Calling America

Calling America

The Eglinton Brothers have started a web project they’ve dubbed Calling America, which gathers real stories from real people around the USA. The Eglintons are English, and as they say on the project’s about page, they’ve grown up as “American children by proxy”, fed by a steady stream of exported American TV, videos, music, and movies. And this youthful exposure has created something of an cultural identity conflict:

[they felt as if they were] American without ever having been to the United States. American without ever having met an American person face to face. More intimate with America than perhaps with our own native England. But soon came the New Millennium, and with it a great shock. We had reached maturity and had begun to think for ourselves. And in analyzing our youth, we had grown critical of America: it was all a construct, a figment of some wealthy Hollywood director’s imagination, a lie greater than the myth of Santa Claus! – And indeed the source of our malaise. We had built the foundations of our youth on an imaginary land and the cracks were beginning to show.

I find this a fascinating project because it aims to collect the “real stories from real people” across America. Not just for Americans either, but for people outside the country who seek to understand, drawing their own conclusions from our personal stories, not the mass media.

I also find the feeling of cultural identity conflict to be a familiar one. If you’ve never lived outside of the country, being American is one of those comfortable uniforms that you’ve always worn and never had to take off. You’ve probably never had to question it.

Days Gone ByMy earliest memories of childhood are of living in rural New Jersey where my Dad was the minister of a small Presbyterian church surrounded by farmland.

When I was growing up in NJ, being “Chinese” was the most distinguishing physical feature I possessed, and there were not many. Seeing another Asian family was like getting a surprise glimpse of David Hasselhoff sitting down to enjoy a Grand Slam Breakfast at Denny’s: there’s a mild shock of recognition that there’s someone you sorta know in a place you didn’t expect to find them. If the initial vibe is good, the tentative question, “Are you Thai?” or “Are you Korean?” or “Are you Chinese?” would come up, a slight tone of hope lacing the words. The real question was, “Are you like me, trying to figure out this place of our dreams and the place where we want our children to grow? Are you on the same journey, in this strange but compelling land?”

Most of the time, the answer is negative; I myself have trouble telling the difference between asians so I guess wrong all the time. But I imagine that when the answer was “Yes, I’m also from CountyX!”, there’s that surge of joy that you’ve found a potential comrade to journey with, even for a few minutes. I should ask Dad about the experience from his perspective…Dad, if you are reading this, leave a comment! He tells me that he used to get mistaken for being Latino actually, which is a whole ‘nother story :-)

In 1976, the family moved to Taiwan…going home, really, for my Mom and Dad, though they had not planned on returning. For me, a new adventure and a new culture, to which I didn’t take. I don’t know what it was that prevented this, perhaps I was already a shy kid and wasn’t comfortable meeting people. Maybe it was the highly judgmental nature of some of my relatives, or that I sucked at learning the language, and quickly withdrew into my own shell. Was I American or was I Taiwanese? I was in the country, and I was born of Taiwanese parents, and surrounded by Taiwanese family, so you’d think that it would take, especially since there was nothing to watch on TV. But it probably was that I became incredibly stubborn; I remember one day, angry and hurt about some slight I have long since forgotten, that I decided I was American, not Taiwanese. If I was going to be rejected by this culture, then SCREW THEM. I’ve mellowed out since then, thankfully; reintegrating into a culture that will probably always be foreign to us is a topic of conversation my cousins and I often talk about. It was the food, of course, that started bringing us back into the fold. And for me, it was family and community of any kind, and my increasing appreciation of my own family members as people, that has re-engaged me.

But I digress. When I returned to the US for college, I was so excited about being back in a country where I could speak the language, buy books that covered my interests, eat food that I’d missed for 10 years, and just be back in an environment that seemed like it offered opportunity, not more constraints. But then I had forgotten—and this still happens to me a lot—that I am Asian. And I also had 10 years of pop culture to catch up on, though I’d experienced some of it in Taiwan through the magic of Betamax, the importation of Dallas and Heart to Heart into Taiwan before they started dubbing it into Mandarin Chinese, and our school’s library subscriptions to Byte and Creative Computing.

I think it’s only in the past 5 years that I’ve started to catch up as the 80s become more of memory for people, but I am still getting re-acquainted with America. And I find that the best way to do that is to just listen to stories of people who come from different places. The best part is that you can find good people everywhere, people with a similar heart, and even though you have hugely different backgrounds you really are coming from “the same place”, somewhere in America.

Check out the Eglinton’s site: Calling America. This is a great idea.

UPDATE: Fixed my atrocious mangling of the Eglinton name…1 g, not 3! :-)

11 Comments

  1. Mad William Flint 12 years ago

    What people in the US from different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities seem to miss is this:  Their “identifying characteristic” does indeed set them apart in the way you describe.  It provides a way for people with something in common to find each other to help ask and answer those questions.

    People who’ve been here for five, ten or twenty generations have no such camaraderie.

    And no way to get those questions answered for ourselves.

  2. Dave Seah 12 years ago

    Mad William: That’s a really interesting insight. A visible marker of sorts, or a potential higher-yield personal contact, because the contexts are the same. This makes me think that asking just about anybody for help probably makes sense; maybe a site like Calling America will help those people too. There’s a couple books I’ve got on my shelf, What Should I Do With My Life by Po Bronson and another book called Gig that has a similar vibe: talking to regular people about their jobs and lives in a very real way. Pretty awesome, I thought.

  3. Mad William Flint 12 years ago

    I’m really quite amazed by (and struggling with) it.  The generic white-bread American has very little sense of community or, to allude faintly to another perfect sample, brotherhood.

    Nice.  I wasn’t sure whether Po Bronson was just Oprah fodder or not, so I never really paid much attention.

