When you spend at least 29 of the last 33 years living outside your birth country, you’re constantly being asked about where you came from. And I have found an energy-saver that causes all sorts of jokes from my friends, and is revealed in this cartoon from The New Yorker:
People around me joke about my shorthand energy-saver, thinking sometimes that I am trying to climb to a status I don’t deserve. In a sense, they might be right. But, please look at it from my point of view. The alternatives — some absolute fealty to topographical accuracy from the back of a taxi, since I always have conversations with the drivers — requires endlessly giving a geography lesson to some country-grandmother in Korea in the 1990s, a taxi driver in Hong Kong in the early 2000s, a waiter in the Siberian countryside, a conductor on a train clacking through the snowy hinterlands of Norway, a concierge in a Buenos Aires hotel.
For example, I just stepped out of a taxi here in downtown Athens. The usual question that you’re asked, when they notice your bad version of Greek greeting as you seat yourself in the car, is “Where are you from?” If you get some taxi driver who has lived in the States, or has relatives in the States, or is in any way educated or somewhat knowledgeable about the world, answering “New Jersey“ can get the point across. Job done.
But for the vast majority, it is just a lot easier to explain “New York“. Otherwise, I need to describe where New Jersey is in relation to something they know. In the taxi several minutes ago, I said “from New York.” (Not sure if “-area” was appended.) “Oh, my brother’s in Long Island! I know New York!” BOOM! — connection.
Everyone knows New York. So, over the years, “From New Jersey” — “What? Where’s that?” — “It’s the state right next to New York, just south, but connected. About 25 minutes away”just gets shortened to “I’m from New York“. (OK?)
And in some very tightened sense, if you drop the Google pin down from outer space on that section of Google Earth, saying “New York” — it kind of really hits culturally where I am from. Growing up, the TV stations in our section of northern New Jersey were all from New York City. We heard about the daily crime in New York City that day from correspondents reporting from the streets of New York. I was at least peripherally knowledgeable about the character of some neighborhoods in New York City before I ever learned about nearby suburbs in New Jersey – – and not that I would want to have known about other New Jersey suburbs! We followed New York City sports teams, we knew the names of the big politicians in New York City, the happenings and scandals erupting in New York City society and life. My mother was born and raised in New York City, and got her PhD there. My father studied in university in New York City, met her there, and worked there for some years. After graduating from college, I went straight to New York City to work as a paralegal in some big law firms on Wall Street and in Midtown. (Saved up enough easy, filthy lucre thereby to pay my own way through divinity school.) I have brothers and nephews who live in New York City. During high school and college, I used to go to clubs on weekends in New York City – – it is a short commuter train ride away from our home in the northern suburbs. The New York kids I hung out with used to call people like me from New Jersey “bridge-and-tunnel types.” Although that wasn’t “untouchable“ level, it was definitely not Brahmin class to them!
Of course, I am not a native New Yorker by being “grandfathered in“. In the classroom at Yale, I envied the people who’d been born and raised there. I found the New York City-born and -raised students to be much more agile in debates and argument, much more polished and sophisticated. They were much more verbally acute, and they had their intellectual elbows out just by condition of being in the room. I honestly felt somewhat intimidated by them, until I found my own intellectual sea legs.
I am never craven enough, socially, to ever fulsomely claim, “I am a New Yorker.“ But, as a helpful shorthand that saves time and, like a little, gives a nudging “back up!“ to people, it is not the most unhelpful regional identity to have.
And yet, meanwhile, there is this survey published just two days ago in a popular business journal:
Maybe the subtle cultural and social schizophrenia of my New Jersey/New York “identity“ fed the existential question that has driven my life since birth, like being German/Irish: I had two super best friends from childhood unbroken until now, one named “Hennessy“ and one named “Anzenberger”. Right down the middle. Some days at school, I joined with the Irish kids to beat up the Italian kids (ripened, overheated sweaty targets they were); other days, with the German kids — the kids with German names, like me — we ganged up on basically everyone else we felt like, or imitated horrible tropes that we had seen in movies. With a mother baptized McCarthy, and a father baptized Muenzen — Who am I?
I never really knew my place, actually – – being one of nine children did not help that either.
So, you ask me, “Where are you from?”
Got to find a way to say “Fuhgeddaboudit”, in Korean, Greek, German, Norwegian, Chinese, and Serbian.
[Notice that the patois is “associated especially with New York and New Jersey”. I fucking LOVE it!]