85: Grace Visits the County Fair

85: Grace Visits the County Fair

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Grace Visits the County Fair

America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.

~John Updike

I cry at parades. I cry when I hear the national anthem at sporting events and I cry when everyone stands up at the seventh inning stretch during baseball games to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” When it comes to celebrating our American traditions, I get emotional. So it took me by surprise when a Ph.D. from China I had been mentoring became overwhelmed with sentiment at our county fair.

During the year and a half that I mentored “Grace” (the name she chose to call herself during her stay in America), I explained American life, instructed her on nuances of the “American” English language, and took her to local events to show her what makes Americans unique. When I suggested that we take her to the county fair, she asked, “What is a county fair?”

“Oh, you know,” I responded, “a fair where farmers show off their prize-winning produce and livestock, and there are contests for the best jellies, cookies, handmade quilts, and woodworking projects.”

A blank look swept across Grace’s face. I tried again.

“There are rides and booths where you can win stuffed animals, and “fair” food you won’t find anywhere else.”

The blank look again.

“You really don’t know what a county fair is?”

Grace shook her head.

“Do you have any kind of fairs in China?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know because I am not sure what a fair is. Is this an important American tradition?”

“You bet! Okay, that settles it,” I said. “You’re going to the fair with us and you are going to see for yourself.”

A few days later my husband and I took her to the San Diego County Fair on a bright, sunny day. Grace looked around like a child seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World for the first time. She said nothing, but her eyes spoke for her. She was amazed. A man walked by eating a giant turkey leg. Grace stopped in the middle of the walkway. She pointed to the man eating the dinosaur-sized turkey leg. “What is he eating?”

“A barbecued turkey leg. You want one?”

She shook her head, never taking her eyes off the man and the turkey leg. “I’ve never seen a turkey big enough to have a leg that large. Americans sure eat bigger quantities of food than we do in China. He isn’t going to eat that all by himself, is he?”

I looked at the man; he sported a significant gut and I was pretty sure he could devour the turkey leg by himself, even though it could feed a family of four.

“Yeah, probably,” I said. “Come on, let’s go. There’s more to see.”

We turned a corner just in time to watch the pie-eating contest that required contestants to devour the pies with their hands behind their backs. Grace and I laughed till our bellies hurt as contestants smeared lemon meringue and whipped cream all over their faces and hair in an attempt to win. When they called for the next round of contestants I turned to her. “You up for it?” She shook her mane of silky, long black hair and backed away, still laughing.

We wandered into the vendors’ hall, where Grace spotted a booth with people trying on toe rings. She watched intently for a few minutes before she turned to me, a look of confusion crossing her face. “What are they for?”

“Just an adornment. People wear rings on their fingers, and some people wear them on their toes, too.”

She grinned shyly. “May I try one on?”

I reeled back, a little surprised. She had a Ph.D. in neurosciences and didn’t strike me as the toe-ring type. “Sure, take a seat in one of the chairs.”

She no sooner sat than the salesman kneeled down and tried several different rings on her toes. She raised a hand to her mouth to hide her giggles as he slid each one over the knuckle. Five toe rings later she paid the man for one and walked out of the booth wearing her new ring.

“I can’t wait to call my husband tonight and tell him what I did. He won’t believe it.”

“Why?”

“Oh, we don’t do such indulgent things in China. We’re not like you Americans. He will probably scold me for wasting money, but I don’t care. I love my toe ring!”

We meandered through the midway to see people testing their bravery on the daredevil rides and men spending the equivalent of a car payment trying to win colossal stuffed animals for their sweethearts.

Next, we watched the baby pig races as they ran in circles, oinking their way down the track. Grace laughed so hard that she snorted and held her sides. The race ended and she heaved a happy sigh.

“I am getting hungry. Is there anything to eat here besides the big legs?”

I led her up and down rows and rows of food vendors offering pies, ice cream, warm gingerbread, cotton candy, fish and chips, fried artichoke hearts, grilled steak, falafel, fried chicken, burritos, fish tacos, fried pickles and much more. We must have walked past fifty or more vendors; none seemed to interest her.

“Find anything you like?” I asked.

“I’m not sure what a lot of it is. Americans eat food I am not used to,” she said softly, sounding overwhelmed.

“Well then, it’s time to try something truly American.”

I led her up to a hot dog stand. “It doesn’t get any more American than this,” I said, pointing to the dogs. She ordered a super long hot dog, on an equally long bun. When the vendor handed it to her, I steered her to the condiments bar. “No one eats plain hot dogs,” I explained. “Load up with mustard, relish and onions, if you like.” She piled on as much as would fit.

We no sooner sat down than she bit into her dog and her face lit up like she was watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. “Why haven’t I eaten this before? It’s wonderful!” she said between bites of food, chomping down the juicy hot dog as though she were starving, mustard smeared around her mouth.

When she finished, she wiped at her eyes before tears spilled down her cheeks. “You Americans are an amazing people,” she said, using one of her new words.

I cocked my head sideways.

“Every time I think I understand the U.S., I experience something new, like this fair, like this hot dog. You are an extraordinary people and America is a remarkable place. I will remember this day my whole life. Thank you for sharing your American tradition with me.”

With one hand, I reached out and squeezed one of hers, while with the other I wiped at the tear running down my cheek. Seeing someone from a foreign country appreciate a quintessential American tradition was better than watching a parade.

~Jeffree Wyn Itrich

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