A response to Northern & Southern. Nature & Nurture.
Where have you lived and how has it shaped you?
First, I think the word “lived” should be defined. It’s somewhat of a vague concept and different people probably have different interpretations of it. If you stay at a hotel for a week, have you “lived” there? If you don’t know many normal expressions, idioms, phrases, have you “lived” in a cave your whole life? Or if you resided in some place from day 1 until age 3 but don’t remember any of it, did you “live” there? In this case, for me, I’ll define “lived” as having resided in a singular place for such a period of time as to be aware of and partake in the customs, rituals and other perfunctory activities and typical goings on of the place, and as having befriended a sufficient number of people to draw accurate inferences from them to be able to predict the nature and character of other strangers who also dwell in this place. This is probably an over-convoluted, anthropological kind of ‘definition’ but if it makes sense to you, it makes sense to me.
Moving on, I would say I have in the following places (ordered somewhat chronologically):
Long Island, NY
Long Island. I think it’s mostly the accent. I’ll never lose “waauter,” which is usually the only one I’m ever called out on. Sometimes people say after I’ve been home for a little while it comes back. Like Kate “yous guys” has never slipped out of my mouth, but I probably employ “guys” more often than most normal people. I don’t know if I used to be sarcastic and that went away, or I’ve never lived in a place where no one understood my sarcasm and thus I’ve never thought about it. I think living there made me a more pessimistic person than I would have been otherwise: thinking that everyone is always out to get me (because they really are) and take my things (lock your door!), screw up my car in the parking lot, rude, annoying, out for oneself. Traffic. Overall, Long Island taught me to watch MYself and be careful because these other people in the world, well, they are all watching out for THEMselves, and if I become too trusting something bad will happen.
Hamilton. What a switch. This is perhaps the most supportive, nicest, friendliest, optimistic place I’ve ever lived. It’s the reason why I will open up a coffee shop in some similarly sized town in the Northeast location where it snows a lot upon retirement. It’s a small town where everyone knows each other. Houses have character, people have character and they smile. People do nice things for each other for no reason whatsoever. I have a certain respect, or appreciation for the small-town-ness of it. There’s an intrinsic sense of cooperation, that people are really good at heart, and a brand of imperturbable happiness and jolliness! It almost makes up for the lack of sunshine in the winter.
New York City. If living in Hamilton partly restored my faith in humanity, living in NYC fully restored it. People on Long Island are mean because they are trying to be like NYC, and they think NYC is the meanest place ever; Long Island really is in the city’s shadow. But people in NYC are actually pretty nice!! It’s a city, yes, it’s large, but there are people EVERYWHERE and you can’t go around being nasty to them all. Like Hamilton, there’s a sense of community – we’re all living here together, trying to make ends meet. I think it’s partly due to driving, or lack thereof. There’s a certain humility and level-headedness involved for having to walk or take the subway along with the rest of the non-elites. There’s also this anonymity in NYC – I believe that this allows people to be pretty straightforward or demanding when they need to be; in the end it doesn’t matter! There are 5,999,999 other people, and on the other hand, since there ARE 5,999,999 other people, you must be demanding when you want something. It’s not about hurting one’s feelings, having proper comportment, or being polite, and the demand does not take it that way either. It’s about getting something done and moving on to the next. As a person, I’m not sure if I there lived long enough to have it change me any (the second part of that definition above, I don’t think I befriended enough people to know what the normal NYCer is like [which also begs the question: is there a “normal” NYCer? It’s truly cosmopolitan]), but having lived there even for a short time at least put Long Island in perspective.
Copan. This is more along the lines of what Hamilton did for me. Copan is larger, yes, but the community is tighter, stronger. Not only does everyone know each other, but they all know what they all do every day, all of the time. If you’re not doing what you normally do at the normal time you do it, well, then, what’s wrong?! Honestly it’s both suffocating and supportive depending on my mood. It’s a place of tradition – from the ancient Maya to the ethnographic present to the ‘modern’ town. There are so many things I’ve learned and assimilated into my own being but I probably remain unaware of more than half of them. I like to think that I take life more slowly now, enjoy the minutes before the hours pass. And of course the third world country aspect of it – when the lights are off for 10 hours straight or there’s no water for 15 days, I’ll live. The lack of resources also adds to the communal feel – group suffering – in the same way that a hard track workout does! It’s bonding. I’m more social, friendlier now since I think that matters more in the end than whatever work is going on – to both that person and to you. If I’m on my way to go buy…a can opener to make… beans and tortillas, and I see someone I kind of know on the street I’ll stop and talk instead of waving as I brisk by.
Maybe one of the biggest things I’ve learned is that people are people. A guy living in a mud brick house, three hours walk from town who works in the fields by day and searches for wood in the forest by night (so that tomorrow he can eat dinner) is the same kind of husband and father trying to make ends meet as any middle class American. The effort is fundamentally the same. Culture matters, one’s economic means matters, intelligence and education matters, but in the end, we ARE all in this together and we’re really not all so different from each other. Having lived here and in the states (where there’s not only water every day, but you can drink it!!) at perhaps vast ends of the spectrum in so many material and ontological ways, I can say that people are people, and all this ‘difference’ (racism, sexism, classism etc.) is just a bunch of, well, b.s. created and maintained by the small-minded and short-sighted. Instead of seeking difference and promoting the ‘individual’, we should realize that there are bigger things going on these days (global warming, lack of oil, WWIII??) that need and require the attention and support of a world community acting together.
Rethinking the original question and this attempted answer, rather than how places have “shaped” me as person, I think living in different places makes us realize who we already are as people; it brings out different parts of us. At the very least, it’s a combination of both. In addition to thinking about how places have “shaped” us, we should consider also what places have “taught” us about ourselves.