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A glimpse of Fort Wayne, All-American City, from some non-American visitors
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Say you’re from Seoul, South Korea. Or Paris, France. Or Reading, England. And say you’re about to visit the United States of America for the very first time. Where would you go if you wanted an accurate glimpse of average American everyday life? Would you go to one of the nation’s cultural and historical hubs — New York, Washington D.C. Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago…
Or would you visit somewhere a little smaller, a little off the beaten tourist trail? Would you visit, say, the second largest city in the 14th most populous state somewhere in the middle of the country?
Well, we’d probably go for the cultural hub, too. But early in July, a group of 11 international visitors hosted by Friends of the Third World spent two weeks in our city, living in a borrowed apartment in West Central, seeing the sights, meeting the Mayor, touring some of our social services, and sampling what Fort Wayne has to offer. They were a diverse group of young people from countries that included Korea, Japan, Spain, Denmark, France, and England. For many of them, this was their first time is the United States, and they came here, to Fort Wayne.
The smart alecks among us might wonder how an overview of the highlights of Fort Wayne would take anyone two weeks, Three Rivers Festival or not. But we thought it might be interesting to see what foreign visitors thought of Fort Wayne, a city which is far from the center of political and cultural life in the U.S. but undeniably an All-American City — heck, we even have an award that says so. A visit to Fort Wayne might serve as an excellent study of middle America in all of its, errr… middleness, and provide a slice of real, average American life that you wouldn’t see in Washington D.C. or New York. “Most of my friends in Japan, they know New York or California.” says Yuriko Seki, a 19-year-old student from Northern Japan. “They don’t know Indiana.”
On the other hand, it might be a bit like one of us visiting Cheonan City, South Korea for two weeks. Or going to Britain and staying in, say, Swindon. Maybe. I’m going on general population size. Cheonan and Swindon could be vibrant towns with excellent public transportation systems, healthy economies, and a thriving downtown.
These weren’t your ordinary tourists. They were here as part of Volunteers for Peace, a non-profit, membership supported organization based in Vermont which sends volunteers to different “workcamps” (their word, not mine) usually associated with charitrt or aid organizations all across the globe. In the U.S., Volunteers For Peace has worked with the US Forest Service, National Park Service, various affiliates of Americorps, Habitat for Humanity, and numerous non-profits and environmental and community action groups.
The visitors are sponsored by Fort Wayne’s Friends of the Third World, a non-profit which has been promoting awareness of poverty issues both internationally and at home since 1972. Jim Goetsch, director of Friends of the Third World, explains that “Third World” means those who are poor anywhere. “Friends of the Third World means friends of the poor,” he says. “We don’t care if they’re across the street or across the ocean. We work on the root cause of poverty rather than emergency aid. Rather than a soup kitchen, we try to get people a job so they can buy food. Or we try to organize a co-operative so they can save money on food.”
Their center at 611 West Wayne serves as a Free Trade gift shop. “We sell things that benefit the producers, the people who grow the coffee or make the jewelry or the clothes,” Goetsch adds.
In between the trips and tours, the Volunteers For Peace tended the Friends of the Third World exhibit at the Three Rivers Festival, and ran several cultural education days for children at local library branches, where each visitor created a display of their own country and answered questions from the kids.
This marks the 15th year that Friends of the Third World has hosted a group from Volunteers For Peace. “What makes it unique is they all stay together and do things together, but they don’t know each other until they show up,” says Goetsch. “So, you have a French person learning what Japan is like, and you have all of them learning what Fort Wayne, Indiana is like.”
And what is Fort Wayne, Indiana like to someone from Paris, France or Seoul, South Korea, or Reading, England? Many of the visitors say that when they found out they were going to Fort Wayne, Indiana, they did their research on the internet. But beyond the fact that, in the words of Spanish visitor Jose Fernandez, there was a “very famous car race” associated with the state, they didn’t know much.
“I guess I’m slightly ignorant of America,” says Donna Bartlett, a 27-year-old from Reading, England who is very involved with the Fair Trade issue and learned about Volunteers For Peace through a charity organization called Concordia. “You hear about New York, Chicago, and other big cities. I think I thought it (the Midwest) would be less populated. I thought it would be more wide-open spaces and lakes… sort of a romantic notion.”
