Who am I?

Posted May 20th, 2010 at 4:11 pm (UTC-4)

As your mother might have told you when she nagged you to scrub your face and comb your hair, how we look and what we wear say a lot about us.

We make assumptions about people based solely upon their appearance. Disheveled young man: rock-band drummer? Neatly attired older woman: librarian, or maybe a banker? Muscular fellow carrying a lunch pail: blue-collar working stiff.

But as my mother often said, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” (She was big on aphorisms.)

And how right she was. What if the natty lady is not a librarian but the rock musician, dressed up because she has a day job at an insurance office? What if the disheveled fellow is the construction worker who couldn’t string two notes together? The strapping specimen could be the librarian. He just happens to work out and kinda likes lunch pails.

Looks can be deceiving, as Mom Landphair alternately advised.

Without trying, people give us broad visual clues about who they are and what they care about. And Americans, in particular, are quite deliberate about it.

On the Washington Metro subway each day, thousands of people wear sports gear. A New York Yankee baseball cap, perhaps. Or an authentic Washington Capitals hockey jersey, draping clear to their knees. Maybe a purple-and-gold “Property of LSU Athletic Department” tee shirt.

Trust me, not all of these folks are athletes. For sure, they’re not Yankee or Capital or Louisiana State University players.

But there’s a good chance that the guy in the Yankee cap is a Yankee fan — maybe even a New Yorker. He’s as much as announcing it by wearing the blue and white, intertwined “NY” on his head. It wouldn’t be a stretch to peg the tee-shirt wearer as an LSU student or graduate, or at least a proud Louisianian. And it’s a good bet that anyone who would don an expensive, full-length hockey jersey, especially one of the thousands you see with the name “OVECHKIN” and the number 8 stitched on the back, is a hard-core local hockey fan. For those of you in countries that don’t have sheets of ice, Capitals’ star Alex Ovechkin is rated the world’s best, or close-to-best, hockey player.

Sometimes, too, you see elderly bald men or 150-kilo women in Caps’ jerseys with their own names sewn on the back. I find that a little creepy.

Americans openly wear labor-union buttons, crosses and other religious symbols, and colored ribbons that support the fights against scourges such as cancer or autism or drugs. I’m seeing more and more young people of all races affecting a rapper look: garish jewelry, plain dark tee shirt, dark hat cocked sideways. These folks are saying something, all right — something not-so-vaguely hostile. “You wanna make something of it?”

On my sports coat, I often wear a distinctive red, white, and blue “VOA” lapel pin, ignoring the Voice of America’s inexplicable color-scheme switch to blue and green a few years ago.

The messages can get quite specific. Americans wear VOTE!” or “Support the Troops!” buttons. We slap stickers on our car windows or bumpers that read, “My Daughter Made the Honor Roll at Millard Fillmore High!” Do they know that this can prompt a hostile response: “There goes another pushy parent”?

I keep waiting for the sticker that reads, “My Kid’s Just Average at Hannibal Hamlin High!” (Hamlin, in case you’re crazy with curiosity, was one of Abraham Lincoln’s vice presidents.)

Bumper stickers can be witty and inoffensive:

“Boldly Going Nowhere.”

“Stoplights timed for 35 mph. Also for 70 mph.”

“Honk if You Love Peace and Quiet.”

They also serve as passing soapboxes: “Save the Whales” — or the Wolves, or the Bay, or the Great Crested Newt. “Jesus Saves” is also pithy, pointed, and popular. “Kiss Me, I Recycle” is both deft and clear. The message has to be simple. There’s no room on a bumper sticker to explain exactly how we can save western wolfpacks.

Americans also pour a lot of creative energy into devising ingenious “vanity” license plates. In place of the state-assigned plate number, we substitute our own names, mushy nicknames for our spouse or pet, or clever wordplays that are just tame enough to pass state censorship. “DE-WIFED,” for instance, tells a lot about the car’s owner.

In our increasingly polarized political environment, our badges and stickers are becoming more strident and partisan. We just got over a spate of “Bush Lies!” stickers and pins, only to see a raft of “Obama is a Socialist” ones today.

It’s easy to guess how a person wearing a “Hey Barack, I’m Ba-roke” button feels about the president. Or where someone whose car bumper proclaims, “Guns Don’t Kill People; Abortion Clinics Do” stands on TWO combustible issues of the day.

