A country abroad, a world apart
Words by Alexi Barnstone
In November of 2017, Aaron landed in Australia. He was 24-years-old, had wide cheekbones, short brown hair, and stubble. At 5' 10" he didn’t look down on you, but he didn’t look up to you either.
He was born and raised in the small town of Ponchatoula off the I-55. About a 50-minute drive inland from New Orleans, Louisiana. The town has a population of about 7,000 residents. The city derived its name from the Choctaw Indian language. Ponchatoula means ‘hair to hang’ in the native tongue, a title allocated to the town because of the vast amount of Spanish moss that hangs on the trees across the flat land. Ponchatoula, like the rest of Louisiana, is flat and near two things; A highway and some murky marshland.
Aaron did a degree in accounting at Southeastern Louisiana University, which is situated in the town of Hammond, no more than a 5-minute drive from Ponchatoula. After completing the four-year degree Aaron had decided that there was more of the world to explore. A year of table-waiting and tip saving got him on a flight to leave the United States for the first time. He was headed to Australia.
Like many of the traveling youth of today, Aaron acquired a year-long working holiday visa. He was subsumed into the lifestyle of the quintessential backpacker. Aaron acquired a van, packed it with his life belongings and a mattress, and set out to circle the coast of Australia. He worked odd jobs, traveled the country and partied with others on a similar journey. And although he played every part of the role, when he opened his mouth something became very apparent.
When he spoke it became obvious that he wasn’t your stereotypical Brazilian tourist or British gap year adventurer. Instead of the stressed H’s and the chopped S’s of the Brazilian Accent or the pish posh of the British youth, from Aaron’s mouth came the deep drawl of the deepest south. With it flowed every quirky Americanism — excessive use of ‘dude’ and a joking calls to arms; “the south will rise again.” And with each colloquialism he signaled that even surrounded by fellow tourists, he was from a very different part of the world.
I first met Aaron on a trip to the United States in January of 2016. A slew of my Australian friends and I touched down in New Orleans mere days after the inauguration. Our stay was only brief. We were picked up by our friend, a boy named Marley, who had grown up in this part of the world with Aaron but since moved to Australia. Marley had been back visiting his childhood home and this was the rendezvous before we all flew back to Australia together. Marley picked us up from the airport and drove us along miles of flat highway. We passed marshlands full of towering grass and swamp chestnut oaks until the chestnut oaks were wearing wigs of Spanish moss. We arrived in Ponchatoula.
On arrival Marley turned to us before we could unpack our bags and gave us a piece of advice that felt like a command; ‘don’t mention Trump or politics, it isn’t worth it.’
And so, we didn’t. In the wake of arguably the most controversial election in US history, at the height of my depression and angst over the conundrum that is modern day politics in the US, I swallowed my views and held them in an ever sorer throat.
But it didn’t impinge on my experience one bit. The week I spent in general New Orleans area was one of the most exhilarating weeks of my life. It was a week full of dancing down Bourbon Street with newly found friends, drinking in Jazz bars and burying our faces in shrimp gumbo. Everyone I met was kind, loving and friendly. The nights were full of laughter and playful banter. And when all was said and done, I left Louisiana tired, hungover, and with myriad more friends.
It was because of the nature of our time in Louisiana that I did not know much about Aaron when he arrived in Australia. We had spent a week together in his neck of the woods, but personal information was not offered lightly during that time. Perhaps the clubs had been too loud, or the time too short. All I knew was where he was from, that he was one of Marley’s closest friends growing up, and that he was now on the other side of the world in Sydney.
Over the first couple months of his stay, we got to know each other. He had spent his whole life in Ponchatoula and this was his first time leaving the United States. His mother was a lifelong believer and devote baptist. His father had always been undecided on religion. As a youth Aaron’s love for soccer had led to him befriending Marley. After finishing high school Aaron received a full ride scholarship to university for academic excellence. The only stipulation was that he enter university directly after the first summer of graduation. And so, forgoing any chance of travel beforehand, he immersed himself in his university education. After finishing his degree in accounting Aaron was ready to explore. And knowing Marley had a place for him to stay, he made Sydney his first destination.
