For today’s post, I’ve decided to create a list of 10 new experiences that I have enjoyed in my five visits here. Readers of TumbleweedWrites will know from my series of personal essays that in 2012 I studied at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire as an exchange student from The University of Winchester in the United Kingdom. Since then, I’ve lived in the USA on a seasonal basis with my fellow Blugolds and American family members Aaron and Anne-Marie, in the states of Wisconsin and Texas respectively. A large part of TumbleweedWrites and why I started this online journal in the first place is to exist as a vehicle with which to express my relationship with this land. In each of my visits I have used the towns I have visited and the peoples I’ve met as case studies. They are conical entities, through which I peer and obtain a wider image. My interest is not so much on truth in the factual and literal sense, nor the politically-correct or moral sense. My interest is in impressions, the way we view the stimulus and what it means to us; the importance we attach to things, especially those seemingly inconsequential and small. My idea of America as a whole is formed through these microcosms, and I’m interested in looking at how I have come to perceive them and what they mean to me, and to share them with you. This list is small and low-key. I’m not including things like famous landmarks, because I have not lived here as a tourist. My time spent here has been one of assimilation, to live as an American, and to understand their way of life by putting myself in their shoes and becoming one of them. Therefore, some of the things on this list may not be exclusively American; they are listed there because they made a strong impression on me as being emblematic of the “American Experience”.
Sorry if that got a little abstract, but hopefully I am making sense. Anyway, here is my list of new American experiences!
#1 Making S’mores
I can’t think of a tradition that is as quintessentially American as this. It’s a ritual of American family life, and something I imagine almost everyone who grew up in the Upper Midwest has done. In Wisconsin the great outdoors is worshipped as a place of recreation. A lot of folks own summer cottages and boats, or live in close proximity to woods and farmland. Wherever I have been in Wisco, with the exception of Milwaukee, I have been close to the outdoors. During one of my visits to Aaron’s family cabin, we would gather around a large campfire and I would be taught how to make S’mores. I felt as if I was taking Communion or something- the process has several steps and I like to think of it as a ceremonial induction to the American Religion. For those who don’t know, S’mores are when you roast a marshmallow over a fire, and sandwich it and a slice of chocolate between two pieces of graham crackers (pronounced GRAM-CRACKERS).
America is a place of extremes. There’s nothing mild about its people, its politics, or indeed the weather itself. I think almost every state, from Arizona to Maine, reaches temperatures far more hot and far more frigid in a given year than is possible in the UK. Back home the weather is mostly consistent. Wisconsin, although famous for snowing for about 7 months of the year (seriously), can get quite hot and humid in the summer months. It’s a tradition amongst college kids in the city of Eau Claire to go tubing down the Chippewa River. All that means is grabbing some kind of inflatable device- known as a tube- and floating lazily down the river on it. I never did it when I was actually on my study abroad, but very soon after my return to Eau Claire in the summer of 2014, my roommates and I grabbed some tubes and checked it out. We had to walk over to Phoenix Park, a popular landing with which to start from, and we’d wade into the river, grab the strings of each other’s tubes and start floating down as a single entity. It’s such a relaxing endeavor if the weather is good for it. Plenty of other groups would float past us, mostly backward-baseball cap burpers and screaming frat girls, with as many as a dozen tubes chained together in an orgy of Hip-Hop and Miller Lite. Sometimes gossip would drift across the water, and I recall us overhearing a girl confessing to her bestie that she had cheated on her boyfriend. Around about the spot where this particular memory occurred, Little Niagara, the brook that trickles through lower campus, empties into the Chippewa, and for the next 60 yards or so the ride becomes bumpy as the tubes are rocked with rapid waves. It’s quite exciting.
Now this really was an American experience. The US is gun-crazy and when I first arrived I was more than a bit curious. At the time they were new and exciting and I jumped at the chance to fire them. I first shot a gun in the countryside near Menomoniee, at the house of my host dad’s brother, who owns a concrete business and several acres of land for hunting. I was allowed to fire off several rifles and handguns into the distance. They were heavier than I expected, and firing them was most definitely a thrill. I was aware that there was such power in my hands. And yeah, I guess that kind of arousal is exactly why there needs to be stricter gun control laws here. But I won’t get political in this post; it’s not worth it to teabag the fire-ant mound of the Alt-Right; my inbox is already overflowing with spam and I don’t intend to add the illiterate hate mail of the Fox News drones to my list of problems. But yeah, shooting was fun and I’m glad I did it. If you’re interested I suggest seeking out a local shooting range where everything is safe and you can learn from responsible firearm instructors. I was lucky enough to be taken to one in 2014 and I remember the instructor telling me how obsessed she was with Doctor Who.
The summer of 2014 was a summer of firsts for me. One of my top priorities upon returning to Eau Claire was to meet up with my former R.A and dear friend Akbar. We were hanging out playing FIFA in a very racially diverse apartment when there began some rumblings about the possibility of cliff-jumping over at Mt Simon, on the mysterious side of town. Given that I’m afraid of heights and I can’t swim underwater, I made my protestations, but Akbar insisted that the drop was no longer than I was. He was lying, of course. The damn cliff was 40 feet high if it was a foot! It took a lot of persuasion to make me jump. I was stood at the edge for a long while, but eventually I relented and before I knew what was happening I was falling through the air. My mistake was spreading my legs in my attempt to break my fall. The surface of the river smacked hard against my balls and I was nursing them for the rest of the day, in between doing research on how to adopt. I’m glad I did it though. It was fun being crazy for an hour. Once I had conquered my fear of the cliff, the group said I was then allowed to use the rope swing, which was almost as high a drop into the water. I thanked Akbar for taking me out of my comfort zone, and in a strange way it felt as if this wise lil’ Malaysian was still my R.A.
