A few years ago I went on a date with a girl from Nigeria, and somewhere between the appetizer and desert I told her that I don’t like foreigners. I expected the confused look that came over her face, so I quickly followed up by explaining that I consider anyone south of Connecticut or west of Vermont to be a foreigner. I don’t simply mean people from Germany, or Mexico, or even Nigeria.
It’s not really true that I don’t like people who are not from New England. It’s just that I don’t understand them. And, as a psychology professor was recently quoted, “normal” means like me, while “abnormal” means unlike me. There are, obviously, a lot of abnormal people in the world.
A few weeks ago I took my dad to watch his two favorite teams, the Patriots and the Packers, face off at Lambeau Field. On our drive to the stadium we asked Siri for directions to a sports bar, and she took us to what was essentially a double wide trailer backing up to some train tracks in a small town outside Green Bay.
Now I’m a fan of a good dive bar, but in Boston that usually means a little hole in the wall that’s been around for a couple hundred years and was last updated during the Coolidge Administration. This DePere, Wisconsin watering hole wouldn’t even qualify as a dive in Boston, much less as a sports bar.
While sitting there watching the 1:00 (or 12:00 Central) game, a friend asked via text what I thought of Green Bay. “Wisconsin has entirely met my expectations,” I replied. What was left unsaid, but perfectly understood, was that those expectations were pretty low.
The next day David Brooks published a column in which he talks about snobs such as myself, and the growing class divide in this country:
Today we once again have a sharp social divide between people who live in the “respectable” meritocracy and those who live beyond it. In one world almost everybody you meet has at least been to college, and people have very little contact with features that are sometimes a part of the other world: prison, meth, payday loans, a flowering of nonmarriage family forms. In one world, people assume they can control their destinies. In the other, some people embrace the now common motto: “It don’t make no difference.”
I very much live in that first world, but I’m not completely insulated from the second. As the snow starts falling here in New England, I am excited to begin volunteering again with children from some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, teaching them how to ski. I get a great deal of satisfaction being able to share an activity that I love, and one which puts a strain on my budget, with children who, living in that other world, otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity.
Brooks’ greater point was that the Great Gatsby-ization that we are experiencing has inserted classism where racism once reared its ugly head. He’s right, but I think it goes further than that. Pointing a finger squarely at myself, I recognize that somehow I am more comfortable with the urban poverty prevalent a few miles from my own home than I am with the rural poverty common in other parts of the country.
I will empathize with the poor in films like Precious, set in Harlem, but am left with an ick feeling watching Mud, which takes place on the Mississippi River in Arkansas. Both were phenomenal films, and I highly recommend them both, but somehow the poverty portrayed in the latter is more distasteful.
I also recognize that my discomfort with the way the rural poor live says a lot more about me than it does about them. After all, did we not just celebrate a child laid in a manger? Talk about poverty, and rural poverty at that. Still, any place where “the Cheese Castle” is the biggest attraction for an hour in either direction is likely to remain a mystery to me.
Truth be told, I really liked the people I met in Wisconsin. To a person they had that famous Midwestern friendliness, and this includes the barmaid in the Clay Matthews jersey who actually turned up the volume when I played “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” on the jukebox. I particularly liked the pretty blonde who told me after the game that I “would look so hot in green and gold.” I, on the other hand, have been known to yell “Go back to New York” at people wearing Yankees hats in Boston, although in my defense I’ve usually been somewhere south of sober.
Even after four years of living there I still experience culture shock in that Deep South city in the District of Columbia, and that doesn’t even begin to compare to to the island paradise known as Hawai’i. (“Why,” I ask myself every time I get on an escalator there, “are these people standing still? Move!”)
When people ask why I moved back to Boston from my apartment four blocks from Waikiki Beach–and they always ask–I have a ready answer for them: This is home. I mean, of course, that this is where I grew up and this is where my family is. Just as much, however, I mean that Boston is normal while Honolulu, as picture postcard perfect as it is, is abnormal.