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Of stereotypes, shortcuts and scenery

by Sharon Armstrong

As an emigrant myself I have a lot of time for people who are interested in their families’ origins.

I moved from Scotland to the States about eight years ago with the proverbial bag on my back and high hopes in my heart. I landed in New Orleans, where I stayed despite fairly determined efforts to move somewhere else. Actually I didn’t try that hard.

But last year a great big weather system packed my bags for me and I would like to quote a life-jacketed mannequin that sits right now on Rue Chartres in the French Quarter: “Katrina, you bitch. Don’t even talk to me.”

And that is all I have to say on the matter, at least for now.

For all us newcomers from Ye Olde World, America still carries some glamour; it is still the New World with all that can offer. You know what I mean – you have seen the movies, you have heard the songs and hopefully you have read the books.

People came to America in search of a better life, a new start, or in my case a suntan.

For many it is still the Land of Plenty, where everything is possible and you can become anything you want to be.

Conversely many of the Americans I have met here carry an emotional torch for those not-so-far-away lands that their ancestors left, when they traveled across the stormy main to Amerikay, tears in their eyes as they thought of the green shamrock shores/the high misty mountains/the low lands of Holland/very rarely England (sorry sometimes it is hard to get those folk songs out of your mind). They dream of green fields and white cottages; of battles against injustice and the triumph of the human spirit. All that good stuff.

We are linked through our history: past, present and, hopefully, future and on the whole the people of America have treated me very well. There are many Americans I like and more than a few that I love dearly.

I have had many conversations with Americans regarding their distant Scottish ancestry and I think it is great that people are interested in where their forbears came from and the kind of people they were.

Okay. Yes I do get asked if I know Hamish MacSporran in Auchinshoogle from people whose great grandparents left the Highlands during the Clearances but, oh well, what can you do except try your best to explain that Auchinshoogle is a long way away from Edinburgh and, contrary to common belief, everyone in Scotland doesn’t actually know everyone else.

On occasion I do get told that my accent isn’t convincing and needs a little bit more work. That usually happens at the cheesier folk music festivals and a swift retort to the effect that any man seen at a festival in Scotland dressed in tights, codpiece and curly toed shoes really shouldn’t throw stones about authenticity. A good swift punch in the face works wonders too. As for all the “Aye, lassie-ing” and “Aye, ladd-ing” that goes down at such events? Only ma’ da’ gets tae call me “Lassie” no’ you, Bubba Strange Kilt. Right?

I have found being needlessly grumpy adds to my authenticity.

Everybody knows the Irish and the Scots really like to fight, with anyone at any time, for any or no reason. And we drink too much and we run hairy-arsed up and down the mountains looking for Heather and Pete or woollier paramours to do I don’t know what to. That we stand at the border, claymores in hand, looking for any handy English people to disembowel. Although with the tourist trade being what it is today you don’t have to hunt people down anymore; they come to you.

And, yes, on occasion I have been known to greatly overindulge in various libations. I have many stories that start, “Do you remember that night I was drinking the tequila…?”

You know those nights that seldom end well but usually make the best stories as well as police and medical records? You get the idea.

The reason that stereotypes exist is that they are built on traits that people do actually show, not all the time and not everybody but on a level consistent enough to be noticed and talked about.

On both a personal and national level, we are all a product of history, of environment. We all ascribe to our own cultural blueprint. Stereotypes can be called ‘national identity’ and worn with pride or they can be purposefully exaggerated and peddled for the tourist dollars. They can be used to encourage people to visit new places or they can be condemned by others as evil and used as a reason to stay away. They bend us towards love or hate, towards acceptance or rejection.

Stereotypes are shortcuts and if you take shortcuts all the time you miss a lot of scenery. What can you learn if you already know everything?

The quiet, honest Finn; the bellicose fun-loving Paddy; the dour stingy Scot; the rigid, hard-drinking German; the industrious Asian; those guys in the Middle East that are just crazy; the cowardly French; the arrogant, uneducated, indifferent American.

Which one would you pick to describe yourself? Which stereotype tells the whole story?

To comment on this column, e-mail Sharon Armstrong at sharon@yesweekly.com

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