The rewards of culture shock
A transplanted New Yorker, Jerseyite muses on his time in Eastern Kentucky and the deeper meaning of ‘I don’t care to’ in the age of Trump
A view from Pine Mountain. (Getty Images)
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. I’ve written a couple of Appalachian novels where I play with the outsider/insider theme — showing how different expectations, stereotypes and ways of communicating — all make for an unexpected mix.
Perhaps that’s culture shock. You expect 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. At least Hazard’s accents were more or less the same, though deep in the county, places like Bulan were a little hard on the ear. But you just needed a pause to understand. Like old-fashioned long-distance telephone calls, the sense of what was said took a couple seconds to reach you: 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 that all people are the same. I’ve lived my life on that premise and my writing, both on Appalachia and on race, centers around that idea. But 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. Appalachians had an idea of a New Yorker that didn’t match who I was. 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, too. 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 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 12. No problem, all 12 answered. So I changed the time.
Everyone of the 12 had a major problem: a conflicting class, a ride home missed, a child who 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. Maybe still some would have kept quiet and quietly dropped. Better than an unpleasant conflict. I’m guessing my New York students would have told me the facts —and maybe abuse me a bit for even asking.
“You’re so much more complicated,” I’d tell my classes in Hazard. They’d laugh and not quite believe me, but it was true. I was always wondering: What do they mean by that? Where are they coming from?
In my first novel, “Peril, Kentucky,” (“playing” off Hazard) 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. “My words 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. But if she had been culturally humble, perhaps some of what happened 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. “I don’t care to.” So my shock showed when I asked someone to pass the salt and got “I don’t care to.” OK. You’re right. I should use less salt.
Of course, it means the exact opposite in Kentucky: I don’t mind at all doing what you ask. I think it might indicate a whole frame of communication that is different. In Jersey, we might respond with a “no problem” or “sure.” 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 spent only five years in Hazard. My Appalachian language skills have faded. I’ve been a Lexingtonian now longer than I was a New Yorker or a Jerseyite and speak fluent Lexingtonian. I cringe when Lexingtonians indulge in Appalachian-bashing. And they do. Now that our politics have separated to chasms, the bashing takes on more and more intensity. I am sad about Eastern Kentucky’s political slanting. But like much-loved relatives, I don’t want to cut off ties.
I don’t understand why they have turned to Trump, to be blunt, but I still love them. It’s more than a Bulan accent this time — I have to listen much longer than a few seconds — and I still don’t get it. What I won’t do is reach for easy explanations — racism or hurt feelings or hopeless poverty. I know that I’m an outsider and for all my striving, I really don’t understand.
That’s what cultural shock is all about: the understanding that people are really different, approach things differently. Don’t understand too quickly. Give it time. My Appalachian students and neighbors gave me time over the five years that we lived among them. They mostly forgave my foreigner missteps. They mostly put aside their own stereotypes of who a New Yorker or a Jerseyite should be. “You’re the only person from Jersey I ever liked,” one fellow told me. I just smiled in return, like a good Appalachian, absorbing but remembering the insult. I could have Jersey wise-guyed an answer, but I was learning Appalachian. Besides, he meant it as a compliment. I had surprised him out of his stereotype.
There’s so much I learned in my brief tenure in Appalachia: About isolation and community, smiles that invited you in and other smiles that kept you out. “I don’t care to” really says that I will make the effort you are asking me to make and I will do it cheerfully. We Lexingtonians can do the same with our Appalachian cousins. We have strong opinions and when asked, we need to state them. But when asked to understand, think, say, I don’t care to. In other words, make the effort. Then listen. The long-distance phone sounds might take a while. But given a chance, they finally arrive.
Surprise yourself out of your stereotypes. Culture shock is learning to live with differences; it’s not always pleasant. But it’s always interesting. And it’s always rewarding.
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