Sarah Loughlin reflects on cultural stereotyping after an interesting few hours in the Los Angeles bus station
Standing between an Escalade and a Hummer, I flicker between wanting to laugh hysterically, and die of embarrassment. If only the game of Rock Paper Scissors had gone my way, I would be standing where my sister is now. On the other side of the car park, excitedly waiting for the food our pitiful casino winnings would buy us.
It’s another warm evening in California. The area around the Los Angeles Greyhound bus station is miles removed from the outrageously lavish architecture of the Las Vegas Strip, our home for the previous week. Just a few blocks from the infamous Skid Row, this is the part of the Golden State that they don’t advertise. People shuffle along the sidewalk in ragged clothes, between the run-down buildings, while some huddle in shadowy doorways. I can’t help wondering how they ended up here.
We had been on the Greyhound bus together from Las Vegas for 8 hours and we were ravenous. Our connection to San Diego wasn’t for hours. After walking for a block or two, our eyes lit up as we rounded the corner and saw a fast food joint. Approaching the doors excitedly discussing what we should order I noticed that the restaurant was strangely empty. I pulled the door towards me, but it wouldn’t budge. It was locked. At this point the only way we were going to eat was to stand in the drive-through queue with the cars and hope for the best. After ordering into the microphone I walked up to the window to collect the order. Thinking, why do I always pick scissors?
Sitting in the Greyhound station with our long-awaited food we started chatting, as we usually do, about what to see in the next town. Over the last month we had travelled all over California, spending what we had saved from our student loans on $1 burritos and lounging on the beach. As usual our strong English accents had attracted the attention of our fellow passengers.
‘’Scuse me Miss, where are y’all from’
‘England, how about you?’
‘Hmmm, it’s funny, y’all don’t look like y’all are from En-ger-land’
‘Ah really, why is that?’
‘’Cas y’all don’t have Princess Diana’s nose’
It transpired Charlene from Texas had been visiting family in California and was on her way home. After the usual pleasantries I attempted to go back to my guidebook and fried chicken. No such luck.
‘So did y’all go to the wedding?’
‘I’m sorry, which wedding?’
‘You know, Princess Kate’s wedding’
I sigh inwardly, and almost roll my eyes. I stop myself when it occurs to me that everything I think I know about Americans, apart from the people I have met here, is from television. And it must be the same for them. I went on to explain to Charlene that although England was a small country, not everyone was invited to the Royal wedding, and unfortunately we were not all descendants of Diana Princess of Wales.
‘En-ger-land’ Interjects Charlene’s friend, ‘that’s near Norway right?’
‘Well, relatively’ I reply.
‘I got a friend out there in Norway, he’s call Bill, d’y’all know him?’
I suppress a giggle, and then remember that until a few weeks ago I would have had no idea where Texas was in relation to New Mexico; and then there was the awkward time in the bank that I couldn’t spell Arkansas. I had arrived in the USA over 4 months ago, thinking that as an English speaking country the culture must be largely the same, but I was wrong. Every place I visited had a unique way about it. Starting out in Louisiana I got to know that people from the Southern state, describing themselves on bumper stickers as ‘Third World and Proud of it’, are the most warm and accommodating of all; never so embodied but in the Litchl family who took me in for a week and showed me New Orleans the local way:
‘You don’t know Pat O’Brien’s! What have you been doing here all this time!’ Says Marci as we are seated on a cosy table not far from the Duelling Pianos. ‘Two Hurricanes please!’ she calls to the waiter over the bustling atmosphere of the bar. I stop to take in the audience, chatting away and enjoying the performance. Music lovers in the crowd note down their favourite songs on a napkin and pass it to the front to be played, the musician’s jest that they don’t know the song before breaking into a jazzy NOLA rendition, just for us to hear.
Again it occurs to me that before that evening the only things I knew about New Orleans were from the UK media. In my head ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Louisiana’ would make me think, ‘Katrina’, rather than ‘the jazz bar off Bourbon Street’. In that moment I know that the next time a friendly fellow traveller makes an un-informed snap judgement or makes what seems to me like a silly remark, I will ask myself, ‘what do I know about their country? Could I point it out on a map?’ I bet 9 out of 10 times I probably couldn’t.
I turn back to Charlene and offer her one of my now cold and slightly soggy chips, or fries to the locals, and I ask her what sort of food her home town is famous for; just one traveller educating another.