The Chinese view of a country is drastically different from America’s, but it has a lot in common with Vermont towns.
In Chinese, the word for “country” is pronounced guojia. Literally translated back into English guojia means “land family.” This idea — that a country is a family of people that support each other — is deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche.
In the U.S. we don’t really look at the word “country” and think “family.” I think we typically view our country through an abstract lens, as a conglomeration of state governments, rather than a family of people. And when someone exclaims that he or she is American, it doesn’t invoke a sense of familial pride so much as it does a moral stance for the protection of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
But just because America doesn’t look at itself through familial eyes, doesn’t mean the idea of a “land family” doesn’t exist in the U.S. today. In fact, I’d say it exists in our backyards — right here in Vermont.
Where else are there such tight-knit communities where citizens have such a large say over the future of their own towns? Places where neighbors come together in times of hardship and where compromise is a part of everyday life. There’s no pocket of the world that I think better embodies the idea of a “land family” than a Vermont town.
And if we look at Vermont towns as families, then I think it’s only natural to look at Town Meeting Day as that huge family dinner we go to once a year. You know the one, where you can’t wait for some parts, but dread the others.
In the “family” — be it your biological family or your town family — there are the usual cast of characters:
• Your uncle, who eats with a gaping mouth and won’t let anyone get a word in edgewise.
• Your mom, who sees straight through the BS.
• Your sister, who always seems to be two steps behind.
• Your compassionate aunt, who would give away all her belongings just to make you smile.
• Your brother, who can’t share his toys … err, vote yes on a single budget line.
• Your other brother, who went to Woodstock in ’69 and left his mind there.
• Your dad, who veers far right where you veer far left, or vice versa.
• Your grandma, who keeps everyone on track when things start to get off track.
• Your creepy uncle, who says those things that make you ask, “Did he really just say that?!”
• And, of course, your grandpa, who has been to every family dinner — hahem, town meeting — since the time before time.
They’re all there on Town Meeting Day, ready to hobnob and eat the budgetary night away.
So what’s up first on the menu?
Appetizers, or town official salaries. They’re small and palatable. Even if you don’t like them, they’re easy to digest. Some of them go down like little cocktail weenies and some get stuck along the way, like big, fried cheese balls. And if you don’t ask, you’ll never find out exactly what’s in them.
Then come the budgets: the Highway Fund, the Recreation Fund, the Fire Truck Reserve Fund, the Capital Construction Reserve Fund and the In-Case-Vermont-Falls-Into-Lake-Champlain Reserve Fund. These are the roasted veggies, spinach pies and Brussels sprouts of the meal. Some people love the Brussels sprouts. They just can’t get enough. And others are repulsed by their little stinky existence. They don’t even want those little, green balls on the table (guess which group I fall into). It’s over the Brussels sprouts that you get the real arguments. Your mom wants you to eat them. You say, “no.” Your dad stands up and demands you eat them. You say, “no.” And either some contingent in your family comes to your rescue, or you’re eating those damn Brussels sprouts. There are just no ifs, ands or buts about it!
Up next is the main course: the General Fund. That’s the roast turkey (Tofurkey for my vegetarian friends) or burnt brisket (spoiled bean curd), depending on which side of the table you sit. If it’s a good night for the family chefs (the selectboard), then everyone will eat up respectfully without a peep. But families rarely ever eat that way. And so at the end of the night, there are often leftovers that don’t quite make it through: an extra leg (an odd bond to be voted on), or even half a carcass (a big bond for a new town hall).
Finally, you have dessert, that’s the appropriations to local organizations that keep our county afloat. This is the point in the meal that either goes down quietly and smoothly or gets ugly. Family members often like to swap the little things — sometimes cordially and sometimes confrontationally, and some people like to tell other family members how they could make their chocolate cake lighter and more chocolaty.
With my mom, I’ve learned to shut up during this part of the meal.
At the end of the night, everyone is full, everyone’s hopefully still alive and some sort of family consensus has been made, even if everyone’s not completely satisfied — with family members, we rarely ever are. But that’s part of being a member of a family and that’s part of living in Vermont.
On the political spectrum, Vermont really runs the gamut — from extreme right to extreme left — and yet, every year on Town Meeting Day consensus is formed. All 500 sides of an issue are voiced, all are received, all are digested, things come up again, they’re amended, they go back down and then … you have something everyone has agreed upon.
Few places in the world have open, active democracy like Vermont does. What better place to call home than a place where you can choose your family’s future?
Reporter Andrew Stein is at firstname.lastname@example.org.