Sunday, October 9, 2011

I'm Covered in My Hair

New York, Pt. 2

I turned twenty-two today and my license expired.  I have to hope that no one looks at the expiration or are sympathetic to my situation.  I'm rarely carded now on account of my beard.  One of Olivia's friends is surprised when I tell her my age because of it.  A few grams of hair seem to add years to my face.

Olivia's friend, Lass Etahae, and I spend the day at the Natural History Museum, and it's awesome.  It's the perfect place to celebrate my birthday: amid taxidermied animals and Teddy Roosevelt quotes.  I'm glad Lass is patient as I nerd out on everything in the museum, explaining taxonomic differences between protostomes and dueterostomes and spewing anything I knew about the animals on display.  It ruled.  All I want to do is talk about biology forever.

After the museum, we return to Olivia's and the two of them fix a simple, home cooked meal.  I like the novelty of eating something home cooked in New York, or maybe I like the fact it's free.  We end the night at a barcade where I spend too much money.  It's a bar with old arcade games and I play a game with someone who shares my birthday.  It couldn't have fallen on a better place this trip.

The next day I get lost in Brooklyn and end up in the Hassidic community.  I go back later to take pictures.  An aryan with a facial hair gets a lot of uneasy glances around that area.  I could be projecting, or taking pictures there isn't common.  I start near a vendor selling materials for the religious holiday, Sukkot.  He's the second person to ask if I'm Jewish.  He says I can't take any pictures of him but I should get some of his wares and company banner.  He hustles me to agree to email him the pictures.  I don't know how I feel about giving him free advertisement after he orders me to take more pictures of his truck, or his bags full of sticks, or the Hispanic goy working for him.  Olivia throws out the paper with his email and I avoid an ethical dilemma.

There are beautiful women everywhere dressed in conservative spotted dresses and scarves.  All of them are with skinny, dweeby guys with curls and trench coats.  Olivia concurs with my statement.  I want to grab each of these girls and tell them how much more fun I am than their religious devotion.  Religious fundamentalism is despicable if only for the fact that it keeps these girls out of the general population.  I understand you're maintaining your cultural population, but at the humanitarian cost of confining these girls to their square clothes and marriages to guys with funny hats.

I ask a teenage vendor about the reeds he's selling.  He asks if I'm Jewish and says he doesn't speak English.  I can't tell if this is a way to ignore gentiles or if he actually can't speak English.  It seems genuine when he stumbles over sentence fragments to talk to me.

Isolation and Identity 

This isn't the first time I've seen complete isolation of a group from society.  In Virginia I went to an Asian buffet and asked the waitress where we were.  She didn't know.  How can someone live in an area and not know what it's called?

On my visit to Chinatown I see a precesion for the anniversary of the foundation of the Chinese Republic.  There are officials waving from balconies, uniformed guards marching with a flag, and onlookers saying things I can't understand.  Some of them seem interested, some indifferent, and the rest annoyed.  I have no knowledge of any of the cultural background information required to understand this.  Within a few city blocks are completely autonomous cultures separate from the majority.  

Most of the Hasids in Brooklyn have lived here their entire lives, but retain the same Central European pronunciations of their grandparents through their insular community.  I can't imagine the kind of confinement needed for that.  I guess at some point it's voluntary based on a cultural pride or lack of desire to assimilate into common society.  Although there are things like Rumspringa and the drug problem with Hasidic teens.  Without adequate cultural exposure, a sudden ability to endulge in vices can be destructive.

I think my confusion comes from my views on cultural identity.  It's not difficult to find people bound to their culture or race.  Ethnicities populate neighborhoods, fly flags and banners, and open a pub.  They subscribe to an identity in whatever word they place before "American" when describing themselves.

My ancestors are from the Midwest, but I'm not.  I have no exposure to distinctly German communities and I'm not sure I'd want to.  "German American culture" sounds boring, and I'm not Irish enough to jump into the drunken mob of half Irish who cry whenever they hear The Pogues.  I can't appeal to any cultural identity of my own.  Even my living in Florida makes me question my identity.  I've been raised in a state in the geographic South, but not The South, constituted by an urban majority of people from the North.  I can't even follow any demarcations across the Union.  I'm a Yankee to Southerners and not included in the South by Northerners.  I'm a non-regional American with no significant identifiers other than being from the East Coast.  That's why I took this trip, because fuck the West.

I've come to accept that my identity is one of a generalized American, lacking any connection to some country or ethnicity beyond that.  I'm from Florida and share the same cultural experiences as any white, middle-class kid from the suburbs, save for some environmental variation.  Anyone who watches media relating to an American experience not tied to a specific region has a direct exposé on what I and millions of other kids grew up in.  I used to despise the idea of this commensurablity with a white-bread generalized majority.  It's my identity, accessible though it may be.  I don't feel the need to do the typical thing of ethnocentric people and reduce my identity to what fraction of my genes are from which plots of land.  I'm not one thirty-second Cherokee or Czech, as though that would matter.  I'm not Irish or German enough to give a shit about either.  I am distinctly, categorically, and completely ordinarily American.  Maybe that's boring, but shut up, because you don't know shit about where I'm from that you didn't get from the T.V.

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