For many people the election was a shock—but for me, it was a betrayal.
There were things I thought I knew.
I thought I knew, for example, that the smartest kid in my high school class—the one with the lightning fast wit and the ability to crush a calculus equation, who even held the title of “boyfriend” our junior year—would surely be voting the way I was.
He was not.
I thought I knew, for example, that the respectable, church-going families whom I had grown up admiring—the ones who kept their daughters away from the kinds of boys that said words like “pussy”—would surely be appalled by the behavior of this man; that their morals and principles would surely supersede a traditional Republican agenda.
They did not.
I thought I knew, for example, that the people who grew up like me—the people who break their backs to earn $7/hour, whose children depend on the grace of the school lunch program, and for whom the community gets together to donate turkeys and stuffing and cranberry sauce and clothing every year during the annual “Sharing Parade”—would naturally support social programs designed to help their families.
They did not.
I thought I knew, for example, that the reason my parents always seemed like outcasts in our small, rural, white working class Pennsylvania town was because they were outsiders from Philadelphia. (My mother’s parallel parking skills were surely a source of envy.) And after all, everybody knows people from the city aren’t to be trusted.
That was not the reason.
Yes, the election was a shock—but it also betrayed many of the things I thought I knew, teaching me, instead, many things I never had.
I suddenly understood, now, why only certain people had gone to my father’s barber shop to get their hair cut, after all those years. I suddenly understood, now, why my friendship with a girl in town had never been shared by our parents. I suddenly understood, now, how my mother would come to befriend a woman with cat urine on her floor. (As it turns out, shared ideologies are sometimes more unifying than shared ideas about anything else.)
And so, as I watched President Obama’s farewell to our nation, it was more than just a speech—it was an opportunity to reflect on my identity.
“The scrappy kid from Scranton,” he said fondly, in reference to Vice President Joe Biden.
For me, this was not a metaphorical head nod, but a very real one:
I actually am from Scranton.
Growing up, Scranton was where the big mall was—the one with two floors, instead of one. Scranton was where I shinned my knees on the volleyball court; where I went to Ponderosa for the first time with an older boy; where I roamed the aisles of Wal-Mart with friends, feeling like I was invincible.
Scranton was the place you went when you wanted to be somebody.
Which is probably why I got the reaction I did the first time I wanted to go above its head. Most people hadn’t even made the 1.5 hour trek to go visit New York City, let alone go visit another country. I remember feeling more excited than I’d ever felt about anything, as I figured out how to pack a suitcase for the first time. (And also how to unpack a suitcase for the first time, as I stood mortified in front of the ticket agent at Philadelphia International Airport, hurriedly flinging items onto the floor to avoid a hefty overweight fee—a fee that would have taken a considerable chunk out of the $1,000 I had painstakingly earned that summer working two jobs both serving ice cream and tending bar for truck drivers.)
Nineteen year old girls like me didn’t frequent places like airports. And I wouldn’t have, either, if it weren’t for Andy McKelvey, billionaire mogul and founder of Monster.com, who saw something more than a girl from a trailer park when he awarded me a full scholarship to a private university in Scranton based on financial need and “entrepreneurial spirit.” Study abroad wasn’t part of the deal, but I had spent the entirety of my sophomore year petitioning the scholarship fund to consider transferring the benefit of the bargain to cover the cost of a semester abroad, making the case that it would be considerably cheaper than the $40,000 they’d pay, were I to stay home.
And that day in Philadelphia International Airport, as I boarded a Continental flight with a layover in Houston, I didn’t just get on a plane for the first time—I saw people for the first time. There were black people and brown people and loud people and shy people. There were high heels and trench coats, briefcases, and blowouts. There were French and Dutch and Spanish and Hungarian. And there were people who seemed to know something about the world that I didn’t—including how to move about it. It was as if the world’s best kept secret was hidden in plain view this entire time, and I was just discovering it.
That was only the beginning of my love affair with humanity. Because you know what struck me most about the semester I would go on to spend in Costa Rica? Not how different everyone was, but how much we’re really all the same.
I hadn’t been expecting that, of course. Based on the conversations I had with adults from home—the ones who were trying to instill some sense into a young girl flying off to Central America—I had been expecting the chicken buses and the rapists and the kidnappers and the kind of people you never look in the eye. And while those things can’t be denied—as everywhere—you know what else existed, too?
So much goodness.
I was struck by how good people were to me—a stranger in a strange land. An outsider, in every way. And while I might not have had the enviable parallel parking skills of my mother—wide grin—I wasn’t expecting to feel less of a cultural divide in a foreign country than I did when I returned to my very own hometown.
But there it was.
I had met and fallen in love with a Costa Rican boy (because of course I did) and came home telling tales of passion and romance. But I will never forget the words that were spoken to me, after sharing my story with an adult in the community who I respected very much.
