“That won’t happen here! This is Alaska!”
I had just told the class of seniors they could use their headphones while working on the condition that the music listening didn’t turn into a distraction or social event (sharing headphones, discussing song choice, etc.). Most of the class nodded understandingly, but they burst out laughing when their classmate made his pronouncement. I just chuckled and said, “You’re teenagers. You’re not as different as you think you are.”
I’ve seen a lot of the United States in my nomadic life. People have told me I should write a book about the places I’ve lived, and that was before I moved to Bethel, Alaska. When my friends and family heard I was coming here for three months, the reactions, questions, and exclamations multiplied. Before I left, people kept asking what it would be like, and after I arrived, my mom said in an e-mail that I must be dealing with culture shock.
Here’s the thing: I think with the number of times I’ve moved across the US, I must be immune to culture shock. Yes, each place I’ve lived is unique. They differ in weather, landscape, traffic patterns, fashion, political trends, cuisine, and preferred modes of transportation. All these things combined make a big picture we know as “culture,” but break down the big picture into the units of the individuals, and suddenly the differences aren’t as glaring.
I wrote in an earlier post about how, no matter what school or what city I’m in, kids are kids and teenagers are teenagers. I still believe that, even in this small town in Alaska. And now I’ll extend that to adults, too. People are people, no matter where they are. It’s what makes me good at what I do. When I look at the big picture of each culture I’ve lived in, they are incredibly different, but I don’t live staring at the big picture. I live, and work, and interact with individuals, and individuals aren’t that different at the core. They want to be treated with respect. People want to be put at ease, recognized as significant, and appreciated. People I pass on the street want a polite headnod of recognition. The school administrators I work for want a strong work ethic and a sense of professionalism. Students want a teacher that understands them, can manage a classroom and still laugh with them, be firm and also be merciful. Peers want reliability and to be valued. Strangers that provide local services want to be treated politely and kindly. Culture is just the compilation of habits and ideas of the individuals that make up a community, and I can deal with individuals. And because that’s true, I can become a member of that community for a few months as a teacher, youth leader, small group member, or a friend.
So yes, it’s colder and darker here, but that isn’t culture. It’s true that there’s not a ton to do here. The buildings aren’t fancy. Groceries are expensive, and dogs roam the streets unchecked. All that is different, but none of it has shocked me or thrown me off balance. Because like Wisconsin, Maryland, Texas, Seattle, Boston, and Illinois, Bethel is made up of people. They’ve developed habits to adapt to their environment, but they’re still people and not all that shocking. And once you accept that there’s no real such thing as “normal” people, then there’s also really no difference in people, either. Maybe it would be different if I went to another country and had to overcome a language barrier, but even then, people would still be people.
That’s what travelling has taught me, and that’s what I want to instill in my students. Learn that the world isn’t as different you may think. Learn that people who dress differently, act differently, and follow different traditions actually want the same things. Living in different places breaks down walls of the comfort zone and opens an individual up to a community they may otherwise never know. My life is richer because I’ve lived in all these places. Differences in fashion, food choices, politics, and entertainment do not really matter all that much. What matters is the people. As long as there are good people, I will be fine, no matter where I live.