We’ve all heard the American truisms before. The place is a “land of opportunity” for a “nation of immigrants” constituting a “melting pot” where anyone can experience “the American dream.” Even the currency contains statements about unity in Latin!
But as a German taking part in the 35th Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals program, I frequently find myself feeling very fortunate at the opportunities I have in the U.S. which the regular inhabitants of this country ironically do not, as is the case in the small town of Andalusia, Alabama—where I am staying with my 67 year-old retired host Charlotte.
The same outsider status which allows me to get a feeling for the “deep red” politics of Alabama with impunity is what previously allowed me to bond with my Mexican host family in Minnesota and what enabled me to apply for an internship in Congress earlier this year through CBYX.
And the more time I spend in the U.S., the more aware I am of this privilege and the more eager I am to share my unique perspective.
From Living with Minnesotan Mexicans to Living with an Alabamian Baptist
My first trip to the United States was during an 11th grade student exchange between my high school and its counterpart in Shakopee, Minnesota, where I lived with a low-income family of Hispanic descent. During that time, words cannot describe the amount of respect that I developed for my hard-working host parents—who would do anything they could to enable their two daughters to attend college and attain a better life than they had.
Fast forward to several years later, where I am a regular at a Sunday Baptist service in Andalusia, Alabama. I attend this weekly Church service gladly out of respect for my religious 67-year old host Charlotte, who opened her home to me before she ever even got the chance to meet me.
Though these and other situations I have encountered are typical in the U.S., I haven’t actually met any Americans who have shared similarly diverse experiences.
In Alabama, I have come to realize that few people have opportunities to travel beyond a neighboring state. Many students who are my age seem to have already found their places in society and are preparing themselves for marriage and finding jobs, scholarships, or other ways to help chip away at their student debts. My hardest decision is choosing which German almost-free university to study at, or deciding whether or not to study abroad. For my classmates, only the closest two or three universities are even up for consideration—if at all. As for studying abroad, I certainly never hear anyone discussing taking part in experiences comparable to CBYX.
I get along better with many of the older Americans I encounter here, thanks in large part to Charlotte—who has integrated me into a weekly card game with some of her sweet older lady friends. Some of these ladies even know that I volunteer for the Covington County Democratic Party, but it is easy for them to overlook this uncomfortable fact with a bewildered smile thanks to my “exotic” status. I admit that it is difficult to imagine a local with views like mine being welcome at the same card game.
Generally, I rarely witness in-depth discussions of a political nature, which is not the same as saying that politics are never mentioned indirectly.
The many religious radio stations often express agitation against Muslim countries and homosexuals. Even during the vibrant, life-affirming, and music-intensive Church services that I attend, the perception of being the last bastion on Earth against the brutal outside world is promoted.
Though people pray for the government and President to find the right way, one of the reasons why the Second Amendment is held in such high regard is that, if necessary, it is seen as a way of defending oneself against a government that has acted too aggressively in addition to helping to defend against intruders in remote locations where it is difficult for police to reach. Trump is seen as a welcome phenomenon; the Republican Party—without an alternative.
But despite the fear of government, it still seems far removed from the day-to-day concerns of residents who suffer from a lack of medical assistance, poverty, and drug problems, all of which are frequently blamed on the liberal aspirations of the world.
Even I have to admit that Washington, DC is a long way from Andalusia. I know because I have made the trip.
Gaining a National Perspective on Local Constituencies from Capitol Hill
After arriving in Alabama last year, I was one of five German students selected from our cohort of 75 CBYX participants to complete a six-week Congressional internship and gain direct exposure to American politics in Congress before returning to my host city.
I completed this portion of my exchange experience in Washington, DC in February where I worked in the office of Congressman José Serrano, Democratic representative for New York’s 15th district, currently in his 29th year of serving in Congress.
My life here in Alabama could not be more different from the six weeks I spent in Washington, where I stayed with Cultural Vistas CEO Jennifer Clinton, her husband Federico, and their son Oliver.
The many public hearings and briefings I attended as an intern on Capitol Hill were incredibly enriching and I enjoyed recognizing familiar public figures in person. Far from being dismissed for being exotic, one of my first experiences at Congressman Serrano’s office was meeting a senior staffer who took part in an American-German exchange for government employees last summer. We would often speak at length about cultural differences and current political events, and he even took me to some off-record events that I wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise.
But even though I was able to meet more inspiring people with similar views in Washington than in Alabama, I could not help but notice the same kind of prejudice in reverse. There, it was simply the Democrat-dominated capital residents who thumbed their noses at Republicans. Debates were at a higher level intellectually, but the underlying approach toward the other side was the same.
Based on my experiences here in Alabama, I know that it is not helpful to condemn the other side in advance. In my opinion, the hardened hearts of many Americans throughout the U.S. have lowered the level of discourse and increased mutual accusations coming from both sides. Those with divergent opinions or party affiliations are regularly ignored in Alabama as well as Washington, without any discussion about the conclusions that lead others to feel that way.
E pluribus unum: out of many, one
Most Americans will recognize the Latin phrase E pluribus unum from having handled U.S. currency their whole lives. Unfortunately, most Americans will only ever experience the “one” referenced in their country’s motto, without ever having the opportunity to witness the “many” other sides of the country they all share.
This is the main reason why I am so appreciative of the opportunity to explore the U.S. in the way I am through CBYX. By spending time in Minnesota, Alabama, and the nation’s capital, I have been able to experience some of the many sides of the country that elude most Americans.
In Alabama, the side of the country I continue to see is one where the helpfulness and friendliness of local residents knows no bounds, and where people are satisfied with a slower pace of life. It is a side that many other Americans would benefit from seeing.
Of course, the problem is that Americans from divergent backgrounds rarely have the opportunity to meet and try to understand each other’s perspectives. It is too bad that they will never have an exchange experience like mine.