Perhaps this is a Midwestern thing. Like I mentioned earlier, a lot of kids in Wisconsin grow up with big yards and a strong connection with the outdoors. When I first arrived to Aaron and Anne-Marie’s hometown in De Pere, WI we gathered all of their siblings and played a series of games in Aaron’s yard. We played touch football, using the sparse trees as endzones, and it was fun being the tallest there and catching the pigskin like I was Don Hutson. We also played a game called Pickle, where you have to run from one tree to another whilst someone tries to tag you. It was such fun and it felt like we were kids. I got a sense of the kind of childhood these Americans enjoyed, and now I was living it out myself. Lastly, over at Anne-Marie’s house one time, both sets of siblings gathered once more to play a form of bowls. Another popular American yard game is Cornhole, which I can’t say without laughing.
Maize is the great grain of the Americas. It’s a staple of American agriculture and the Midwest in particular. It’s a popular ingredient for so many foods in American and Mexican cuisine. In 2014 I enjoyed a very traditional Wisconsinite July 4th, in which my roommates and I went and grilled bratwursts by Half-Moon Lake. Corn on the cob is a popular side dish in the US, and we had gotten a bunch of them for our grill-out. To prepare, Aaron showed me how to shuck corn. Basically, you’re stripping away the leaves from the base of the cob. I know it’s simple, but I’ve never felt as American as I did shucking corn on the front porch of Anne-Marie’s First Ave house in Eau Claire on Independence Day. My hands seemed to be partaking in a rustic dance that had endured for centuries, since the first natives of Mexico began to cultivate this crop.
One of my requests when I returned to the USA in 2014 was to have a go in a batting cage. It was a bucket list item. Aaron and Anne-Marie decided to take me to an amusement park in Green Bay, WI called Bay Beach, which had a bunch of them. I am forever grateful, and it was awesome fun to be Joe DiMaggio for a half hour. At first I couldn’t hit any of the balls, but after some direction from my Americans, I began slugging with all the rage and testosterone of a giant from Game of Thrones. I could hear Aaron behind me saying “Good lord, he’s going for sheer power!” as I cracked another ball up into the net at the far side of the cage. I’m not gonna lie, I felt like a badass. It was at that point that Anne-Marie suggested I move on from the slowest-pitching of the ball machines. The adjacent cage shot them much faster, and I just kept missing- much to the delight of a nearby prepubescent heckler. When I finally did connect there was an almighty crack as if the heavens had been broken open by a Biblical deluge of thunder and lightning. It took a while for me to realize what had happened, and then I noticed that my bat had been completely severed in half by the connection. All I had left was the aluminum handle (and about three seconds left to realize this before the next ball came speeding towards my face). I got out of the cage, ignored the excitement of the little brat who was now telling me to get back in and fetch the other ¾ of my bat that lay at the perilous end of the enclosure, and rejoined my friends. Elizabeth scrambled to get me another bat and pushed me back in, whilst Danielle, Anne-Marie and Aaron stood with mouths open. After the ordeal was over, Aaron told me that he had never been more proud of me as a man.
Another entry that seems simple, but which I interpreted to be thoroughly American in character. In De Pere, WI there’s a place you can go bowling at night that also blasts loud party music and flashing lights. It’s kind of a mix-up between regular ol’ American bowling and a straight-up rave. It’s definitely geared towards American teenagers, and seems like a popular spot for high-schoolers to chill out on weekend evenings.
Fishing was a blast. In 2014 I went on an excursion to northern Minnesota with my host-dad, his cousin, and his cousin’s friend. We got up bright and early and took an unpaved road to a pristine lake completely untouched by human interference. There were no cabins or docks or anything. The lake was beautiful and straight out of a Hemingway short story. Supposedly it was a secret hotspot for walleye that only we knew. I learned how to bait a hook, how to cast, and how to reel in a catch. I was complemented on my casting in particular, with one guy saying “He’s a natural” and “That right der is a helluva cast” and I felt like some kind of sports prodigy. There is nothing like the excitement of the moment you get a bite- it’s truly exhilarating. In fact I would say it’s more fun than shooting. As soon as someone gets some action, everyone else gathers around excitedly and helps out. Aaron always told me, based on his experiences of fishing with his dad, that the best part of it isn’t even the fishing itself, but the camaraderie. There was no end of fart jokes and beer, and this suited me. On that particular fishing trip I got 7 catches, including a big ol’ bass! Fishing, although practiced the world over, makes this list because it is such a big part of life in the Upper Midwest. It’s an experience endemic to the childhoods of so many- perhaps even most- Wisconsinites.
I’ve always wanted to hit up a Drive-In Movie Theater. Drive-Ins as a thing are a staple of American culture, and the wealth of the 1950s that gave way to a society so fast-paced. Everything is a drive-thru or a drive-in here. Pharmacies are drive-thru’s, as are banks and even coffee shops like Starbucks. Eau Claire has a Drive-In Movie Theater that I was fortunate enough to check out in the summer of 2015 with my roommates. You just drive in, park facing away from the screen on these little grassy mounds, and watch the movie from out of the trunk, the backs of trucks, in deck chairs, or perhaps on a picnic blanket. There’s a place to grab corn-dogs, onion rings and ice cream sandwiches and it’s so American it’s unreal. On that particular occasion we watched Jurassic World, which was preceded by an animated feature called Minions.
Thank you so much for checking out my list! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it. If so, please consider giving me a Like or Subscribe. Let me know whether you like this kind of content and what you think I can improve on!