Are You a Geographic Chauvinist?

Generally speaking, people are wildly passionate about their own locations. The problem is this: Limiting yourself geographically is also limiting experientially.

Jul 16, 2012 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

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East Coast Sarah

Of the cities people tell me I should live in, San Francisco is my favorite. 

But there are other cities people think I should live in. Better cities. Worse cities. Gayer cities. “International” cities. Dirty cities where you can’t see the night sky. Clean cities where the trains are always on time.

Some people think I should live in the countryside. The South, with its capital S. The gentle rolling hills of New England, the craggy peaks of the Rockies, or the crashing surf or still waters of wherever.

Mostly, though, people think I’d be better off if I lived where they live -- wherever that is. New Yorkers want me to move to New York -- because it’s the greatest city on Earth. Portlanders want me there for the same reason. San Franciscans, San Diegans, Austinites, Londoners, Shy-towners, same-same.

Generally speaking, people are wildly passionate about their own locations. This geographic chauvinism stretches from sea to shining sea, and beyond. It exists on a macro level -- blind “USA! USA!” patriotism, the Global North vs the Global South, East vs. West -- and on a micro level --  “I get nosebleeds above 92nd Street”  -- and every which way in between.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a well-developed sense of place, or a fervent love of home. Army brats and general itinerants will tell you that existing without roots can leave you feeling a little untethered. I wish I had an unshakeable sense of geographic superiority in the same way I wish I had deep religious faith: Life would be easier. Safer. I could go years without asking myself entire categories of questions. I’d have deeper and more meaningful relationships. Or at least someone in my life who could remember what my favorite color was when I was five.

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West Coast Sarah.

But I don’t, and that makes other people’s place-based affinities seem foreign and a little coarse, if not completely baffling. And I also am able to see the seamy underbelly of all those “I <3 ____!” bumper stickers: Often, a blinding love for one location necessitates a furious hatred for a lot of other locations. 

One of the most important things to learn when you move to a new place -- other than where the post office is -- is the shape of the natives’ biases. This knowledge is difficult to procure through usual methods -- Google, Wikipedia, and local newspapers won’t usually keep a current list of residents’ zip code prejudices.

A quick primer of some of the prejudices I’ve run into over the years: People in L.A. think San Francisco’s a snore, who in turn think Oregon’s bor-e-gon. Oregonians harbor a particularly vitriolic hatred for Californians. East Coasters think the West is full of slacker hippie types and backward hicks, while West Coasters think East Coasters are pre-cardiac arrest uptight. Urban centers on each coast like to think of themselves as oases floating in seas of rural cultural backwash.

Within the city limits of Portland, Oregon, divisions run along predictable borders. Rivers and roads divide the city neatly into four (or five, depending on whom you ask) separate and unequal parts, and residents within each area have strong feelings about their own district and even stronger feelings about the residents on the other side of the dividing lines. 

In the rare instances when people dislike their current cities, their chauvinism is transferred elsewhere. They become flag-wavers for an idealized Other -- a rose-colored version of their birthplace, a fantastical rendition of a Big City, or an exotic foreign location. 

 “In Tibet,” you’ll hear them say, "a cab driver waving a half-eaten corn dog would never cut you off.”

The problem is this: Limiting yourself geographically is also limiting experientially. The same people who refuse to leave the 20-block radius around their condos are the same people you’ll find extolling the virtues of world travel and blathering on about how their trip to Europe changed their lives and broadened their horizons. As someone who has lived in both the richest county in California and the poorest county in Oregon, I can tell you that you don’t have to leave the country to have your mind blown by cultural differences.

Although a passion for, say, Queens or St. Paul or Atlanta or Wyoming or Burning Man or wherever isn’t inherently bad, an unwillingness to open your mind to the good you can find in, say, Brooklyn or Minneapolis or rural Georgia or Nevada or Los Angeles is. You don’t have to like everywhere you go. But you should at least try.

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