Stranger in a Strange Land–The Rant of an Alaskan Living in the Midwest

Living in the Midwest makes me feel like a stranger in a strange land. Sure, I’ve had two children here, and married two Wisconsinites (and divorced one of them). And I’ve definitely lived here longer than I lived in Alaska, where my heart’s home is. But I don’t think I will ever feel like I truly belong here.

It’s not the land. Though it is lamentably short of mountains. The land is actually quite beautiful in Wisconsin, and I adore Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan makes up for not having mountains.

Nope, what bothers me here is the people. Because although the Midwest has plenty of cultural and ethnic diversity, it feels like that diversity is all on the outside of people. On the inside, people in the Midwest all seem to think the same. And it makes me crazy.

First of all, I have never lived in such a place for labeling people based on things that may not have anything to do with who they are. Chicago and Milwaukee, the two cities I’ve lived in here, both are tremendously segregated. Immediately your skin color, and a few other key indicators, tell people something about you, or so they think. And I hate that, because I. Didn’t. Grow. Up. Here. In the Midwest, my skin color says white suburbanite. And I hate that.

aerial view of McGrath
McGrath, Alaska, as seen from the air.

My childhood was largely spent in an Alaska Native village, and when I wasn’t there, I was typically in the Sonoran Desert south of Tucson. Never in a Midwestern suburb. My modern standard English–the dialect I speak–says educated, and it also says money. Some of that is true; I was privileged to receive a good liberal arts education, and I have a graduate degree. But YOU try working as a freelance writer and tarot reader and see how your money situation looks. White plus well educated does not equal swimming in money. I’m not complaining about that; I’m fine with it, and I think I’ve made progress in that area. (Plus, as long as I have plumbing, I will always feel rich. But more about that in a moment.)

What annoys me, when it comes to money stories, is the assumption that I’ve always been granted everything I wanted, like I had a white fairy godmother. If I really had had a white fairy godmother as a child, I would have asked for heat and for hot and cold running water. Also, I would have requested a reprieve from summer mosquitoes. Didn’t get any of those things consistently. Granted, my parents did buy me books at every opportunity, and that was a huge privilege. I appreciate it. If someone had said to me, you don’t have to use a honeybucket to go to the bathroom any more, if you’re willing to stop reading, I might have considered it, but I probably would have refused to give up my books.

Still, if I was a Midwesterner, we wouldn’t be having a conversation with the word “honeybucket” in it.

But honeybuckets are a mere plumbing issue. Just like walking a mile and a half to school, in the dark, when it was 40 below, and stopping halfway to take a shower at the city building and then having one’s hair freeze on the second half of the journey school, is mere weather.

So let’s talk culture. Where I grew up, it was okay to be quiet. Both in Alaska and in southern Arizona, there is enough native American influence that culturally, it is okay to be quiet. Actions do speak louder than words. One’s value is not measured in the amount of hot air coming out of one’s mouth. But in the Midwest, not so.

Where I grew up, it was standard not to waste stuff, and thinking that didn’t make you a radical leftist environmentalist. It was just common sense. If your neighbor went hunting (I grew up around subsistence hunters and fishers), and brought back a moose, the many parts of that moose would be used AND appreciated. That moose would feed a family for the winter. The moose hide would be made into mukluks and mittens and hats.

Where I grew up, elders were respected, and they did what they wanted to. Sometimes they disappeared because they decided to go walk somewhere, like through the Alaskan wilderness to the next town, and why should they have to answer to anyone? When elders came into the school to teach us skin sewing (you know, the art of making moose hide into mukluks and hats), our normally rambunctious group of middle-school-aged kids turned quiet and respectful, even though the elders who were teaching us said almost nothing. They showed us how to do stuff. Actions, not so many words. Because again, the value of a teaching is not measured in the number of words it takes to transmit it.

San Xavier Mission
San Xavier del Bac, south of Tucson, on the Tohono O’odham reservation.

In the Southwest, I observed a lot of respect for elders, too. And there, I also learned from the missions, and the old historic churches, each of which has its own presence. The missions, in a sense, are elders too.* And it’s also okay to be quiet in church. (In case you don’t know this, I am a quiet person.)