From my own limited observations abroad, and from what my VOA colleagues who were born and reared in other cultures and often revisit their homelands tell me, this pent-up desire to tell the world how we feel or what team we follow has not yet swept the world. It is largely an American passion — or fashion.

A fellow in Delhi might wear a San Francisco Giants baseball cap without even knowing exactly what the “SF” on the cap stands for, what sport the Giants play, or much at all, if anything, about San Francisco. He’s wearing it because it’s American, modern, or sharp-looking.

Needless to say in a dangerous world, not everyone feels as free as Americans to walk the streets wearing more provocative symbols or slogans.

If I wore an “Impeach Obama” pin around Washington, it’s highly unlikely that it would convert an Obama supporter into a conservative Republican, let alone help trigger an impeachment drive. Likewise, an “Obama is Beautiful” button would just draw a snigger from a “Tea Party” ultra-conservative.

But wearing our emotions, preferences, or hometown pride on our sleeves, lapels, or bumpers — or atop our heads — can increase human contact.

I just assume that a Metro rider who’s wearing a St. Louis Cardinals hat is inviting me to ask if he’s from Missouri, or Cardinal fan. If the answer is affirmative and friendly, it won’t be long before we’re talking baseball, Midwest geography, or St. Louis beer. And I’ll likely give this fellow and his family all sorts of tips for their visit to the nation’s capital.

Of course, as a kitty lover, I wouldn’t know what to say to a person on the Metro who was wearing a pin that says, “Cat. The Other White Meat.”

Where Am I?

If you’ve been with me since I started blogging two years ago, you may recall that I grew up in a lower-middle-class household where no one owned, or even drove, a car. So my chances to explore the country were limited, my geographical curiosity outsized, and my longing to travel profound.

When those chances arrived in adulthood, I jumped at them. One of my early jobs — covering the odd combination of education and sports for the National Observer newspaper — took me to towns across America, whose museums and historical societies I couldn’t wait to explore. On a big U.S. wall map at home, I stuck a pin into the name of each place I visited and even strung twine to show the routes that I took to get there.

It was a proud moment when I could inform all who would listen that I had at last visited my 50th and final state: North Dakota, on the Canadian border in the often-frigid, rather empty northern plains.

Craig Wilson, a creative USA Today newspaper columnist, awakened those memories in a recent column when he asked a simple but difficult question: “What constitutes a visit?”

Does it have to involve an overnight stay? A drive-through? Of what duration? Would sticking a toe into a new state count? How about dropping out of the sky for an hour or two on a connecting flight, perhaps never leaving the plane. For it to count as a visit, must one have a meal or a drink?

Wilson, drat it, never answered his own question.

I can’t remember my own criteria when I strung the yarn from pin to pin on my map. Today, I’d say that one has to get enough of a glimpse of the terrain, and talk with enough people in at least part of a state to be able to discuss the state some time later. Merely stepping across Stateline Avenue from Texarkana, Arkansas, into Texarkana, Texas, in order to check off “Texas” on your list of states visited wouldn’t cut it, since one side of Stateline looks pretty much like the other, and because you’d still have almost 700,000 square kilometers of Texas to see.

By the way, the only state left on Craig Wilson’s “to visit” list is also North Dakota. If I were on the North Dakota Promotion Council, I’d push for a new tourism slogan.

Something like “Save the Best for Last!”

What Am I?

Ethnicity and ethnic heritage are hot-button topics in the United States. Witness the furor over legislation in the Southwest state of Arizona that’s aimed at identifying, prosecuting, and deporting illegal aliens, nearly all of whom are Latino. Arizona’s education chief also advocated, and the governor signed, a measure aimed directly at the city of Tucson, near the Mexican border, where more than half the school population is Latino. Schools there have long taught a course in Mexican history and culture.

Those who oppose such a course say it perpetuates ethnic separation rather than assimilation. You’ll recall from my last posting that, for much the same reason, the State of Louisiana ordered that all school instruction, even in primarily French-speaking “Cajun” districts, be conducted in English.

There are hundreds of ethnic societies, museums, and cultural centers across the nation. A few that I’ve visited include “Little Norway” in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin; the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture in Chicago; the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina; and the Gullah Heritage Trail in South Carolina’s Sea Islands. (The Gullah people, who maintain a distinctive African language, are descendants of slaves, mostly from Angola.)

