Joe Anthony, of Lexington, Ky., writes about how we are all the same—yet different.
My wife and I and our 14-month-old daughter moved from New York’s Upper West Side to Hazard, Kentucky, in August 1980. Culture shock is what people gasp when they first hear that. Culture shock. I’m trying to think what they mean by that term.
I’ve written a couple Appalachian novels and some stories where I play with the outsider/insider theme—showing how different expectations, different stereotypes, and different ways of communicating all make for an unexpected mix. Perhaps that’s culture shock. You expect certain things, certain reactions—or you don’t expect them and you get them. Did I know I was in a different place when I first moved to Hazard?
Not really. Of course, there were the mountains. And accents. But I had taught in Brooklyn. You want accents? Spanish, Russian, Inner-city Black, African, and so on. At least Hazard’s accents were more or less the same—though deep in the county, places like Bulan, Kentucky—they were a little hard on the ear. But even then, you just needed a pause to understand. Like old fashioned-long-distance telephone calls. “Oh, that’s what he said.”
So a place with accents—like Maine—only with mountains. How pretty. Look how the fog catches in the valleys in the morning, how it coats the rivers. But just a different part of America. The same people.
A school of thought exists, a philosophy, a theology, that all people are the same. I’ve lived my life on that premise, and my writing, both on Appalachia and on race, center around that idea. But I’m not sure. Sometimes the foreign is so distinct that one wonders: how do I understand this?
My first inkling that I was in a different place was the wary friendliness I encountered. I gradually understood that they had an idea of a New Yorker that didn’t match who I was. Brash self-confidence wasn’t my style. A certain cognitive dissonance occurred as they tried to adjust what they saw with what they expected.
On the other hand, they expected me to fit them into stereotypes. But they again underestimated how ignorant I was: I didn’t know the stereotypes. I only learned the stereotypes after I had seen the reality. That’s not the natural order for embracing stereotypes: they really can’t take root.
Of course, I understood quickly when I’d be invited to insult Appalachians as in “You must think we talk terrible.” I had taught English in inner-city Brooklyn. I thought Appalachians’ English their English. But I could sense the hurt beneath the lead-in query.
My first real lessons in living in a foreign place were in finding that the way between two places is not necessarily a straight line: e.g., asking for something. For a small class, I had to ask all of the registered students if they had any problem with a changed time. I asked each one, personally, all twelve. No problem, all twelve answered. So I changed the time.
One hundred percent. Each of the twelve had a major problem: a conflicting class, a ride home missed, a child that needed to be picked up. All of them. But I had asked, I wailed.
Here’s what I think happened. I am not New York arrogant (I hope) but I am New York direct. Yes or no? Problem or not? I was ready for a no answer, but they perceived, correctly, that I wanted yes. So they said yes. Were they lying to me? No. They gave me soft yeses. Yessss. An Appalachian soft yes is a New York no. I would have known that if I had spoken the language. I would have pursued the question with “Are you sure?” and maybe then I would have heard of the child, or the class, or the ride. Maybe not. If it hadn’t been that all twelve students had problems, two or three would have kept quiet and quietly dropped. Better that than an unpleasant conflict. My New York students, stereotyping here a bit, wouldn’t have hesitated to tell me the facts—and maybe abuse me a bit for even asking.
I would tell my classes in Hazard that they were much more complicated in their communication styles than any New Yorkers I knew. They’d laugh and not quite believe me, but it was true. I’d think: what do they mean by that? Where are they coming from?
In my first novel, Peril, Kentucky, “playing” off Hazard, Kentucky, my main protagonist is a well-meaning New Yorker who plows ahead with her decent intentions—doing some good but so oblivious to where she is. Here are my words, she always seems to be saying. They mean this. They always mean this. How could they mean something else to you? I’ll say them again. Listen this time.
Terrible things happen. It’s not all her fault. None of it is morally her fault. But if she had been culturally humble, perhaps some of it could have been avoided.
“I don’t care to,” is the fun expression that sort of captures the foreign place my protagonist, Linda, and I both found ourselves in. In Jersey, it means you don’t want to do it. You want to play ball? “I don’t care to.” So my shock showed on my face when I asked someone to pass the salt and I got, "I don’t care to.” OK. You’re right. I should use less salt. Or. Do you mind if I reach? “I don’t care to.”
Of course, it means the exact opposite in Kentucky: I don’t mind at all doing what you ask. Almost everyone I know from the East has that story. I don’t know that it’s just a verbal tic. I think it might indicate a whole frame of communication that is different. In Jersey, we might respond with a “no problem” or “sure” or, more likely, silence and the salt. But in Kentucky, at least Eastern Kentucky, relationships were more like a dance with structured steps. And if you skipped those steps, or if you shorthand them as in my class time question, you wouldn’t get a full answer, or a coherent one. You got a sign that the conversation was happening on a different plane.
I got almost three books out of that ambiguity so I’m not complaining. So much more to say about culture shock: smiles that weren’t invitations in, but gates that kept you out. I haven’t mentioned the very different ideas concerning solitude, community, and isolation. But this is enough for now.