Friday, July 20, 2007

Culture Shock

After a few days back in Bethel, the culture shock of going Outside has about worn off. American culture in the Lower 48 is a whole other world from here. You get used to what you are around all the time, and even the strange can come to seem commonplace. So it is with Bethel.

And then you jump feet first into what most Americans think of as “normal”. A land of paved streets with sidewalks and curbs and gutters with built-in drains leading to underground piping systems that carry rainwater away. A land where most cars on the road are relatively new, and contain a single individual who is often talking on a cell phone while driving. A land where signage dominates the landscape, screaming “Consume! Consume! Consume!” A land where retail marketing is a huge monster, with stores everywhere, selling every imaginable item, and where shopping is a major form of entertainment for many people.

On leaving Bethel, I adapt to this shift fairly quickly, because it is what I grew up with. I know this world, and how to operate within it. But after years in Bethel, I view it differently. It is no longer my definition of normal.

Dutch and I wandered the aisles of Costco and Home Depot and Safeway and marveled at the huge variety, quantity, and quality of goods for sale. And most of it at so much less than we are used to paying for similar items. We bought an extra suitcase (which we needed anyway) to bring home more retail goodies.

And then there is the energy required to function well amidst huge population density. Freeways are packed with cars, and they are all driving fast. It seems like nearly everyone has a cell phone in their ear, chattering away to someone, doing business, planning their lives, walking fast, talking fast, moving, moving, moving. Faces are studies in focused concentration. Irritability and outright anger seem much closer to the surface. I wonder how often people remember to stop and breathe.

I get revved up for all this before I leave Bethel, so that when I land I can hit the ground running. It is when I return that the full force of culture shock hits me. My internal metronome has been reset at 110 beats per minute, and suddenly I’m back to where life around me is moving at 30 bpm. At first it’s like playing a record at too slow a speed (does that analogy date me?).

We’ve been back for nearly a week now, and my metronome has ratcheted down to where it fits with the flow here. My energy is no longer “on guard”, tightened up against masses of people pressing, crowding, pushing to get somewhere ahead of me. I’m back to the inner calmness that I love about my life here. The muddy unpaved streets, the shabby unpainted houses, the unmanicured yards, don’t assault my eyes as they do on first coming or returning here. They are just how Bethel is. Along with people who smile and nod or wave when you pass them on the street; cars that stop to let you into traffic instead of rushing past unseeing; people who ask how you are and really want to know. You get used to what you live with. Traveling outside Alaska puts it in perspective for me. As always, it is good to be home.


Blogger Pete & Mary said...

What a perfect description! This is why I fell in love with Alaska and can hardly imagine leaving for more than a trip now and then. Thanks! I'm glad your trip was wonderful and you are back safe and slowing down to the pace at home. The fireweed up here is amazing this year, too.

Friday, July 20, 2007 12:55:00 PM  
Blogger Stacey said...

I find your analogy interesting because I have the opposite experience. I grew up in Oklahoma (always small town, though not necessarily rural) and college wasn't much of a change for me, though I did go to another state.

However, for grad school, I came out east because I figured if I didn't get to the big cities before I was 30, I'd never do so. The first year was a tough adjustment with the *too many people!* all the time, but now it's normal.

In fact, I can't slow my metronome down when I go back to Oklahoma to see my family. I enjoy the nature, but the slowness of almost every aspect drives me crazy, as does the decrease in options with regards to eateries and brands and everything else.

That said, I was very happy to slow down marginally when I went to San Diego earlier this year -- I think I finally fell in love with a city. If only I could afford to live there.

Friday, July 20, 2007 1:42:00 PM  
Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

Welcome back.

Friday, July 20, 2007 5:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw this article in the paper. Welcome back.

Call of the wild in the Alaskan tundra: 'Taxi!'

BETHEL, ALASKA — You won't find a luxury hotel or concert hall in
Bethel, and you probably can't even get a decent bagel here. But this
remote Alaska town has at least one advantage over New York City: It
may be the nation's taxicab capital.

Friday, July 20, 2007 7:34:00 PM  
Blogger Rose said...

Gee, you make me want to come live there even more than normal! I have had a fascination with Alaska and land north for a long all the first person accounts of living there that I can get my hands on. Spell of the Yukon by Robert Service is my favorite daughter and her husband just got back from an Alaskan cruise and they totally loved it! (And bless her heart, she brought me 4 new books--only one of which I had read!)
But I will say that in my neck of the woods in Tennessee, and even here in parts of Indiana, there is still a lot of the nodding and waving and occassional two cars meeting and stopping in the middle of the road to talk.

Friday, July 20, 2007 7:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bethel was in the Sunday New York Times:

Sunday, July 22, 2007 9:21:00 PM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

Thanks to the two anonymouses (anonymi?) for the references to the articles about Bethel and our taxi cabs. It is true, cabs are quite a presence here. And jumping into one doesn't mean you'll go directly to your destination. In fact, most times you won't, and you are lucky if you are sharing the cab with less than four other people going four other places. But despite the cost of getting one here (about $2500), many people do have cars.

Stacy--thanks for your comment, and for pointing out that different things suit different people. Some folks thrive on the constant energetic beat of the city, the all-night glow of neon and sounds of traffic. I'm glad you've found what suits you. I agree, San Diego is a beautiful city; I hope you get there someday for more than a visit.

Rose--what's holding you back? At least come for a visit! Have you read Dana Stabenow's books? She writes beautifully about Alaska.

Monday, July 23, 2007 7:45:00 AM  
Blogger SeaSpray said...

You are right! And you are blessed. :)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007 7:59:00 PM  
Blogger Dorothea said...

I agree with the first post, what an excellent narrative description of paces of life for city vs. country folk. I am enjoying ambling about your blog - Bethel sound like a fascinating place. Hoping to not sound to much like a 'city bumpkin,' what kinds of jobs do people in Bethel have?

Friday, August 10, 2007 1:58:00 PM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

Dorthea--thanks for visiting the blog, I'm glad you enjoy it. I've written a lot about Bethel and taken lots of photos. Jobs in Bethel are a lot like other places. Many people in town work for the health corporation which operates the hospital where I work. Many people work for the lower Kuskokwim school district. Quite a few work in the social services sector of state government, for which Bethel is the regional center. Many are employed in the transportation industry, of both people and cargo. The Bethel airport is one of the busiest in the state because of all the cargo that is shipped in here. A number of people work for the City of Bethel, as road maintenance crews, water and sewer truck drivers, water and sewer pipe line maintenance workers, and all the city management workers, the Bethel Police force. People work in the grocery stores, the restaurants, the hotel. It's like any other large town that way. If you want a job, you can find one easily. Many Native people here do not have jobs; they live by subsistence. They hunt and fish and pick berries and gather wood.

Thanks for commenting.

Friday, August 10, 2007 11:53:00 PM  
Blogger Dorothea said...

Thank you for your great response, and wonderful blog! Sounds like if someone wanted to live in Bethel they could find something to do to pay the bills! ;.D

Monday, August 13, 2007 3:43:00 PM  

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