Thursday, June 18, 2009

Texans vs. everybody else

I'm from Texas.

I usually tell people I'm from Houston because that's a lot easier than explaining that I moved around a lot as a kid - from deep west Texas to the Hill Country to just north of Houston, then finally to Houston when I was 17. 'Just north of Houston' is now really just one stucco shopping center from downtown H-town, and both places share the unfortunate characteristic of I-45 unceremoniously shooting through the middle, but JNOH was a different world when I left there almost 15 years ago. It was a place where we rode horses after school, religiously watched high school football every Friday night, and wore boots and jeans as normal daytime attire (and not in an ironic way!).

It would surprise people that know the current version of me that I still have my kangaroo leather boots tucked away somewhere as it seemed sacrilegious to throw them out despite the fact I am unlikely to ever wear them again. I spent summers tubing down the Frio and Guadalupe, snapped photos in bluebonnet fields, knew all the words to 'Texas, Our Texas' (Knew? Ha - STILL know!), and thought I would marry a lawyer (or some other equally gray-area professional) from a small town but a big ranch who wore his Stetson to the office.* I was a card-carrying member of the Young Conservatives of Texas, went fishing on the weekends, and felt a trip to South Padre was the be-all-end-all of spring break nirvana. Man, I WAS Texas.

But now...

Now, I live in Norway. And this after spending a good deal of my 20's living first in Scotland. Now, in some ways I am less Texan than I have ever been. But I still want to be. Now I worry that my kids (the ones I don't even have yet) will never know the kind of childhood and experiences that I was raised on. I lament that they will never have a high school letterman jacket, or will go to prom, or will learn to two-step. They *could* do all those things to some extent living in Europe. But they would be contrived and not organic experiences. They would be the exception and not the norm.

When I visit Texas now (which I try and do two or three times a year), I'm a them. I recognize the surface, but I just can't seem to do anything more than poke at what's underneath. I can't identify with the politics, understand the pace of life, or bear the painfully extreme weather (by extreme I mean either really hot or really rainy - there doesn't seem to be an in-between). It's like visiting a place I've never known but read about once in a book.

When people in Europe ask me where I'm from, I proudly tell them 'Texas'. Oddly, I never say American - always just Texan. But more often than not I am met with the response of 'Oh. You don't sound like you're from Texas!' So to the them's, I don't fit the picture of what someone from Texas is supposed to be like. This causes an almost resentment on my part. I am an US, dammit! But because I don't draaaawl my vowels and say y'all and howdy, I've lost that covetable status.

I know why it happened, and it was my choice. When I moved to Scotland in my early 20's, my accent was a source of feeling different. While some Scots poked a little fun at it, it was never in a malicious way, but in a way that made you feel like a them. As a new university lecturer and first time expatriate, it was hard to bear any extra ridicule, so I adapted. George Bush had just been elected, and, at least in Europe, sounding like Dubya wasn't getting you very far in life. So I flattened the accent and threw out the colloquialisms. I left one us behind for another. Now that I've been lecturing almost a decade, I kind of wish I hadn't. I wish I would've had more guts to be true to my us's.

Living in another country sometimes makes you think harder about what you aren't than what you are. Here in Norway, I am *not* Norwegian. But, somehow, in my not-Norwegian-ness, I forgot how to be what I am - or, at least, what I used to be. Now it's just a label for me - a way to geographically describe my roots. In terms of Texas, I'm an us and a them all at the same time. Just depends on who's askin', y'all.
* This news greatly disturbed Husband, who is painfully English and wasn't even certain what a Stetson was. I told him this as we were watching 'No Country for Old Men' and Woody Harrelson's character appeared on screen. If you've seen the film, you know he is not the most savory of sorts, so I think it worried Husband that this was my teenage impression of my future beau.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What started it all

I spend a lot of time thinking on and talking about and lamenting over all the 'us and them' issues in life. Sometimes I'm an us and sometimes a them, depending on my mood, the situation, or someone else's definition. I spend much of my professional life trying to convince people that the space between U&T is not that great. I spend much of my personal life realizing that sometimes, it is.

Many dichotomies exist for me. That of teacher/student, friend/foe, foreign/native. I realized when I was giving a lecture a few weeks ago that sometimes I don't know or can't remember where I fall on a certain U&T scale. Addressing a group of Norwegians (and one lone Chinese man, bless!), I was explaining what local Norwegian businesses could do in order to help foreigners feel more integrated in the workplace. I said, "We have to help them understand that living in Norway can be a great opportunity!" This was worrisome on several levels: first, because it was a bit of a tall order; second, because it is not necessarily true; and third, because I had somehow subconsciously stopped being a them (a foreigner) and had suddenly become an us.

Thing is, I am foreign. I relish my non-Norwegian-ness, in fact. Not in a 'Norwegians bite' kind of way, but in a 'don't forget where you come from, Tex' sort of way. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I began having a conversation with myself (while still managing to continue my conversation with the class... mostly).

Here's what I wondered: Does a person's concept of U&T change over time? Is it okay to not be sure which one you are? How do you deal with feeling like an us when the rest of the us's see you as a them?

I don't have any real answers for those questions, but I have a lot more questions where those came from, so I plan to put them all down right here in this little blog.