In both the Southwest and Alaska, I learned respect for nature. I learned planning for the challenges that nature might throw at you. Because nature is bigger, and stronger, and more unpredictable than you are. It contains stuff that can kill you, and will. Both places had animals that could turn up right outside your front door and kill you. (My parents, for some reason, had a penchant for living in places where the yard can kill the kids. But I was lucky enough that all I ever lost to nature was a kitten, to coyotes, and the worst thing ever to attack me was some cholla cactus that embedded itself in my toe.) And both places had extremes of climate that could cause you to die of exposure if you got stranded somewhere. Respect nature, people.

In both the Southwest and Alaska, I learned that some people drink too much. You’d think one could learn that equally well here in Milwaukee. True, but Milwaukee drunks are different. For one thing, they don’t get on a snowmachine and drive into a tree and kill themselves, or get on a snowmachine and drive far out into the wilderness and run out of gas and develop frostbite on the walk home and have toes amputated. Although they can get in a car and drive and cause even worse mayhem. But that’s not really what I’m trying to get at. In Milwaukee, there’s more judgement of people who drink. When I was a child, the attitude was more that you help people. You find someone to pick them up out of the road so they don’t die of exposure, for example. Why would you judge them? They just happened to drink too much. They need extra kindness and compassion, not less of it.

But, even that is not what I’m trying to say about drinking. What I’m trying to say is that here in the Midwest, it’s sort of like everyone’s drunk all the time, even if they haven’t been drinking. Because they think they know everything–which is JUST what happens to people who drink. They have a lot to say, but also, not much to say–which is JUST what happens to people who drink. They ask super obvious questions constantly–“What’s going on?”–which is JUST what happens to people who drink. I seriously question their thoughtfulness. 

Most of all, what really bothers me, deeply, is the difference in attitudes toward diversity. In Alaska, everyone either was born there or came from somewhere else. That sounds simple, right? But among those who were born there, there’s already diversity, because it’s a big state with several different well-established cultures. Among those who come from somewhere else, it’s usually because they’re a little quirky to begin with. In the Midwest, everyone pretty much came from here, they live here, and they hope to die here. Their idea of diversity is to have a festival every so often where you slap a country’s name on a banner and then drink a lot. They have no concept of the fact that they are culturally bankrupt. Because for a culture to be rich, really, truly rich, in diversity, you need to live at a crossroads and soak up the diversity that comes along. Like, really learn from other cultures. Not as a cultural imperialist, and NOT as a cultural nationalist, but as someone who is genuinely interested in one’s surroundings and the people in them.

And that’s why I say that I am IN this Midwestern culture but not OF it. Why, unlike most Midwesterners, I would leave it in a heartbeat. Because you may think I look like some normal white girl, but I’m not. I probably wouldn’t fit in, in Alaska or the Southwest, anymore, either. But I definitely don’t understand how your brains work here. How can you even think there’s such a thing as normal? And how can you not want to know more about the rest of the world? And how can you honestly think that you know everything about everything? So much so that you have textbook companies** based here, like this was the seat of all knowledge. It isn’t.

So. These have been my middle of the night ramblings. Maybe they will make sense to you, and maybe not.

Do you live in the Midwest and feel comfortable here? Write in the comments below and tell me what you like about it. I want to hear your thoughts.

 

*I love the old missions. But I’m not Catholic or Christian. But I think that’s okay. The missions don’t seem to mind me visiting them.

**Yes, I write for them. That doesn’t mean I approve of every word in those books, though. Far from it.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Stranger in a Strange Land–The Rant of an Alaskan Living in the Midwest

  1. Thank your for an insightful posting. Compared to your travels down ‘life’s road’, mine is almost the reverse. I lived 48 years on the East coast before I “found” Alaska. I lived in a cabin in the wilderness of Northern Alaska for almost the twenty years I was there. Sadly, though I thought I would die in my new home, my health (and children) dragged me back to civilization. The contrasts you write about are glaringly evident down here in Texas and despite the bad health (and children) I will return “home” next spring, because those two decades in Alaska have made me realize that I want to be where my soul resides in a land touched by the hand of God.

    Like

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