Critics of Tucson’s Latino-heritage program argue that there’s a big difference between those cultural programs and what Tucson is up to. They say a Scandinavian village in Iowa, say, enlightens outsiders — non-Scandinavians — about a culture. Tucson’s program on the other hand, they argue, teaches Latino children things they already know about themselves and foments cultural separatism.

Supporters, as you might expect, counter that such programs foster ethnic pride within a population that is often stigmatized as second-class.

Washington, D.C., is packed with ethnically-oriented national museums. They include the National Museum of the American Indian, the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of African Art.

Among them is a small, new one that is raising some eyebrows. It’s the German-American Heritage Museum, installed in a downtown Victorian row house. The museum tells the story of — and this would surprise a lot of Americans — what is historically the nation’s largest immigrant group. Washington Post writer Marc Fisher reported that the museum’s supporters — rebuffed 20 years ago when they offered to help finance the national Holocaust museum if it would balance its exhibits on Nazi atrocities against Jews with a section on the positive, democratic changes in postwar Germany — “counter[ed] the Holocaust museum with one of their own.”

Reudiger Lentz, the German-American museum’s director, adamantly denied that putting the Nazi era to rest had anything to do with opening his facility. He insisted that “its focus is on German immigration to the United States since 1607,” not on whitewashing an odious chapter in German history.

I’ve long wondered if some of the suspicions and friction created by ethnic-solidarity efforts could be assuaged with a simple flip-flop of words. If the first word were always the same — “American” — and the second identified the nationality being preserved, explained, and promoted, might a greater good as well as ethnic interests be served?

The unique heritage of American Irish, American Africans, American Italians, American Germans and the like — just like that of American Indians — would be maintained and highlighted. And so, too, would the home that they share today.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Aphorism. An easy-to-remember saying, carrying advice on how one should conduct his or her life.

Impeach. Formally, the term refers to an accusation or indictment by a legislative body. The term is often mistakenly thought to refer to the conviction, or even removal, of an officeholder. More loosely, to impeach something — say one’s credibility — is simply to challenge it.

Natty. Dapper and up to date in one’s dress or appearance.

Pithy. Simple, direct, to the point, using few words.

Rebuff. To bluntly and forcefully reject or refuse something.

Soapbox. While a soapbox can in fact be a box holding soap, the term more broadly recalls the pre-amplification days when speakers would have to stand on raised platforms in order to shout their messages to large crowds. “Getting on one’s soapbox” means to vigorously rant on a subject.

4 responses to “Who am I?”

  1. stefbov says:

    >I live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, born in Milwaukee, but raised in Pine City Minnesota, located along the intersection of Cross Lake and the Snake River, which flows into the St. Croix River, which joins the Mississippi.I loved the essay; I've been in a creative writing for publication class off and on since 1994. Gail Grenier Sweet is my great teacher. I've written about a dozen banker's boxes of books. Published about 6 essays in Mental Health World (now defunct).I just watch the movie "The Gift" by Billy Bob Thornton, which had a great mysterious swamp feel, murder, and all the violence that takes place in the swamp.

  2. Scho says:

    >Assumably and depending on where you are, there are parts of USA that are not that caucasianized or westernized or even modernized. For example big cities like New York. New Yorkers are multi racial, multi religion, multi tradition, multi custom and a lot of multi somethings. Not that I have been there before but from the sources which I know. Who am I is a philosophical question. Myself, well, everyday you walk along the streets and you see people. Many times you do not know these people. You know some like your own colleagues, your family members and people whom you have more than one contact with. I am one of those people who walk along the street, who pass by you and you would not know. Just a figure of speech. Of course, you know a bit more through my blog. Hawaii will be quite different. It is tropical. Away from the mainland. Many Asians would feel more at home there. A lot of people love the USA. They love the sport bicycles. They love the movies, the stars, the fashion, the religion. If anyone wishes to make it big, they will have to move on especially to New York, center of creativity or Paris for that matter. After a while they might consider being American citizens. The first word American denotes which country of citizenship. The second word will be their actual ethnicity. There is nothing to be ashamed of because this is to tell others something about yourself. People cannot be stereotyping and think that every American thinks the same, talks the same, acts the same. They have their similarities as well as differences.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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