My 2004 visit to the USA, more specifically South Carolina, was a catalogue of firsts. On my first trip to the states, I saw my first gun, ate my first clam chowder, saw a live lobster, heard my first real southern jazz, drove on the “wrong” side of the road for the first time, and had my first experience of heat exhaustion.
As a Brit, living so close to Europe, I had traveled to the main European continent many times, and felt that I had seen “foreign” before. Places where they spoke another language or ate strange and unusual foods, but truly, I didn’t know foreign until I landed on the shores of North America. You have heard it before – Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language. It’s only when you experience it, that you start to understand what that means.
But it’s hard to imagine the USA. The UK is small, packed, houses are tiny, roads are congested even outside of rush hour, and even in rural areas. But there are no natural predators unless you count mankind, and your neighbors are often within arms length. You may not trust them, but they are close by.
I had seen the USA on TV, heard the accents, knew about guns, but only when I first saw a real gun did the meaning of that second amendment click into place. In the UK at the time there was no gun culture, in theory at least, there still isn’t. The right to bear arms dates back to when the west was wild and a man had to defend his property with his life.
This was the 20th Century however, no longer the 1800’s, so it was a shock to my system to see that Americans still hold dear to these rights. In the UK, the argument went that it’s called the second amendment, so it can always be amended again right? After all, there are no requirements for militia to keep the streets safe at night, or protect against the British invasion. So too, the war of independence is over, and the nation is united … it’s in the name after all.
However, in South Carolina, I got a better sense of what it was all about.
Firstly, there are alligators there. Yep, big ones. Leave them alone and they pretty much wont care whether you did or not if they are hungry enough. So guns. I get it.
The other thing about America is that it is big. The place is big, the people are big, the voices are big, the cars are big, the roads are… well you get the picture. When there is so much space between your property and the neighbors, you can feel isolated and vulnerable. There is no big brother watching over you, so wanting, even needing a gun in parts is understandable. Doesn’t matter who your neighbors are.
Speaking of neighbors, for some reason, and I don’t know why, I was expecting to see a lot more racism. Not something I wanted to see, but my ignorance came from seeing too many biased documentaries about the US. I had somehow expected to see more poor people of colour, fewer people of colour employed. I did see a lot of poverty, shocking for a country like America, but it was equally spread across the population. In that area, no one group could be singled out.
I saw too, that not all of it was poverty of money per se, but educationally based. Whether that was a symptom or a cause, I wasn’t there long enough to discover. I did visit a particular work site while there. The people there were highly qualified. The mix of races balanced, but the less educated jobs had coloured workers. On the other hand, I saw nothing but respect between people regardless of colour, or creed, so perhaps I had arrived there mid transition.
I learned some home truths about Britain during the war of independence, visiting Charleston and the fort there. How they treated their prisoners, how they treated deserters, and pillaged for supplies*. I stood at the back silently in case anyone heard me speak. It would not have been pretty if they had. The mood of the tour group was soured on Brits for obvious and justifiable reasons.
America is a place where you certainly have choices. In fact, it is the choice whether to succeed or fail that is the great American Dream. What you succeed or fail at can mean different things to different people. How you define success in the UK is not how you define success in the US. Americans work hard and play hard at the things they want to be successful in, but they have the choice to define whether success means a shack they have built with their own bare hands despite the alligators, or a condo in the heart of a city that never sleeps.
From my perspective, just surviving in the US makes you a success. With no fall back health care, with elected police officials at all levels, part time fire services, there are definitely no free lunches. When they call the UK a nanny state, you can start to see where they might be coming from.
But is it wrong? It’s certainly different.
*Then again, having more recently toured a similar site in Canada, the stories are the same but the sides are different. There are no true winners in civil wars, there are only those who lose to a lesser extent.
A quick note on South Carolina as a destination.
The entertainment available in Charleston, South Carolina is incredible. Despite only being there for a few short days, I fell in love with the city, trying out bars and restaurants, pubs and clubs. Clam chowder became a favorite, and the live jazz music lifted the spirits even in the 40 degree hot and humid weather.
Our visit coincided with a 17 year peak in cicada activity and everywhere we went we were greeted with the singing buzzsaws of the giant crickets. The heat was tough, but not a tough as say New Orleans, so if you are looking for an alternative to that location, Charleston has a lot to offer, from the old town, with its African American, British and Spanish influences, to the vibrant city where food is not just something you eat, but something you do. With its civil war history, and old fort, it certainly has a lot to offer a traveller who perhaps wants to learn more about our American cousins.