Three months before I turned 40, I spent a month obsessively looking at new cars on craigslist. When I realized I was perfectly happy with my 12 year-old stick shift station wagon, I left the cars behind and decided just to pierce my nose, like I’d wanted to do since I was 14. Suddenly, I was freed from the socially-acceptable expectations of mid-life, and welcomed into the decade that would allow me to just be me. Midlife crisis narrowly averted.
Not even a full state from Texas, a crisis of an entirely different order arose. I took refuge from a torrential downpour at a café on the Taos plaza, and got to talking to a woman about her dog. Naturally, she asked me where I was from. A normally chatty human being who can carry on a conversation with anyone from the Pope to a wall, I was struck silent. I didn’t even stutter; I just couldn’t answer. I was faced with a geographic identity crisis.
For the eight, mostly uncomfortable years I lived in Dallas, I told people, “I live in Dallas, but I’m from California.” This is the technical truth – I was born in San Francisco, and consider myself a Californian – but it isn’t the whole story. I arrived in Dallas a full seven locations after I originally left my home state. As a result, I’m a committed recycler with aggressive driving skills, a very northeastern way of flipping the bird, a New Yorker’s style of walking through a crowded urban center ignoring everyone around me, a Northwestern desire to be outside even when the weather fills with rain and wind, and a Texan belief that my boots and a good buckle should work for any occasion. When I say, “I’m going home,” I could be referring to Seattle, San Francisco, or Dallas. But I don’t know how to tell someone where I’m from, because choosing one place feels like a lie.
I hoped this issue would resolve itself when I left the country, but it got worse. Complete strangers took a kind-hearted interest in the specifics of my personal history, and weren’t satisfied when I told them simply, “I’m from the United States.” People in other countries know a surprising number of US states; they also watch a lot of bad tv. Texas is on the map for Dallas (the original), Walker Texas Ranger, and George Bush. Telling people I’m from California garnered a lot of, “I’ll be back,” “oh…Ah-nald,” and, “California?…Hollywood?” So I tried Washington.
Understandably, it’s confusing to foreigners that the state of apples, Starbucks, and the Olympic peninsula is both not the same as the capital city that shares its name, and is located on the other side of the country. I didn’t bother correcting people who responded to Washington with, “ah! Obama’s house,” until the questions about DC got too involved, and I would confess that I was actually from an entirely different place (though I’ve lived in both).
The irony of all this is that it actually doesn’t matter. In earlier eras, outside of Manifest Destiny, the Gold Rush, and great migrations, people rarely moved far from home. Now, we’re in a shrinking global community, where constant population flux consistently alters cultures, blending them across geographic boundaries, until good barbeque isn’t just found in the south and good bagels aren’t held captive in New York. The San Francisco of 2013, with its dot com billionaires and microapartments for a million dollars, isn’t the San Francisco of 1993, with its distinct neighborhoods, affordable housing, and hippy funk. (When people ask me if I’m moving back to San Francisco, I feel compelled to point out that San Francisco isn’t there anymore.)
And yet, for all this movement, for all this homogeneity of culture, place matters. When I go out for coffee, place matters. Am I walking there, biking there, driving there, or taking public transportation? Is it Dunkin’s coffee, Starbucks coffee, local coffee, organically sourced and priced up coffee? Or maybe it’s Turkish, Thai, or Vietnamese white coffee? Is it hot or cold? Is it smooth roasted, or bitter? Am I standing at the coffee bar chatting with neighbors, sitting at an outdoor café under a heat lamp, or grabbing it to go while I drive off someplace?
Place matters for the most simple things, because it’s the simple things that form who we are. The personality of a place shapes our approach to the world; it demonstrates for us how we absorb information, how we respond to stimuli around us, and how we view what we see moving forward. Thirty years ago, when I moved from the Bay area to Boston, this mattered a hundred times more.
I left a place of cold oceans with rough surf and foggy-day picnics on the beach, of yoga and recycling and home-made peanut butter, and went to the land of green pants with blue whales, classmates related to passengers on the Mayflower, and ‘one if by land two if by sea.’ As a result, though I longed regularly for the west coast of my childhood, I was raised using the T, rooting for the Celtics, watching my first baseball game from the Fenway bleachers, and busing out to Great Woods for one concert after another. There is no mistaking that these experiences gave me some of the independence that I enjoy when I travel, and that the longing to get back to the other coast, to see what was beneath me when I flew from one to another, gave me my desire to actually buy a plane ticket and do it.
So when I tell people I’m from California, I feel like I’m disrespecting half of my roots. And I feel like my roots have more than two halves. Didn’t summers on a small island in Puget Sound teach me to love reading, staring at the water, and the smell of fresh wind? Didn’t college in New York help me understand that I can only do cities for a moment before I shut down? Don’t we continue to grow, to absorb place and its personality, and to change as a result, throughout our lives? I didn’t move to Texas until I was 30, but didn’t it warm me a bit, teach me a about expressing myself respectfully to people with opposing viewpoints, and help me understand myself better? Isn’t growth and absorption of place the only thing that explains Madonna’s fake British accent?
For all the shrinking of the world, place still matters. The more we create these hybrid humans who herald from multiple cultures, possibly without much leaving their own, the more confusing the question ‘where are you from’ will become. I, for one, am looking forward to it, so I’m not the only one suffering from a geographic identity crisis.