He also learned a lot more about me, and the people I spent time with. We were a vocal bunch. We inner city folk were unabashed in our vehement assaults on paradoxical views or incoherent arguments. I would regularly plug satirical comments about populism, dogmatic belief, white supremacy, and all of them together — Trump.
In my neck of the woods, Aaron found himself surrounded by an exhaustive whirlwind of depreciation aimed at the politics of the right, and the people that supported it. If I referenced an event he had not heard of or an issue he had not thought about he was open about not knowing. He did not try to hide the fact that he lacked exposure. If he said he had not ever heard of what I was talking about I would double down and quip something else like ‘fix your algorithm’ or the old classic — a sarcastic and belligerent cry — ‘fake news’.
Aaron did not take offense. He understood that the world was as divided as ever and that humor was one of the greatest coping mechanisms. Nothing we said was an affront to him, but times were stressful and the world felt on the brink. As Marley once said to me when we were in Ponchatoula; “Aaron is not quite like all the other people around here.” He knew that the world and its issues were complex. That there was no straight answers or simple arguments. All the questions of life, from the existential to the political, were tightly woven knots.
As Aaron explained himself, he wanted to hear as much as he could and see the world from all different angles. This was his first trip abroad, and he intended to take something away from it. The entire purpose of his trip was to start to unravel the knot, to see the complexity.
Satire aside I also engaged in many amazing conversations with him. I recommended books for him to read on his journeys and tried my best to justify my own opinions with substantiation. One specific book that I recommended Aaron proclaimed to be the greatest book he had ever read in his life.
That book was Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. “Every page had mind-blowing information about our species and how we live. This book changed the way I see the world” Aaron enthusiastically raged in his review to me after finishing it. The book discussed the utility of religion, nationalism, and race in a light that he had never heard before. It explained how these constructs enable humans to interact and cooperate, how it establishes a base level of trust or camaraderie through a shared belief or moral code. His mind was blown.
Toward the end of his stay, Aaron described the dynamic of the friendship between us;
“You sit there with crazy ass random information and just try to fuck with me with philosophical questions. I like it though.”
No greater compliment could have ever been conjured.
And just like that, a year had passed and Aaron’s visa was set to expire. His time had been served. On his final day, a small group of his close friends gathered to wish him farewell on the crowded shores of Bondi beach. Aaron looked a very different character from when he first set foot on Aussie soil. His hair was long and wavy. Unkempt in the Australian summer sun, accompanied by a scruffy conglomerate of facial hair that stretched ear to ear.
As we said our goodbyes I gave him a final loving prod — and a testament to the nature of our friendship — a book as a present. The book was about extremism. Written by J. M. Berger and published in MIT press the book was a short explainer about what common structural themes exist in extremist movements and how they occur. It explores the frequent use of the ‘us vs them’ mentality. How extremist movements adopt this type of mentality where people perceive the success of ‘us’ as inextricably linked to the suffering of ‘them’ and how this dynamic leads to the subjugation of the outgroup by the movement. It explained perfectly all the dangers of such a mentality, and how prejudice stems from such a political or social structure. I handed it to him in tandem with my final politically loaded quip of his stay in Australia; “let me know when you first see this down South, I bet it won’t be Muslims mate.”
I said it jokingly and laughed playfully throughout the gesture. But if I am being honest, I wanted him to see. I wanted him to seriously consider his own people. I wanted him to understand extremism — in the form that it exists today — for what it is. I wanted him to understand how toxic the populist movement of the right is. How it is founded on the same fundamental principles as so many extremist movements, from ISIL to the Nazi regime in the 1930s. Where the Jews were the outgroup in the 30’s, now we had immigrants. I wanted him to see how these groups used ‘us vs them’ rhetoric to create a sense of collectivity. The way that these groups mechanise hate for a minority group to establish unity in their base. To see that the rise of white supremacy was the greatest threat to our national security because it was emblematic of the proliferation of deep seeded prejudice. I wanted him to question his reality. To think about the damaging effects of dogmatic belief, of conformity, and of ignorance.
