The neighborhood of my childhood was a block only by the loosest of definitions. If you walked a half a mile in either direction, you reached another street, which eventually reached another and another, eventually returning to my front door. Of course, cutting along the disused railroad tracks cut that trip in half, and traipsing through the woods and fields was always an option. Mine was a rural neighborhood, where deer, rabbit, and woodchucks were plentiful. There was the occasional visit from the river otter, porcupine, muskrat, beaver, or fox. We kept an eye out for snapping turtles and a nose out for skunks. We spent long summer evenings chasing fireflies. To me, it was an idyllic existence. I explored field, wood, river and railroad bed without a care, without fear, this was the world I knew.
I was quite young when the new neighbors moved into the rental house across the street. They were not local. They had not grown up in a rural neighborhood like I had. They found apprehension where I found peace, fear where I found freedom. At first glance it may have seemed like an unlikely pairing, but our families quickly became good friends.
A walk with the family’s young mother remains one of my most vivid childhood memories. Another neighbor, who lived a half a mile up and a quarter of a mile over, was hosting a multi-family yard sale and we were participating. While I don’t recall the walk there, I will never forget the walk back.
I believe it was just she and I, although she may have had one of her young daughters with her. It was a hot August afternoon, and I had no desire to follow the road a quarter of a mile over and a half a mile down. Standing between this particular neighbor’s house and my own was a field I had walked a thousand times before. This summer, it happened to be filled with cow corn. Because it was late summer the corn towered over my head. It would provide welcome relief from the glaring afternoon sun. It was also slightly taller than my neighbor. I suggested we cut through the field, and for some reason, she agreed with me. We walked along happily until we reached the center of the cornfield. It was then that I became possessed with one of those terrible childish thoughts – it would be so funny to leave her right here. And that’s exactly what I did. I ran ahead and burst from the shade of the cornfield back into the blazing afternoon sun and waited. It wasn’t long before she began shouting at me. Shouting to me. Getting really, really angry. I began to realize that I might be in a bit of trouble after this. What I couldn’t understand was the note of panic in her voice. Didn’t she understand about cornfields? This particular cornfield was not large. It was bordered on two sides by a road, and most of the other two sides were bordered by houses. The corn in this field was always planted in straight rows.
Growing up around farms, fields, and open spaces, I had amassed a wealth of knowledge that at my young age I didn’t realize I had. My neighbor, raised in a more urban setting had none of these. She was looking straight ahead, seeing a wall of corn, not looking from side to side to see a path around that wall. The longer she stood there attempting to make sense of her surroundings, the less sense her surroundings made to her. She was surrounded by corn, and from where she stood it was an endless wall of green, with no way out. From where I stood on the road, the green was merely a curtain along a well-marked path, offering both a shortcut and a break from the heat of the sun. Where she was lost in unfamiliar surroundings, I was at home.
Eventually I think I took pity on her, or figured I was really going to get it if I left my neighbor stranded in the middle of the cornfield forever. I went in and led her to the road. She was not amused. I am fairly certain she never went into a cornfield again.
Oftentimes when I see a cornfield I think of this episode. Lately though, I’ve begun to think about this as a parable of sorts. Attempting to navigate the intricacies of a new culture can be a lot like being lost in the corn field. Where people raised in a culture find their way from one side to another effortlessly, newcomers will find themselves facing a wall of uncertainty.
I have seen culture compared to an iceberg, where behaviors float above water, while the causes of the behaviors are well below the ocean’s surface. I have seen culture likened to an onion, where you peel back layers to understand the culture. To me, when you compare it to an iceberg, it seems as though you can never understand the underlying causes. While comparing it to an onion leads you to believe that there is a definitive order to peeling away the layers. I see culture more like the cornfield I left my neighbor stranded in. There are well defined paths that will help you navigate the culture, but finding them is the trick. You can only see what is in front of you, and your interpretation is based on your background. As you navigate your own section of this cultural cornfield, you gain a little insight, but there is no way to pull back and observe the entire field. You acquire a little knowledge at a time, and interpret information based not just on what you are learning along the way, but also on the skills and knowledge you bring with you.
There are days when I feel as though I am stranded in the middle of a giant cornfield with no way out. Ahead of me is an endless wall of green. Today it may be the language, yesterday it was driving, tomorrow it maybe a new holiday. Most of the time I remember to turn away from the wall in front of me and look for a path that will lead me to a better understanding of the culture, but inevitably, I find another wall. I am learning the culture slowly, a row at a time, weaving information together to create a pattern in the field.
Even within my family, the interpretation of events and culture is different. My children see things one way, my interpretation is different not only from theirs, but also from that of my husband. Each of us entered the cornfield in a different place, and our experiences are not always shared. My husband and I have similar educations, but vastly different backgrounds. Even when we take in the same events, we process them in our own rows seeing different aspects of the culture. My children view things through yet another lens, suspended between our visions and their own. Somewhere between our individual interpretations lies something close to the truth. I collect these insights, like fallen corn and tie them together, hoping to gain some needed perspective while remaining lost among the corn, trying not to panic.