Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The "A"mish - learning about culture

Visitors with kids from Boston want to learn about the Amish. Which way do I direct them? There are two routes to "Amish Country" from my house. One way takes you through all the typical tourist stops; Dutch Wonderland (an amusement park), the Amish farm tour, restaurants with appropriately contrived Dutchy names advertising shoo fly pie in neon colors. The other way has none of that; farms, country stores and farmstands. Although, in a lot of ways it isn't particularly Amish. Most people don't realize that there are many denominations (I think that would be the right word) of plain folks in Lancaster and Lebanon and other Pennsylvania counties. The non-tourist route is just people living their lives; farming, shopping, visiting. It's the way I take to my hometown. More Mennonites than Amish, I think.

How does one come to understand a different culture, a different way of life? I believe it is by the casual observation and interaction that will take place off the beaten path over a long period of time. But, if you only have a few hours is the crash course acceptable, even preferred? Will the tourist trap actually give you more information in condensed form? You could garner by acute observation that the Amish meet at certain homes for worship and do not have a church building. You will see long shelters built specifically for holding many buggies. If you drive by on a Sunday evening, they will be filled with dark horses and black buggies. Or you could confuse the many Mennonite churches for Amish churches, you could assume the Sunday buggy shelters serve some other purpose, or not notice them at all.

If you visit Shady Maple (a grocery store) you will notice people dressed in many varieties of plain dress and coverings. You won't however know what they mean, why they chose that way to dress, what that reflects about their particular understanding of scripture. Unless you ask. You will hear people speaking PA German, but you won't know how is came to be. You will be able to buy shoo-fly pies, scrapple and whoopie pies, but is that experiencing Amish culture?

My hope is that our visitors from Boston go off the beaten path and come back home with questions. (A jar of chow-chow and a shoo-fly pie couldn't hurt either.) I think the tourist route is easier in one way, it is all wrapped up, neat and tidy. You come away thinking you understand. Questions will lead to more questions and a humility toward the complexity of human culture.
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