“These mist-covered mountains are a home now for me/But my home is the lowlands and always will be…” Mark Knopfler, in Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms”
Ithaca may have hills as opposed to mountains, and the rest of the song isn’t exactly pertinent to my life (although its titular album, by virtue of my having grown up with it, is my all-purpose comfort album for when I’m feeling low) but this particular line just resonates with me so, so much. Ever since I left Springfield to make Ithaca my home for most of the year, I’ve had a sense of having a split self. I really do feel equally at home in New York as I do in Illinois, and since while I wasn’t born in Springfield, I’d spent all of my life that I can remember—from the age of two—there, this is a very strange feeling to me. Everywhere I am I feel as if I’m longing for someone and something, yet for the most part I can find contentment in either of my homes. But there’s another dimension to it that I never would have expected: a lot of the time, I feel as if when I’m in one home, I have to be defending the other one to a certain extent.
I didn’t really like The Great Gatsby that much when I read it four years ago in my Am Lit class as a high school sophomore. I’ve never been a fan of Lost Generation literature in general, since so much of it seems to be so hedonistically numbing as to be practically soulless. And while I could wrap my head about the concept of Gatsby’s alienation as a (mid)Westerner who went East and watched his idealism die as the social elite refuse to accept him, at the time I thought it would never pertain to me since at the age of fifteen I was hell-bent on studying journalism at Northwestern. While I haven’t reread the book since—and I still don’t think I’d like the entire thing—now I finally understand why Gatsby was so shell-shocked. Coming to Cornell made me realize how sheltered my existence was up until then. Springfield is a very racially divided town (and while this was over 100 years ago, it was also the site of an infamous race riot that helped precipitate the creation of the NAACP) and prior to my going away to college, I had hardly any contact with black students and I didn’t know a single Hispanic. There were a fair number of Asians in town, many of whom were attracted by our medical schools, and I began to think more critically about racial differences as a Chinese girl became one of my best friends in high school. On the other side of the coin, I had hardly any exposure to upper-class whites—another one of my best friends comes from a very well-off family but is one of the most down-to-earth people imaginable. Cornell seemed worlds away from everything I’d known, and I suddenly was an anomaly among a sea of Northeasterners, with many international students and Californians as well.
I was entranced by this new diversity, but the unconscious prejudices that my hometown had instilled in me kept popping up at inconvenient moments. Even though my boyfriend and I have been together for nearly a year and a half now, when I first met him I worried that he was unattainable since I thought he was gay, when in fact he just rejects the trappings of traditional masculinity—a standpoint I’d rarely, if ever, seen in Springfield. Worse, when my anxiety issues started last year, one of my most tormenting thoughts was the notion of shouting out racial slurs to minorities, the thought of which made me writhe in anguish; undoubtedly this obsession was linked to my rather homogeneous upbringing. This caused me to take up a “Springfield has corrupted me!” polemic for a good while, and I couldn’t help comparing the community college at which I took classes during my leave to Cornell. It was surprisingly diverse for a small community college, and the students there were for the most part very polite to one another, but at the same time I ran up against people with beliefs that I found shockingly small-minded. (One notorious example came when discussing capital punishment in my ethics class, one student suggested, in apparent seriousness, that inmates ought to fight each other to the death, gladiator-style, on pay-per-view.) It was hard for me to keep these beliefs to myself, and I have gotten in trouble for them—when my boyfriend came to visit me last August and we took a train ride from Chicago to Springfield, I had a long talk with him about the love-hate relationship with my hometown, yet when we arrived, an indignant woman marched up to me and practically yelled at me for expressing what she saw as flagrant ignorance. This made me stammer and cry—I couldn’t believe she’d had the gall to call ME ignorant when she seemed rather provincial herself, and for commenting on a private conversation (although I do admit I have a loud voice). But now I’m starting to rethink that—I still think she was in the wrong for chastising me like that, but she was not completely without reason.
Sometimes I feel as if I’m caught in the middle of the culture wars, at least when it comes to regionalism. I’m equally offended when people refer to the Midwest as “flyover country” on one end of the spectrum and “real America” on the other. While Ithaca is no huge city, it’s nevertheless a bastion of Northeastern progressivism—a popular bumper sticker in the city reads “Ithaca: 10 Square Miles Surrounded By Reality”—and at times I’ve gotten so angry at the willful ignorance of right-wing populist movements that I almost want to run around wearing a shirt that says “Proud Ivy League Liberal Elitist.” But really, that’s just one of my irrational spite-thoughts—I’m really neither a populist nor an elitist, and I’m extremely skeptical of pride in the sense of tribalism. But what does that make me? When I’m in Ithaca and people ask where I’m from—and nearly everyone asks if I’m from Chicago when I say “Illinois;” I have nothing against Chicago and find it a secondary home of sorts, but that’s by no means where I’m from—I try my hardest to make my hometown not sound like the middle of nowhere/Podunk/boring, while when I’m in Springfield and people ask where I go to college, I have to talk about my adopted town in such a way that I don’t sound condescending. It’s a delicate balance, and I’ve still got a LONG way to go.
What Mark Knopfler was singing about in my quote from the beginning is no matter where you go or wind up settling down, you always carry a piece of your hometown with you whether you like it or not. Despite all I have to criticize about it, I really can’t hate Springfield, as there’s so much of me in it. I’m still in the process of making peace with Springfield, and making myself feel like more a part of Ithaca. And while I understand why people generally go to college near where they grew up (I absolutely loathe flying, as much as I like the Northeast), what I wish is that more people would have that wanderlust, if not in college then later, and try life in a part of the country unlike your own, so that you step outside your comfort zone and see how other people live. Plenty of non-Northeasterners go to Ivies, but how about Northeasterners going to Wash U or Northwestern, Duke or Rice, Stanford or Berkeley? Or go to a state school or community college—the classes I took back in Springfield were as challenging as anything I’d ever taken, and forever shattered my perception of and prejudices toward community colleges. Travel. Learn. Listen. We won’t bridge the gap created by the culture wars overnight, but we can start. We can’t afford another Lost Generation.
NOTE: This was originally published on March 30, 2010, on my old URL—I’ve fixed it now.