Now if my hunch is correct, every single one of you who grew up here in the United States just mentally responded to that call with one unified voice. POLO! The rest of you are scratching your heads, wondering why the heck we’re going on about an explorer.
Okay now, let’s play a game of hide-and-seek. Ready? One-two-three…
Most of you fellow Americans, if I were to ask you to describe a 4th of July picnic, you’d probably spit back a list that included foods like watermelon, potato salad, barbecue chicken, and hot dogs. And a scoop or two of Aunt Millie’s homemade strawberry ice cream, for the hard core folk. We all know the words to the Happy Birthday Song. We know that we place a right hand over our hearts to salute the flag. And we know that if a group of 4ft. tall monsters knock on our door and say the magic words, “Trick or Treat!” We’d better drop a piece of candy in their bags. This is our shared culture.
Every nation has its own sets of standards and nuances shared by pretty much everyone else within that mainstream culture. They recite the lines and lyrics from their own pop media, observe holidays and traditions, and share group ideals and values that mark them as a people. In that way, we belong to our fellow citizens, streaks of gold running along the same vein.
But somewhere along the way, that straight track of homogeneity starts to branch off in multiple directions. These subculture tracks can be due to a lot of common factors — ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, region. In fact, just yesterday, I took a little day trip to the beach, which is what most Californians do when they want to get away, or relax, or think, or seek inspiration, or chase seagulls for a few hours. And afterwards, I ate the most Californian dinner possible — spicy fish tacos. With mangos. Not quite mainstream American culture, but as common here as opioid addiction is in the middle states. (Too much?)
Being immersed in a subculture that is not your own can be a very uncomfortable thing. You can be the most skilled classical ballet dancer in your studio. But when you venture into the world of hip hop dancers, your pointe shoes and pirouettes won’t help you to fit in.
The other day, I locked my comfort zone in the car and boldly entered a place that is like another planet to me. Walmart. Yes, the good-ol’ All-American retail store. I was in search of some inexpensive household items, and that is the store to save money on such things. However, it was with great trepidation that I wandered inside. Before you count me out as a middle-class snob, let me share a little history. Once, years ago, when I was minding my own business in a Walmart, I happened to catch a fellow shopper glaring at me. I mean, throwing sharp daggers with her eyes. I was taken aback. Clearly, I had committed some unknown faux-pas while strolling behind my shopping cart. I gave the woman an uncomfortable half-smile, then quickly got out of there.
Now, if that had been an isolated incident, I could have tolerated it just fine. A misinterpretation. Or maybe she was having a bad day. Who knows? But a few months later, the same thing occurred. A couple of women in a different Walmart gave me the stink eye. I was mystified. Was I pushing my cart too fast or slow? Had I inadvertently snagged the last box of Cheerios before they could get it? Were they somehow offended by my mom jeans and plain t-shirt? Clearly, there must be some rules or customs, some unspoken alien language shared among the Walmartian people which I don’t know. I felt like Elle Woods, dressed as a Playboy bunny at a conservative non-costume party. Or maybe it was the other way around.
So now, whenever I must mingle among the Walmartians, I am very, very careful. I make no eye contact. If an aisle is crowded, I go around the long way. I make my purchase quickly and get out of there. Now maybe that isn’t quite the right way to handle it. Maybe the best way to understand a subculture group is to spend some time among them. Study their ways. Learn their rules. Maybe I could learn the correct expression to wear on my face to ward off the stink-eye of the Walmartian women. Maybe I could invite a Walmartian into my Targetian world as a cultural exchange. We could browse the latest in home decor and kitchen accessories while sipping pumpkin spice chai lattes from the Target Starbucks.
Or maybe the answer doesn’t neccessarily lie in either immersing oneself in the subcultures of others, or by expecting others to adapt to our own. Maybe the thing that merges the tracks is to focus on our similarities. When we all show up at the same 4th of July picnic together, no one is thinking about whether you’re wearing Walmart jeans or a Target sundress. We just show up, and eat watermelon and ice cream. We come from different regions. We may have different accents, or different religious customs, or different cultural expectations for behavior. But if someone calls out, “MARCO!” We’re all going to answer back in the same voice.