“So, where are you from?”
This question, beaten to a bloody pulp in the countless introductions of New Student Week (and beyond), is one that never fails to both amuse and annoy me. While I understand its social purpose, since grasping for an appropriate conversational starting point after that initial name exchange can be terrifying, using geographic location in an attempt to find common bonds strikes me as arbitrary and shallow. I’d rather be asked about my major for the twelve-thousandth time than face the anticipatory judgments associated with zip code.
But perhaps I’m being a little harsh. One of the main reasons I’m so reluctant to answer the hometown question stems from my lack of identity with the place that currently hosts my mailing address. Growing up in Chicago, in the area known as Wrigleyville, I could not have been more devastated than when my parents told my brother and me that our family was moving out of the city and into the hinterlands of Northern Michigan. It seemed my father had always harbored a secret desire to escape the crowded city streets and retire to the place where he’d spent many fond childhood summers.
The unadulterated look of alarm on my face must have inspired enough panic in my parents that they then fired back with several outlandish promises that would allegedly ease the transition of the move. My mother tried to comfort me with assurances of horseback riding in the country and camping on the weekends, both of which scared the shit out of me. I considered myself a true city kid at heart: a foul-mouthed, street-savvy, organic-food-buying city kid, and I was not willing to negotiate a forced Diaspora.
Grudgingly, I went along with it, realizing that I had no other choice and could only make the best of what seemed to me an apocalyptic situation. I was 15 years old when my family moved from the city to Petoskey, Michigan, a hamlet of merely 6,080 inhabitants. I stomached my inherent city snobbery and delved into what I hoped would make me a well-rounded individual, or at least afford me the opportunity of interacting with Republicans. While I obviously held unfair prejudices toward the town I knew little about, for some reason these only seemed to intensify in the initial period of the move. I couldn’t help but compare the dinky little town of Petoskey with the grandeur of Chicago, which at the time I had romanticized into a sort of warped Shangri-La.
Consumed by nostalgia, everything about my new home was a glaring reminder of what I no longer had. The playground of my elementary school in Chicago had a view of the John Hancock skyscraper. My new high school instead stared out at stretches of farmland and herds of cattle, who became unwitting audiences to the spectacle of my gym class. Memories of the bustle and energy of Chicago streets were not easily replaced by lakefront lighthouses and the charm of the local Wal-Mart. The scenery of Northern Michigan is so undeniably beautiful that even Kid Rock wrote a Billboard-charting anthem dedicated to its mystique. And yet, there I was, refusing to acknowledge its attraction.
Instead of remaining an aloof outsider to the tightly knit, mostly homogenous community, I grew fond of some of the things I thought I’d hate most. The idea I had of Northern Michigan, a haven for buck hunters and Sarah Palin fan-club members, was a total exaggeration of tiny pockets of the community. And it was refreshing to hear so many different political viewpoints, because as much as I disagreed with them, I rarely even heard them living in a city with a predominantly liberal bias.
The naïveté about city life that I thought would characterize most of my classmates was matched with my own lack of understanding about rural life. Sure, several people asked if I’d ever seen a drive-by shooting or gotten mugged, but I also had no idea what an ATV was, or the significance of November 15th, the sacred day of the start of firearm hunting season. I also grew to appreciate the size of the town, something I feared would suffocate me. While Chicago’s large size encourages the loneliness of anonymity, almost every face was friendly and recognizable while walking around Petoskey. I smiled every time I saw the “local celebrities” of Petoskey, one of whom draped a large Confederate flag off the back of his pickup truck, while another was simply known by the delightful moniker of “Beej Man”. These colorful personalities, while amusing as anecdotes, are not representative of Petoskey as a whole. I’ve made wonderful friends who had none of the negative “small-town” characteristics I presumed they would. Letting go of my snobbishness allowed me to give Northern Michigan the chance it deserved, and see that even though the differences were huge, they weren’t necessarily terrible.
Coming back to the Chicagoland area for college, I was still a bit perplexed about how to answer the question of where I was from. At school I’ve found many others who share this hometown conundrum. Several friends of mine have lived nomadic existences and now cringe at the prospect of picking just one of them. My situation was a more radical change than most, and as cheesy as it sounds to say, I feel that moving made me a better person. I abandoned my preconceptions about life in small towns and discovered that the experience of living in Petoskey was nowhere near as hellish as I had predicted.
But since I do still hold a strong connection to the place where I spent the majority of my life growing up, I’ve found myself falling back on the comfort of naming Chicago as my hometown. And if a deeper biography needs to be fleshed out, I’m no longer reluctant to own up to the fact that my “other hometown” is a largely unheard-of Northern Michigan town. In fact, I kind of like it.