Cultural Insight: Reflections a Year After January 6th

A house in Charleston’s French Quarter, on January 6, 2021

I remember growing up, my parents often talked about how there were certain events in their life that they would always remember.  The event itself, as well as where they were and what they were doing when it happened.  For them, two primary events were JFK’s assassination and the landing on the moon.  Both were events that triggered strong emotions, not only for them, but for the country as a whole.

Until 2020, 9/11 has been the definitive event that I will always remember.  The shock, the concern for classmates from university who worked in the area, the fear of what more was to come and who I would know who was affected.  I was working, in the office at Mecel (as it was then known, now integrated into Delphi and re-named Aptiv).

Through the course of the days and weeks that followed, it changed life as we know it.

I was fortunate to not have lost any dear friends or family.  But even without that loss, I acutely felt the loss of other things:  A faith in humanity to be and do good.  A fragile trust in flying, that was my tenuous connection to my family and homeland as an expatriate abroad.  A comfort for the world I thought I knew.  My naïveté.  

While many grieved their loved ones, the rest of us grieved the loss of the world as we knew it.

I thought, perhaps naively hoped, that it would be the definitive event of my lifetime.

It wasn’t.

A year ago yesterday, a friend and I were walking around the French Quarter of Charleston while my car was being serviced.  It was a sunny day, cool, but beautiful.  We had had a wonderful Lowcountry lunch, and were walking it off while browsing in stores.

My mom called me, and asked where I was and what I was doing.  She asked if I were safe.  I replied that of course I was.  Then she told me what was unfolding in my nation’s capitol and urged me to get home as riots were expected across the country.

We started making our way back to the car, revising our route as we saw some emotional demonstrations with police security.  Despite hearing what had happened in Washington, and seeing the growing demonstrations in Charleston, it all seemed unreal.

I had taken democracy, and the steps taken in it for granted.

A peaceful transition of power, even after bitter, hateful campaigns, is the base of the American democratic system.  Despite all the norms and rules that had already been broken during the actual presidency, I didn’t really think it could or would go this far.

Footage from the storming of the Capitol belied the very democracy that the United States has professed (and even proselytised) since its founding.  

I never thought I would see such an outright affront to democratic means in the country of my birth.

And although I never would have wished for this to happen, I am very grateful for the experience to be here, to be on the ground and experience this first hand.

In a lot of ways, I feel more Swedish than American.  When I am in Sweden, I clearly don’t feel entirely Swedish, but many of the norms and values are more in tune to my own.  Sweden is definitely Introvert Heaven, and for a child raised in Sierra Club, concerned about conservation and sustainability, I feel more comfortable.

Living in Sweden, as I had for most of the last twenty years, and looking at the US from the outside, particularly over the most recent years, it has been pretty easy to assess the situation (to quote in the Midwestern dialect of my upbringing) as “going to hell in a handbasket”).

In fact, my thoughts about the status is fairly accurately summarised in my response to my husband’s initial inquiry about moving to the US as “Are you out of your &*%#-ing mind?!?!?”

With time, reflection, and conversations with trusted advisors, I started to instead see the possibilities.  Beyond those for my family, it was also a chance for me to practice a good deal of what I teach, and confront my worst stereotype:  the American South.  

I have always enjoyed a challenge, and also the opportunity to push myself.  If I teach about adapting and working with other cultures, shouldn’t I also confront my own bête-noire?

A year ago, walking through Charleston, I had already experienced many positive interactions, many experiences to change my mind about the American South.

Now today, reflecting on the past year, I have thought about a lot of things.  

I think about binary bias, and how our brain’s desire to simplify information leads to classifying information as good vs bad, right vs wrong, hero vs villain, Republican vs Democrat, North vs South, etc.

I think about all the different ways we are influenced to grow deeper into our binary bias, through media, through foreign and domestic interventions, with the cause of classifying each other and increasing division.

I look at Facebook, comments on news articles, and I wonder how we can ever come together, especially as we hide behind our screens.

Then, I go to our area Costco, and waiting for my rotisserie chicken to finish cooking, I hear a woman handing out samples of Shepard’s Pie.  She calls out her offer, then erupts with the most gorgeous voice.  I forget that I am in Costco, shutting my eyes and imagining I am in simple and sunny church with the choir belting out the joy of their faith and gospel.  I open my eyes and see others who are caught up in the moment as well.  People across political, racial, economic, and cultural divides, sharing comments and expressions of our common humanity.

She switches to a playful rendition of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain”, changing the words to pitch the Shepard’s Pie on offer.

Then we move on with our day.  Each of us a bit happier.  Each of us a bit closer.  And perhaps each of us realising a bit more that which we have in common.

With a tear in my eye, the sound of her outstanding voice echoing in my head, and the shared joy that we all had in the experience, I can’t help but feel faith and hope for the United States.

With this, I encourage you, who have stereotypes and fears, loss of faith and hope in humanity, to get out.  To experience humanity.  To find the small actions and interactions that remind us that we’re all in this together, we share more than divides us.

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