Friday, March 25, 2016

Thoughts On An Imminent Trip To Nebraska

Tomorrow I depart with my wife and kids for my rural Nebraska hometown. I am very happy to be seeing my parents and sisters, nephews, nieces, in-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends again.

At the same time, it is a bittersweet feeling. There are days when I feel like an internal exile. My hometown and the greater New York City area are such different places that they might as well be in different countries. My travels around the country, which have included residential stints in places as far-flung as Chicago and Texas, have taught me that this is a nation of regions.  By that I do not mean the facile "red state versus blue state" cliche. Places where I have lived, like East Texas and West Michigan, have a unique culture that is all their own, even if both are "red" regions.

Like most of my grad school peers, I am living in a place that I never expected to live in, even though I left academia. I certainly enjoy teaching in New York City, and I have learned to love New Jersey. At the same time, it's still easy to feel out of place. This happens most often when I tell people where I'm from, and they treat me as some kind of oddity, or say disparaging things about "flyover country" in casual conversation. I don't think I've ever encountered a group of people more provincial than the residents of the Upper West Side of New York, and that is saying something, since folks in my hometown often treat the world beyond central Nebraska as if it has "here be dragons" written on the map.

I've at least grown a little used to these feelings ever since I moved to Chicago in 1998 and had someone call me "country" for saying the word "supper" and having a clerk stare at me in bewilderment when I asked for a "sack" with my order. What's been a little harder is the feeling that where I am from feels more and more alien to me. Some of this is the natural process of living apart from it for almost twenty years.

It also has to do, in large part, with the growing political and cultural divisions in the country. In my return visits to my homeland, I've noticed an increasing turn inward, party having to do, I suspect, with the aging of the population in that area. It was always a very conservative place, but it has become radically conservative, in the talk radio mode I normally associate with places like Texas. I still remember a couple of years ago being amused and horrified by a flyer posted in my parents' church about an even called "Guns for Life" featuring a minuteman and a fetus. Evidently it was some kind of gun range anti-abortion fundraising event. That kind of thing never would've happened in my childhood. Last year I had to hear a sermon, demanded of the parish priests by the local bishop, attacking the Supreme Court's recent decision on gay marriage. When Barack Obama spoke his infamous line about people in these areas being bitter and clinging to guns and religion, I just nodded in agreement. I have yet to witness anything in the ensuing eight years to get me to change my mind.

So I am left negotiating two worlds, one where a public attack on gay marriage is mandated, another where it would be thought of as hate speech. (And trust me, I am well aware that other people have much harsher negotiations due to race, sexuality, etc. I'm just thinking out loud here about regional differences.) I wish there was a way to bring the best of both of them together. Rural Nebraska has got to be one of the most culinarily benighted lands in the nation, a place where cheese is a spice and corn is a vegetable, as a friend back home likes to say. Here in New Jersey, on the other hand, there is amazing food from a variety of culinary traditions, so much that it never fails to amaze me. On the other hand, the people of my homeland have an admirable humility, and are much, much less obsessed with status and material possessions as folks are here in the Northeast. (This is perhaps one reason why Trump has not won any states as of yet in the Great Plains.) The way people in these parts view one's college alma mater as a reflection of their value as a human being never fails to disgust me. People back home are a lot more rooted. Unfortunately, that rootedness often expresses itself in an exasperating narrow-mindedness. People in both regions by and large don't understand the other. New Yorkers think of rural Nebraskans (if they ever think of them) as a bunch of dumb hicks, and Nebraskans think of New York as some wretched hellhole of immorality and degradation. Both are completely wrong, and both will never change their minds.

I know I will keep going on, enjoying the pizza and diversity in my new homeland, but silently shocked at the materialism. And I will go home tomorrow and enjoy the easy-going social interactions but be ready to be exasperated at the politics. Perhaps I'll just be satisfied that as an internal exile, I understand a lot of places a whole lot better than people who have lived there their entire lives.

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