“A fling is fine, but you’re not going to bring him home and marry him. Okay?”
It was said less as a question, and more as a statement. It was meant as guidance, but I couldn’t help but think to myself: And what would be wrong with it if I did?
It was the first time I felt like maybe I was on a different side.
And for the past year, as Facebook posts about the election streamed down my home feed, filled with ideologies I’d never shared, the cultural divide seemed to widen.
There were things I saw in that Facebook feed that made me wish for the innocence of youth again—the kind where you can roam the aisles of Walmart with those same friends, laughing at how stupid your parents were for arguing about these kinds of things. The kind of youth when you are more the same than you are different; when independent thought hasn’t caught up to you yet.
This election was painful because it created an identity crisis for me, of sorts. It was an exercise in getting to know myself—the person I am as an adult, versus the one I was as a kid.
I am in the unique position to have grown up in a conservative blue-collar town—in a county where 13,295 people voted for Donald Trump, and 5,065 voted for Hillary Clinton—but to have been raised by liberal, Democratic parents.
I am in the unique position to remember how daunting it was when the Mexicans first arrived that year to work in our stone quarries (I still remember the first time they came to the ice cream stand), but to have also have traveled the world and seen how daunting it can be when the Americans arrive, all the same.
I am in the unique position to understand what economic despair feels like, and worry, and shame and resentment, but I also understand that upward mobility isn’t a function of how much money you can make, but how much you’re willing to learn. Money isn’t our greatest challenge: Creating a culture of belief is. Because we desperately need people who believe that they are smart and capable and wonderful, and that their ideas are worthy of pursuit. Money follows ideas, not jobs.
And last but not least, I am in the unique position to be both a person who understands, and frankly, a person who sometimes doesn’t.
There’s been a lot of speculation about the why behind Donald Trump, and specifically, how a population of people could relate to him more than they could Hillary Clinton. Because that’s what this is really about, isn’t it? One big fancy adult game of: Who’s the most like me? And while Donald Trump may not share much common ground in terms of appearance—most of the world is confused how his penthouses and the billions and reality TV star status could ever make him the relatable candidate—but that’s not what made him relatable:
His narrative did.
And I don’t even mean the content of his narrative (though “we’re gonna build a wall” certainly did the trick) but rather, the attitude surrounding it. The very thing many people in the world are horrified by—Donald Trump’s demeanor—is the same thing that those who voted for him respect.
And that’s where the divide begins.
In a place like the one where I grew up, respect isn’t earned by the whiteness of your collar, but by your willingness to take it off. To be a man’s man; to be able to hang with the boys; to get the job done; to be an alpha male. And the language that Donald Trump used throughout his campaign was, in many ways, reflective of the language used among that particular sub-culture. (Maybe why well-meaning mothers were so eager to keep their daughters away from it.) And in many ways, making fun of a disabled reporter potentially made him more popular in the eyes of some who voted for him, not less—which speaks to a much larger issue than a political one.
Contrast that with the people who would have rather razored open their veins before they voted for Donald Trump. Their perspective on what merits respect is vastly different. The very same actions by the very same man produced a very different result, and that’s because this sub-culture of people—the one I personally identify with as an adult—maintains a vastly different value system. Respect isn’t defined—or earned—in the same way.
And in this regard, we don’t just have two different political parties at odds—we have two very different cultures trying to agree on one person to rule them both. It’s not about the educated versus the non-educated: It’s about two entirely different belief systems.
But no matter which side you stand on, it’s not just a learning opportunity for me, but for all of us. An opportunity to learn a little bit more about the person you are, and what informs your opinions. Try reading a news article you disagree with, through the lens of someone who wholeheartedly agrees—and vice versa. Actually re-read it with enthusiasm and fervor, as if you truly believed what you were reading. Convince yourself for a moment. Try to understand another person’s position instead of constantly viewing things from your own. Poke, shove, prod at your ideas. Take them and twist them and mold them into your own. Cultivate an original opinion—not just the one you’ve been told. And for god’s sake, talk to people. Talk to one another. Talk not only to those who share your ideas, but those who do not. And just like you wouldn’t storm into a foreign country judging everybody’s way of life, don’t storm into a conversation judging theirs. Think of it as a true cross-cultural exchange, one in which both parties may not share common beliefs, but don’t have to in order to learn from one another.
Because sometimes the things you think you know, aren’t.
And sometimes you’ll learn that the things you didn’t know—you needed to.
And sometimes, in this big, crazy world of ours, you’ll take the risk. You’ll get on the plane. You’ll look the scary people in the eye. And in between the differences, tucked in the crevices behind the facade, you will find the one thing we all forget to account for:
So much goodness.
Because you know what strikes me the most, as I straddle both realities?
For as much as we’re different, we’re really all the same.