    I know it sounds terribly pithy, but if you want a good monologue about this, watch Fight Club.  The anarchy garbage is really a bit too much (making for a great flick) but the cultural causality of the whole thing in the context of the movie is really quite spot on.

  4. Dave Seah 12 years ago

    Mad William: I know what you mean about Fight Club…one of my favorite movies. Brotherhood through action is one of the themes that come out of that. People have been craving it in its various forms, and I think it’s part of a universal craving to “belong” and to be part of something bigger than themselves. Professional sports, perhaps, from the fan perspective, is what provides that for a lot of people. Music is another. They are safe, pre-packaged experiences that everyone can recognize. The ones who have the Brotherhood through Action energy become those die-hard tailgatin’ season ticket holders. The music die-hards go to the concerts, or follow the tours.

    Po Bronson did write a very nice book (I haven’t read his follow up), that did speak to something I was feeling at the time but didn’t know: that I like people, and I like them even more when I see them doing something to achieve their desires. Daring to dream, and being brave enough to follow through to action when their cubical nation breathren are tsking and clucking disapprovingly. The ones that take any step at all toward their dreams are, in my eyes, champions.  Po doesn’t exactly write about that (I don’t think, anyway…it’s been years) but he was asking the question and collecting the stories at a formative time: the post dot-bomb economy, when everything imploded and he (as one of the media perpetrators of the dot-com bubble) had to do with MORALLY. What had it all been for? People had burned both ends for equity in ventures run by supposed leaders for nothing at all except for ruined dreams. The ones who felt responsible for this, with the means to rebuild, are rebuilding the web to prevent this from happening; web 2.0’s community aspect is, I think, a reaction to the lack of transparency and stupid business models from 1999-2000. If you start with the individual, and collect the power of the individual to ACT (participate), then maybe you have something that’s stronger. My 2 cents, anyway.

  5. Mad William Flint 12 years ago

    Being able to look at sports fannery (my words, I make ‘em up as I need ‘em) from the outside tells me that’s exactly right.

    Wanna read an interesting book that hits this, check out “Stiffed” by Susan Faludi.

    I can certainly relate with the Bronson stuff then.  I just put in my 2 week notice at my job.  I’ve got a bunch of cash, a few ideas and a head of steam and I’m not going back.

    This has the makings of a good series ;-)

  6. Lynn O'Connor 12 years ago

    What a great idea, I will look at the site. I resonate with what you speak of, the eagerness to run into someone from the same “tribe.” The “need to belong” as someone mentioned. I am Jewish and was raised with no religion at all, just a vague awareness that I was “different.” Most of the people I am close to are not Jewish, and it is still meaning something to me when someone is “Jewish.” An Asian friend of mine said she had never thought about “Jews” being a minority, but as I told her (and as she thought about it) we are. And many people still don’t think well of “Jews.” Whatever that means. I am certainly American and yet I am “Jewish.”

    An interesting thing about being “American” is that within the group that people call “European American” are very different Ethnicities that are not largely recognized and yet mean something culturally. It is very different being an “Italian American” from being an “Irish American” or a “German American” etc. In our era of recognizing (some) minorities as special and deserving of recognition, we ignore the minority or ethnicity-specific samples that are there within broader categories. I think everyone is moved by finding others who share ethnic/cultural similarities, and yet we are all surely American and identify as such, in our hearts. We are perhaps, a very special nation because we mix so many ethnicities/cultures within us.

    Thanks for another great post.

    Lynn

  7. Andrew Eglinton 12 years ago

    Dear David,

    Thank you very much indeed for this wonderful post. I was talking to my brother about it this evening on skype and to receive this sort of welcome within the first week of launching the site is truly beyond our expectations.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your family background and the cultural mobility you have experienced. I particularly latched on to the point you made about the desire to return to the States and “just be back in an environment that seemed like it offered opportunity”.

    It’s funny because I felt exactly the same thing in my late teens. My family moved from England to France when I was 14 and I returned to England after graduating from high school at 19, and I clearly remember feeling the same way, that there was so much opportunity, that I could experience things ‘first hand’ again. It was a real sense of liberation, but one that soon waned I should add.

    Thanks again for your kind words and feel free to post stories on Calling America any time.

    Best wishes from London,

    Andrew.

  8. Jeff 12 years ago

    I have a hard time recognizing the differences between Asian too (I scored less than 50% on alllooksame.com). I’ve read about people who are ABCs or CBCs, and are somewhat disconnected from both cultures, but I feel that as full Chinese people by blood who grew up in North America, we have the best of both worlds. Doesn’t mean we don’t need the help on occasion though, as we’re often in our own little social bubbles. Calling America is a great idea to break out of that bubble.

  9. Joe Lencioni 12 years ago

    Yeah, this is a good idea and I enjoyed reading your write-up on it.

    The first thing that came to my mind when I found out about Calling America, is the radio and television program called This American Life. From their about page:

    <blockquote cite=“http://www.thislife.org/About.aspx”>For a long time, This American Life was only a radio show, one with a hard-to-describe sound, millions of listeners, and a bunch of awards. … It’s mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always. There’s lots more to the show, but, like we said, it’s sort of hard to describe.</blockquote>

    If you like Calling America, you should seriously also check out This American life.

    There are already some good stories posted to Calling America… I hope it takes off. Right now, I’m trying to work up a good story idea to submit.

  10. hthth 12 years ago

    I just recently heard about Calling America and I think it’s an excellent idea (and well executed, too. I really like the use of Google Maps). Most definitely an interesting and informative source for people outside the US.

  11. karmatosd 12 years ago

    I love this idea. I’d like it to spread to other countries too. I can think of a few myths that the UK needs to have debunked. I had my first visit to the US this year and about every one of my preconceptions was blown out of the water and it was a great experience.