Tuesday, November 18, 2014

An Expat Returns Home

            Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself is a collection of musings on life in America through an expatriate perspective. The author, returning to America after 20 years abroad, is struck by and comments on seemingly mundane topics, like dental floss hotlines or garbage disposals and infuses them with humor. His original American status combined with his long hiatus from the American way of life gives him a unique perspective on his home nation. Because not everything is novel to him, the things that have changed while he was away (i.e. the things that have only recently become quintessentially American) jump out even more as absurd subjects for his caustic wit.
Bryson claims in his Introduction that his columns “chart a sort of progress, from being bewildered and often actively appalled in the early days of [his] return to being bewildered and generally charmed, impressed, and gratified now” (xii). The columns in the first half of the book generally portray more of the novel, quaint American aspects, like modern appliances and Customer Appreciation Day. The more biting commentaries, such as “The Wasteland” or “Rules for Living,” appear in the second half of the book. If this collection charts a sort of progression of sentiment toward his home nation, it is interesting that Bryson was largely complimentary and nostalgic in the first half and more acerbic in the second half.

While this may seem contrary to his own assessment of his progress, I think it fits. By the end of the book, he has become an insider with an insider’s right and duty to offer suggestions for improvement in a beloved institution. He points out that, in the end, he is “very glad to be here” and hopes that his columns “make it abundantly clear” (xii). In the beginning of his time in America, he was still readjusting and warding off the culture shock. Everything modern was new and exciting. By the end of the collection, he has assimilated, so his senses are not quite so barraged by novel items as they were. He is clear-sighted enough to focus on the things that might truly be objects for reform. We might still have Dental Floss Hotlines, to no one’s detriment, but the problems of consumer excess and inordinate red tape are things that, as a concerned citizen, he can hope his writings will highlight, leading to change for the better. He can call this latter writing not merely observational and amusing but remedial as well.

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