Here in the US, we tend to have no roots, or we forget them completely. We're a group of people who came from everywhere else, and have let go of essence of our personal identities.
My people are from the Dolomite mountains of Italy, the coal fields of Wales, and the forests of Germany. These things I know. Otherwise, I'm ignorant of the culture of my own family.
To shake up my own hereditary blandness, occasionally, I seek out other cultures and live vicariously through their customs. I randomly pick a part of the world unfamiliar to me and dig to see what makes the people there tick. In some instances, I try to find out what makes them want to stay there at all.
Kivalliq is an area of Nunavut, which itself was part of the Northwest Territories until it became Canada's newest province a couple of years back. From everything I've been able to learn, it's the official homeland of that country's indigenous people.
I posted a note on the bulletin board of the local paper asking about a dish called "Muk Tuk," which I'd seen mentioned in a story. Several people wrote to let me know it was whale blubber, a staple of the native diet. When I read that, being from LA, I spontaneously threw up the salad and broiled mahi-mahi we're all required--by law and polite society--to eat for dinner. By my reckoning, there's not enough ketchup in the world to make raw beluga whale fat edible.
One woman, half native and half British, as are many people in Nunavut it seems, began a correspondence with me, and eventually sent me aerial pictures of the seven towns that make up the area of Kivalliq. There aren't that many pictures of that part of the world on the web. Then again, there aren't many people there to take them. For all of my digging, I'd never actually seen the area.
I don't know what I was expecting, but this wasn't it. Every settlement appeared to be nothing more than a landing strip and some houses. The towns all clung to small fingers of permafrosted land surrounded by endless water and coral. I almost half believed that there HAD to be a Wal-Mart just outside the frame of each shot.
Every moment I spent looking at the pictures did more to convince me that I would go insane if I lived someplace like Nunavut. Not because I'd find it boring; there's something interesting about every place in the world, if you bother searching for it. I'd go nuts because there's nothing but horizon everywhere you look.
I'm a New Yorker by birth, but for business reasons, I once moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma for two years. It's actually a semi-hip city of about a half-million people. Not too bad, if you can live with what felt like constant tornado warnings, and 115 degree heat during the summer.
One day, I decided to leave town and explore "the country." I drove toward Kansas for nearly an hour. During one 20 mile stretch of the trip, I literally saw nothing but wheat and a solitary tree off in the distance. It gave me a panic attack.
I got so dizzy that I had to pull over until it passed. When I could see straight, I hightailed it back to the safety of Tulsa's stripmalls and mini-marts. I guess life has conditioned me to need trees, mountains, or tall buildings to keep me sane--to provide some kind of perspective and to keep me oriented.
Life in the arctic circle looked like a colder version of the Midwest. I asked my new friend in Kivalliq what could possibly compel her to stay there. I was surprised to find that her reasons for remaining there were the same ones that got me to move away from Tulsa. Everybody knew everybody, families were close to the point of suffocation, and people made the effort to take only what they needed to survive. The very things that, once upon a time, indicated to me a lack of motivation, a lack of self-confidence, and a shocking lack of interest in the world at large.
Now, with perfect hindsight, I see her reasons for staying as the glue that wasn't there to keep me attached to my own personal culture. The very things that have removed me from the collective influence of my family. Maybe that's the culture of America: to get away, to find something new, and to live life differently.
And, now that there are no new lands to run away to, now that we've become so foreign to ourselves, perhaps that's how we'll get back in touch with who we are.