Imaginary Exiles

I think this ties in with my earlier post on “getting above your raising.” One of the ways in which that academic/elite mindset manifests is bicoastalism — the idea that the only life of quality is the one that’s found in hip blue cities (New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, DC when the Dems are in charge), and that living elsewhere is something you settle for. The academic equivalent is the lust for the Research I, preferably far away from those annoying undergrads, or at worst the superselective Liberal Arts School. The Research I gig on one of those cool cities? That’s the lottery winner, and those of us who wind up in Yankton or Monroe or Muncie or Mondoville seem stigmatized, consigned to life in exile, a cultural Babylonian captivity.

Although I really should know better, having spent my entire life in flyover country, I sometimes have those feelings as well. Fortunately, there are antidotes, ranging from Netflix to bookstore runs that are only half an hour from here (It’s probably indicative of my acclimatization to Mondoville that I had grown to think of a half-hour drive as a long haul. When I lived and worked in Cincinnati, that was a typical commute.).

But the better antidote is attitudinal, and there’s a nice dose of it at Image today. Sara Zarr and her husband moved from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, and spent time feeling like she was too cool for the room. Her reactions are familiar and instructive:

Making sure people knew about my Bay Area roots helped keep me from being typecast in the role of Utahn, which to me and to my non-Utah friends meant: religiously odd, maybe sporting bad hair, possibly not too savvy—at least, not in the ways valued by my motherland. “Don’t lump me in with those people,” my words implied. Clearly, if not explicitly, I was saying, “I’m better than them.” Meaning my new friends and neighbors.It’s easy for non-Mormons in Utah to feel as though we’re living in exile. And it’s easy to react to that feeling by building walls and pulling up the drawbridge, creating our own little version of Salt Lake where we are Us and they are Them. To always keep one eye on the exit, assuming whatever opportunity may come is better than this.

How can you make home, and love your neighbor, if you believe the lie that you’re superior to the things and people that surround you?

A chronically wandering eye, in any context, is a thief. It steals the joy of living in the present. It keeps you from being fully engaged with what’s right in front of you.

I’m not too cool for the room here in Mondoville — while it has its share of problems, so do I, and it’s also a place where the people have valued the things that my family and I can do, and where I can enjoy things that matter to me  — from God to college football to barbecue — without irony. Too often sophistication is a euphemism for reflexive cynicism, and that in turn is what really exiles people from the world around them.

By the standards of many of the folks I would meet at an MLA conference, I’m a hopeless rube. But maybe it’s better, as Zarr has learned (and as I am continually learning) to be willing to bloom where you’re planted.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Faith, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Imaginary Exiles

  1. Sara Z. says:

    “Too often sophistication is a euphemism for reflexive cynicism…”

    So true, and well said. Love this conversation!

  2. J. Otto Pohl says:

    I certainly hope to be able to bloom in Ghana. But, I understand the feeling of being an outsider. Exile is not something just constructed or “imagined” by the exile. In no way do I condone a “too cool for the room” attitude on the part of expatriates. On the other hand adjusting to cultural and other differences does take time and some things one never gets used to. In fact my tolerance for the negative aspects of living in Central Asia decreased the longer I was there.

    • profmondo says:

      There are, of course, levels of “alien-ness,” and admittedly, the multicult not withstanding, some cultures are in fact better than others. Nonetheless, I respect your willingness to play the hand you’re dealt. On the upside, you may be able to score cheap coffee and chocolate. Be well.

  3. Chan S. says:

    Speaking as an S.F. emigre who’s never been tempted to look/go back, I tend to think that the best antidote to bicoastalism (or bicoastal-wannabe-ism, which can be sometimes worse) is to live in a “cool” place with your eyes wide open (& having kids…which will open your eyes for you). There’s no place like “home.”

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