Steak Tartare for the very first time.  No one explained that the dish would not be cooked--my host family quite enjoyed my shocked reaction!  I ate it.  I eat tartare of various kinds to this day. Tripe was the one thing I would not try.  I am sure there are hillbillies who enjoy pig and cow intestines but I will never be one of them.  The sheer volume of wine that I was offered and gleefully consumed as a minor made each humiliating experience well worth the effort. 

My next foreign exchange experience occurred at the age of 17 on a different continent.  Luckily my host family in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, were much friendlier than my first Parisian acquaintances.  Also a French family hailing from Paris, these folks were better able to relate to a country girl from the USA.  They taught me to sing the French national anthem at the top of my lungs and are still some of my most loyal friends.  I smoked my first cigarette in Abidjan, and some French expatriate boys tried unsuccessfully to teach me how to dance the Swing.  My glaring hillbilly habit on this trip was a constant effort to capture the local African population on film.  I took home photos of some very angry Ivorian children who must have wondered why in the hell I was gawking and acting like a novice paparazzi.  These photos were published in my high school newspaper.  Hillbillies back in the 1980's did not cotton to politically correct behavior, much to my sincere regret. 

During college, graduate and law school I was able to continue my sophisticate initiation process in Paris and then in NYC.  It's hard to say if the initiation ultimately failed or succeeded.  From a culinary standpoint, I'd have to say I will now eat almost any type of seafood raw, including sea snails and live oysters.  Ironically, I ate crawdads for the first time in France and not in the backwoods of my childhood.  Foie gras never grossed me out and I apologize to every member of PETA for this fault.  Some of the more enlightening conversations I had during these years included answering questions like, "What do people talk about in places like Missouri?  Farming?", "Do you know anyone in the Ku Klux Klan?", and "Did any of your cousins marry each other?"  These questions are actual quotes, and not jokes.  I will not name those who asked the questions but let's just say that they were either East Coast educated collegiates who became curious after a few drinks, or French people who had been influenced by television coverage they had seen of an American wedding inside of a Wal-Mart.  I truly did see this French television feature on American redneck culture, and I have to say that it was investigative journalism at its best!  I honestly saw a Wal-Mart bride, but not while living in Missouri. 

Fortunately for me, no one ever physically attacked me for my ignorance upon first arriving in NYC as a grad student.  I did, however, have one notable clash at a late-night party.  I will readily admit that the majority of southerners and midwesterners are Christian, and Protestant at that.   The Catholics and Jews do quite well, but we WASPS have them fairly well outnumbered where I am from.  One young man decided to take this up with me, again after having consumed a few glasses of cheap wine at some dude's apartment in the East Village.  "There were no Jews where you grew up.  How could you know anything about Jewish culture or history?"  I answered, "Well, actually, a decent number of my neighborhood friends were Jewish and I visited the town synagogue for field trips.  We learned about Jewish holidays in my grade school.  The class below me had a Jewish homecoming queen.  What's your point?"  The guy literally pushed me outside into the hallway of the apartment building and told me that I was a racist hick and should shut up or someone might knock me out.  This is not an exaggeration. 

I doubt that the young man referenced in the paragraph above possessed entirely accurate knowledge of my childhood religious education, but he may have picked up on some of my politically incorrect hubris which was later uncovered during my year working as a lawyer in London.  My casual boyfriend at the time was Jewish, hailing from Israel by way of Tunisia.  He had both an American and an Israeli passport and liked to travel as an Israeli.  It just so happened at the time that my younger sister was dating a Tunisian Muslim.  My sister and her Muslim boyfriend were living in Paris while I was in London.  Somehow we decided that it would be fun to spend Christmas with our Jewish and Muslim casual boyfriends in a rented house in the French countryside.  My hillbilly Mom met us there and we also invited some French Catholics up for one night.  This already sounds like the beginning of a bad comedy or a B horror movie, right?  My sister and I said to each other, "at least they can talk about their common Tunisian background".  Needless to say, it wasn't a perfectly comfortable Christmas.  In the end, we skipped the midnight mass at the village cathedral because Avi and Chiheb had nearly managed to burn down the rented house.  They got along quite well, but their point of bonding was getting a good fire going in the fireplace.  They decided that adding some cooking oil to the already burning logs would be a good idea.  We had to open every window in the house to be able to breathe, and since they made me miss church on Christmas and couldn't have cared less themselves, I had no desire to speak to either of them for the remainder of the evening.  Later on, Avi had a good time grilling my French friends on the racist and classist structures inherent in French culture.  Good times were had by all.  That's what happens when two hillbilly sisters try to plan a religious summit.  I suppose we should stick to our barbecue and church pot lucks! 

In all seriousness, Fly-Over Country is little known and very misunderstood by many people living on the Coasts.  Those of us who come from this area of the country are quite genetically diverse as compared to many of our East Coast peers, contrary to popular belief.  The pioneers who went West upon reaching American soil did tend to shed their languages and cultures of origin more quickly than those who simply dropped their bags in New York.  Irish, Italian, German, English, Polish... it didn't really matter if they could all rely upon each other to build communities in a far-flung land that had taken tremendous courage and strength to reach.  My grandmother did actually travel in a covered wagon at one point.  I do have Native American ancestry on both sides of my family.  People do talk about going to pow wows on weekends where I am from.  I can proudly say that one of my direct ancestors, coincidentally from France, fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union.  The education range in my family varies widely, with two of my grandparents having gone to college, and probably at least half of my family possessing degrees beyond a B.A. or a B.S.  It is true that my family members who stayed in Fly-Over Country are Republicans for the most part.  It is true that we eat food such as biscuits and gravy, which I cannot ever seem to find in New York.  It is also true that we don't really like it when people refer to our home of origin as Fly-Over Country. We'd prefer that the city sophisticates visit places such as the Ozarks themselves before making any cultural, much less genetic judgments!  We could all stand to be a little more polite and a little less politically correct. 

Yeeee-ha!!  God Bless the USA. 

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