Bartlett is more than willing to laugh at these “romantic notions,” saying most people she knows back home get their images of the United States through films and television, just like someone here might have a stereotype of English people sitting down to elaborate teas after shedding their bowler hats. That said, she has been asked a few questions that surprised her. “I’ve been quite shocked that people didn’t know what the capitol of England is,” she says. “And I’ve found a lot of American people my age I’ve spoken to don’t know who our Prime Minister is, which is surprising, considering how closely Blair works with Bush.”
Yuriko Seki from Japan also says she gets a lot of unusual questions. “They ask, ‘Are there Samurai in Japan? Are there still Ninjas?’” she says.
I asked her about the impressions people her age in Japan have of America. She says that they see the U.S. as a country with incredible freedom, and generous and very friendly people. At the same time, they also have a perception of the U.S. as a very violent place, where almost everyone owns a gun. I asked how accurate she had found that perception to be. She said not in Iowa, where she has just finished her freshman year in college, but in Fort Wayne, she was surprised to find that it seemed true. She pointed out that since she had been here, three people had been shot, two at the Three Rivers Festival. Now there's one for the Fort Wayne Visitor's Bureau. As soon as she finishes e-mailing her family and friends, there's going to be some city five hours North of Tokyo that thinks of Food Alley as a cross between Dodge City and The Warriors.
Tanguy Le Floch, a 19-year-old from Paris who is planning on going to business school, says a pretty vivid stereotype of the average American exists in his country. “Some French see Americans like… soda in one hand, hamburger in the other. And a cap on the head,” he laughs. “But it’s very different.” (well, maybe he missed the trip to the Three Rivers Festival).
Le Floch adds that he’s found people in America to be generally “friendlier” than in Europe, and sees a huge difference in the way the cultures approach charity and social services. “In Europe, the system to help people is very different,” he says. “The government helps, but people typically don’t give time or money or food to those who need help. The government usually gives money directly. It’s very impressive to see all these people giving their time in the U.S.”
Donna Bartlett has also noticed a difference with charity and aid in America. “So much of the charity/social services are organized around religious groups,” Bartlett says. “The people who help tend to be governed by religion. I have respect for that, because they’re doing a lot of good things. They’re kind people, very caring. Somebody has to, and it’s better to have something there than nothing there. But I do wonder how much the actual services provided are governed by religious beliefs.”
Jacob Jayfellows is the only American traveling with the group. A 26-year-old from Little Valley, New York, Jayfellows says that he has had a few political discussions with some of the visitors, but outside their own core group, they seem hesitant to talk about politics. Maybe it’s simple politeness, a fear of being perceived as ungracious. Maybe it’s because many of the visitors don’t feel their grasp of English is strong enough to convey some of the nuances of international politics. Or maybe, it’s because as people who are active in social issues, they’re wary of generalities. When talking about the war in Iraq or the war on terrorism, or the perception of the U.S. in their homeland, the farthest they’ll go is, “well, many people in my country don’t like President Bush, but…” They’re quick to point out how one can admire certain aspects of a nation’s culture and people while being leery of its government.
At the same time, they will admit that certain aspects of the way we live in Fort Wayne and the Midwest seem to conform to stereotypes that exist about Americans in the rest of the world. Namely, that when it comes to food and cars, we don’t do anything small.
“Here, people eat a lot,” says Fernandez. “Everything is very big. Big glasses, big cups. Dinner, lunch… everything is big.”
“The size and number of the cars,” says Le Floch. “Big SUVs. We don’t have these kind of cars in France. It’s very difficult to live here without a car. You can’t get anywhere.”
“Everyone travels by car, and it seems you have to,” Bartlett says. “I think people are probably getting their driver’s license at 17 on the dot.”
Some of the Volunteers For Peace will take the opportunity to travel around the U.S. when their stint with the organization is over. Others have to head home right away for school or family or work. As far as what Fort Wayne, All-American City, can tell them about the rest of America… they say answering that is impossible, though their experience here has been a positive one. They all realize they’re getting a very small glimpse of a very big country.