There is a place in Asheville, North Carolina that epitomizes most of the things I believe in. A grand statement, to be sure, but true nonetheless. If you’ve never been to the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, you should probably go hop in your electric trike and be on your way.
French Broad Chocolate Lounge is a cafe, a chocolatorium, an eatery, and a gallery of art & many things creative. It’s owned by a couple – self-taught chocolatiers – who, before moving to Asheville, owned a chocolate and bread bakery in Costa Rica. It is home to Chinese lanterns and uneven chairs, string lights and wine glasses hanging overhead by their stems. Names of countries act as table markers – when Jesse first took me, we were Togo (hey my Ghana girls, remember that weekend trip?) – and each handmade ceramic dish has its own story. There are open mic nights, there are featured artists, there are more chocolate concoctions (can you say liquid truffle?) than you can imagine. There are tattooed baristas and mint-chocolate-chip brownies and dogs and high heels and babies and creamy stouts and Pinot Noir and artists sketching you from a nearby table. What I’m trying to say is, you can’t not fit in here. Unless you hate delicious treats, family owned establishments, and cozy places exploding with creative energy. And if that’s the case, you should probably not be walking around Asheville, North Carolina.
Why the endorsement for French Broad Chocolate Lounge? Mostly because this is a place that stirs my heart, that makes me see the word “creative” written across the air in chocolaty curls of steam. It’s a place where I can make cool things with words and dream about building my own imaginative, wholesome spaces. Where I watch people nibble and chat and draw and laugh and just enjoy being in each other’s company. It’s a place where you stand out if you’re on your iPhone for more than a minute (unlike the DC Metro, where if you do not have a smart phone and are not on it constantly, you may get strange looks). It’s a kitchen of stories, a living room of creativity. It just feels good.
I’m paying close to attention to places like that these days. Places that exist in unique pockets of the United States, places that see all kinds of strange people come through its doors. Places where visitors brush elbows with locals and no one can ever seem to leave. I’m paying attention and the wheels are spinning.
Here’s something I’m working on. (And I think this decadent heaven of chocolate fits into it, though I haven’t quite figured out how.) I’m not sure what to call it yet — a project, a movement, a journey that might spark a longer piece of writing. It involves some inspiring investigating, talking to people, and truly and deeply communicating with strangers. Here is my question, my goal, the concept I would like to spend a long time exploring: What is the culture of America?
Myriad words and responses probably come to mind when you read that. Maybe they have to do with your personal heritage, your family life, your traditions and those of people you know. Maybe what strikes you is something more along the lines of pop culture, blue jeans, the Civil Rights Movement, the automobile, Hollywood, war, hope, the American dream, or fried Twinkies. The point is, there are many ways to answer this question. But I don’t know how to — I don’t feel I know enough to provide an answer that seems true, or at least true to me.
This all hit me last September, when I was halfway around the world. Dressed in a blue saree on a humid evening at an international conference cultural evening in Kegalle, Sri Lanka, I was overwhelmed when I was asked to represent the U.S. on stage in front of my peers from all over South Asia. I had no idea what to do or say, and it really got to me. Here’s some of what I wrote about that event on the blog that Jesse & I kept while in Sri Lanka (you can read the full post by clicking here):
…I realized in that moment that I am so used to being a multicultural kid and blending in with other young internationals that, when asked to wear my nationality with pride and teach others about my culture, I freeze up. I don’t know how to adequately and appropriately represent America’s cultural heritage. Is it enough to say that we share the cultures of all who live on our land, or is it that I am severely lacking in knowledge when it comes to my country’s history and its people? Maybe it’s both, but still, I’m not satisfied with that. If I don’t even know how to describe America’s culture, how will my kids? And, on a more personal level, have I been so passionate about traveling around the world and experiencing so many other cultures that I have failed to truly understand my own?
I’ve spent most of my life in America, but also lived in Germany for many years and have traveled to many fascinating places outside these borders. By the time I was 16, I had been to more countries than I had U.S. states. I am an American, but I don’t know what that means. I have been having an ongoing identity crisis since age 14 (when I stepped foot in my new school in Stuttgart and was immediately labeled “The New American”) and anyone who knows me knows I don’t really know where home is or how to answer the question, “Where are you from?” Needless to say, I have convinced myself that I am not qualified to answer questions about American culture. And so I have mostly avoided the question. And it was all good and fine being the “girl from overseas” until this conference in Sri Lanka where I was one of two Americans and was asked to discuss what that meant.
So. Never one to be tongue-tied, I am going to find out what it means.
I think I’ll do this by starting with something I have been good at since I was a little girl: asking questions. I want to know where Americans are from, what that means, why it matters. Tell me about something that was passed down to you. Tell me what you do for YOU. What makes you get out of bed each morning? What does community look like to you? Are you afraid of getting old? Do you remember being young? Whose stories did you listen to growing up? What’s the American Dream? What’s Your Dream? I want to see America through the eyes of the people at the bottom (because there is a bottom, even if there shouldn’t be). I want to talk to one of the guys who takes fresh fish from the bay to the restaurants in D.C. every morning before dawn. I want to know about my long-lost cousin in Nebraska. I want to unpack Dr. Piya’s (Sri Lankan native/Texas A&M professor) statement: “America’s greatest strength is her diversity.” I want to get to the fascinating places, the broken places, the places where hope was ignited and then died, where stories were born then sputtered, where love was lost then found.
That’s a lot of things to be curious about. But I’m determined to get to know this country and more of its people. When it comes to America, I have lived a sheltered life. And if I’m going to continue traveling around the world like I hope to, I had better know more about where I come from.
That’s all I’ve got so far. This is a work in progress, and I’m still figuring out where to go with it all (I welcome any and all comments/ideas!) Maybe this upcoming weekend in Asheville – and another visit to the French Broad Chocolate Lounge – will inspire more thoughts :) More soon!