Thanks to generous help from my friends & family, I've made it back to the Fulbright papers! My mom lent me her car, so a couple of days ago I drove down from Minnesota. The road trip was alright--I've always loved driving and seeing new places, but it was a bit tedious. The route took me straight through the snowy windswept prairies, Iowa's "Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area", and the Bible Belt. I saw a lot of pro-life billboards and every time I scanned the radio stations, I found Christian music, Christian talk, and Country music. In Missouri, at least, I also found some classic rock, pop and NPR.
Sometimes I just forget about this part of the country, these (typically) red states with relatively small populations. Doing this drive made me realise that this America might be the only place in the US that an international student knows. It's amazing to think about the difference between, say, Iowa State University and my alma mater in Seattle, University of Washington. I had lunch at a Cracker Barrel near the university in Des Moines, and thought about how international students would perceive Cracker Barrel. Would they take it at face value, thinking it's a "typical American restaurant"? Or would they get it, would they appreciate the nostalgic quirkiness of antiques all over the walls and checkers on the porch?
Another thing that struck me about the Bible Belt was the sight of little chapels, quite old ones in small towns, once the Western frontier. When I went to Toulouse back in June, I felt an amazing sense of history in St. Etienne Cathedral--a realisation that the church as an institution once played such a central role in people's lives, in communities and towns. The Catholic church in pre-revolutionary France was the establishment--the biggest landowner, even more powerful than the monarchy, etc. In America's prairie states, the church was central in the community, but in a completely different way. The church wasn't a pre-existing institution on the frontier, it was introduced by the settlers (seems more voluntary, in a sense). These churches were multi-purpose institutions, providing the local schoolrooms, and even offering meeting space for secular community groups. They're small, simple little buildings--a stark contrast to the grand cathedrals of Europe, built to impress.
At any rate, it's been interesting to get reacquainted with this part of the country (I hadn't been to Missouri in 21 years, and had never visited Iowa). One of the common themes that appears in educational exchange literature is the concept that grantees see their home countries differently after the exchange experience. I don't really count as an exchangee--more of an emigrant at this point. But every time I've returned to the U.S. over the past 7 years, I've certainly seen it differently. Driving still comes naturally (thank goodness, since I was on the road for 12 1/2 hours!), but little things feel very foreign to me now. U.S. currency, for example, always feels strange for the first few days. The vast amount of choice in American superstores like Wal-Mart and Target is overwhelming to me now. In the early days of living in the UK, I missed the superstores, but now they feel as foreign as Morrisons & Sainsburys once did. It's amazing!
I'll try to update regularly throughout this week and next...and will actually talk about the research in my next post, too!