And like that he was gone. He was thousands of kilometers back in the bible belt. Back on flat land full of Spanish moss and marshland. But the distance did not keep us from talking. About a week after he had left I got the first message.
“I finished the book, I see it everywhere.”
At first, I felt vindication for my own beliefs. Pride in my dissemination of knowledge. Then things got less comfortable. I started to receive more messages, the likes of which, I could never have predicted. After a year together, it was not until he went home that Aaron opened up to me about his family. About his situation. And he was freaking out.
Aaron started to tell me more about his family dynamic. His father was convinced that no matter what they did everything was controlled by the corrupt in Washington. He had lost all hope in the system and couldn’t conceive of a world where money didn’t control the actions of government. Aaron tried to talk to him about extremism. About the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality and how toxic it was, his father didn’t have time to listen. His father became defensive when Aaron started to talk about extremism. He started to talk about Al Qaeda, and how it was made up by the elites in Washington.
His mother was an evangelical, she had been of faith her entire life. Never doubting, never second-guessing. It had always been a rift in their relationship. If he tried to express his doubt she would refer him to his own youth.
His mother would remind him about church camp. When Aaron was young he had been signed up to church camp by her to find god. When he was around 8, confused, surrounded by peers, older kids that he thought were cool, and instructors, he was asked if he felt the presence of Jesus. In the heat of the moment, and under a significant amount of peer pressure, he rose his hand. To this day his mother held that moment over him as a sign of his belief. Out of all the thousands of times he had the chance to profess his full faith she would isolate that solitary occasion, that raised hand, as evidence of Christ in him.
As he grew older Aaron decided that it was not worth trying to talk to her about it. He accepted that they felt differently about how the world worked, and what faith meant. It agonized her that he wouldn’t come around, and she continued to pester him about that one time he showed faith.
His father was different, he hadn’t been heavily religious for the entirety of Aaron’s childhood. He had always been the figure that Aaron could go to and try to discuss how he felt. At least, that was the case until 2018. Aaron returned home to discover that his dad had gotten baptized and decided to believe.
“My father was always the parent that I could reason with. I was never able to fully engage in religion. Always living in this existential crisis type state of mind since I was old enough to think that way. ‘Why am I so fortunate to be born into a country that teaches me of this truth? What about kids that grow up elsewhere being taught a different belief system — kids that had great hearts but no exposure to the word of Jesus — will they burn for eternity for that which they have no control over? If so I should burn with them, I am no better. Why would God do this to them? Will I have loved ones that will burn in hell? And if so, how could my heaven be so perfect while knowing that others are burning? But my mom is convinced all other religions are frauds. It doesn’t make sense to me, but at least I could always express myself to my dad because he listened.”
Aaron’s parents had taken a step at mending a significant gap in their relationship. But dogma was not the philosophical basis of Aarons reasoning.
He wanted to talk about what he had read to his dad. How religion and nationalism were tools for social cohesion, glue for the establishment of a larger society. And maybe a year ago he would have. But now he couldn’t.
“I have all these views. All these opinions I want to discuss. But I can’t with my mom. If I bring this shit up with her she will start crying and say that Jesus has forsaken me — there are literally Christian hymns playing in the house right now — And now I can’t talk to my dad because I am afraid he might listen. For the first time in his life, he has taken this huge step of faith with my mom. And now if he starts to think a different way because of me…. I don’t know what will happen to their relationship. I can’t be the catalyst for that.”
He had gotten home to find himself further away than ever.
A few weeks ago he sent me a short and succinct message;
“I grew up here. But this just doesn’t feel like home anymore.”