During a capstone communications course I took in college, our desks were arranged in the shape of a circle. This was done in an effort to enhance communication within the class and it worked well for me. We spent some time discussing subcultures within their larger cultural context. My professor’s slideshow on the topic displayed photos of Australian Aborigines back-to-back with the Amish. Many of my classmates were bona fide New Yorkers, as perplexed by the culture of the American Amish as they were the Australian Aborigines. But the Amish weren’t exactly foreign to me, at least not as foreign as the Aborigines. There are 249,000 Old Order Amish throughout the U.S. and Canada and, as far as I know, zero Aborigines. When the professor asked me to relay my experience with a specific Amish family to the class, I did as she requested, with the faces of my classmates forming a quiet, circular audience.
I grew up in Marietta, Ohio. The Amish don’t live in Marietta, but they do live nearby. We saw traces of them everywhere in town, but the people themselves were missing. Handcrafted furniture made by the Amish showed up in our stores. My friends Alex and Abby, who were twins, weren’t Amish, but their relatives were. And I knew enough to know that the Mennonites, who I once saw modestly lifting the hems of their floor-length dresses and wading in the pool beneath a waterfall in Hocking Hills, weren’t the same as the Amish.When I was 8 years old, my parents took my siblings and me to an auction on a sunny Saturday morning. We traveled what seemed like hundreds of miles at the time, but was actually closer to forty. Being only 4-foot-something, I remember this day as being crowded and boring because I couldn’t see anything. When we left, we took a beautiful antique sewing machine with us. The conversation on the way home wasn’t about the purchase, though. Instead, my parents guiltily discussed the Amish couple they’d beat out in the auction for the sewing machine. Not only did my parents place the highest bid on the sewing machine, but, without pause, they also struck up conversation with the Amish bidders before leaving.