The United States is often the punchline of jokes about culture. Many expats have cringed when they hear, “American culture? What culture?”, when they live in parts of the world that seem to have more continuous cultural traditions that date back hundreds or thousands of years. But of course, this is incorrect, based off the idea that real culture is uniform and mostly unchanging. In reality, the U.S. has a diverse tapestry of cultures, with threads from Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, Polynesia, Central and South America, and many indigenous peoples.
AFS Exchange Students coming to the U.S. can be placed just about anywhere in the country. While some of our host families live in large cities like New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles, most of our homestay placements are in suburbs, small towns, or rural areas. At first, you might think there’s simply no culture to be had in what can feel like the middle of nowhere, but you’d be wrong!
Cultures are multilayered, manifesting themselves through a variety of human activities and creations. You could argue that culture imbues almost everything with relevant and relative meanings. Culture is not only found in big museums and monumental architecture in metropolitan areas.
Rural areas offer a more specialized experience of cultures, often ones less visible in major movies, shows, and other media. Or, perceptions of these cultures may be warped, like the frontier myth and the “wild west.” In this example, cowboys and outlaws are frequently romanticized while the realities of exploitation and boom-and-bust economics are left out of the story.
To get an authentic view of life in the U.S. (or pretty much anywhere), a traveler should spend time outside of major cities. While urban areas are shaped by a plethora of ideas, perspectives, and cultures, bringing together a dense and diverse array of intertwined influences, rural areas can provide a clearer view of cultures.
For instance, high school in the many rural parts of the U.S. offer the “classic American high school” experience many exchange students crave! From Spirit Week, to pep rallies, senior dances, football games, and more, rural towns often take great pride in their local sports teams and generate lots of excitement. In larger cities, high schools are more of a commuter experience in which students tend to only spend time at school for classes. Part of the appeal of a small town is taking part in all the social activities a school has to offer!
Outside of school life, host families and their exchange students may share in traditions like fishing, country fairs, community theater, or camping. Our environments – whether there are mountains to hike or horses to ride – inform our cultural activities.
Rural areas often produce folk cultures. According to Oxford Bibliographies, “Folk culture refers to the products and practices of relatively homogeneous and isolated small-scale social groups living in rural locations. Thus, folk culture is often associated with tradition, historical continuity, sense of place, and belonging.” The key word there is “relatively.” Don’t think for a minute that folk cultures aren’t creative or related to other cultures. Folk cultures give rise to all sorts of genres of art, food, and sport. But even seemingly unique creations have influences that can be traced to cross-cultural connections – like Bluegrass music, which originated in the Appalachians, but developed out of folk music from Africa and the British Isles. The exception to this might be extremely isolated cultures, like those found in trackless regions of the Amazon or remote islands. Rural areas may not be as diverse as cities, but they are still overflowing with culture.
Another benefit of living in a rural area is a tightknit sense of community. Given that rural areas have smaller populations, everyone tends to know everyone else. Since exchange students bring intriguing, unfamiliar cultures to a community, they may end up knowing everyone in the school and town! This is what it means to share a home and engage in hometown diplomacy. We can break down stereotypes by sharing real homes, joining real communities, and bonding with real people from different countries and parts of the world. Hometown diplomacy puts people, not politics, at the center.
The pace, richness, and community of rural towns is unlike any other. While large cities certainly have their magnetic charms and bustle of activity, there’s nothing like small town hospitality. Wherever you live, you can and should host a foreign exchange student. Cultural exchange can happen anywhere, because culture is everywhere. Embracing cultural diversity gives us perspective on our own ways of life and, even in the most remote regions, shows how interconnected we all are.