“Go West Young Man”


I had this quote come to mind while driving through snarly Boston traffic with impossible parking a few months ago. I remember it was a rallying cry for Manifest Destiny, so I tonight I looked up who said it. It’s attributed to Horace Greeley, one of the founding members of the Republican party in Lincoln times. Some say it was a call to Civil War veterans to act on the Homestead Act, where ex-soldiers were given free land beyond the Mississippi. These words were also invoked as people believed that agriculture would alleviate poverty and other ills found in early American cities. Some have added  more to the quote: according to Wikipedia, Horace Greeley is also supposed to have said to young men of the East:

“Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” 

I’ve been oh so tempted to agree with him.

When I first moved to Boston from the the West, Idaho, to be exact, I remember noting that although I had lived nearly 3 years in Japan and Taiwan, the East Coast was more of a culture shock than Taiwan. As a teacher of English language learners, and as a second language aspirer myself, I well know how the cycle of culture shock goes: wide-eyed wonderment gives place to longing for home, cynicism and what even textbooks refer to as “deep suffering”, and then back to loving where you live, contentment and even being a tour guide for visiting relatives.

Shortly after my marriage to Alex, I found myself in the midst of the disillusionment phase. I missed my family and I missed people thinking the way I did. I wondered if I could relate. The East had been the home of brilliant writers,  actors, and other nut jobs, crime statistics were ridiculous, and it seemed to be the source of what was making people crazy and driving them to California  in the ’60s–materialistic and overpaying for it. The New England stereotype seemed so true: rude, cold, workaholics. Their frankness was frightening, their driving aggressive and what they hold dear sometimes seemed so foreign. It would be so easy to write them off, snickering at the organic-loving intellectuals who had never been to an actual farm or simply concluding that the East is where people with big personalities live too close to each other for comfort.

With the help of my kind and non-judging husband, I’ve been able to let go of the stereotypes. I’ve been reminded how my own homeland has been seen as cold, how my own community has to fight the temptation of insularity.

In addition, it’s silly to clamp old stereotypes on a place so incredibly diverse: I’m here, as well as a whole bunch of young Western Mormons getting degrees. We had a large Hispanic and Asian community in the small town I lived in in Northern California, but here in Boston, my day-to-day interaction with foreign transplants begins with my Chinese students and goes on from there. My optometrist is German, my dentist Iranian,  my landlady has the strongest Irish accent I’ve ever heard off of a movie screen. I went to get my hair cut this month and after sitting down to wait and picking up a magazine covered with familiar-looking squiggles, I learned my hairstylist was Israeli. I remember when Alex and I were first dating and grabbed a couple slices at Di Napoli Pizzeria, I remarked to him that was the first time I’d ever been served pizza by a guy with a real Italian accent.

Now we live in a city made up of 14 smaller townships just 15 minutes from Boston: Newton Massachuessts. And we live in the bost Irish-Italian township of Newton. In fact, the line running down the street our address branches off from is a tri-colored stripe of red, white and green. The fire hydrants are also  striped like the Italian flag.

I guess I had known for a long time that my emphasis on teaching English to people of other cultures would take me away from Idaho and likely send me orbiting large cities where immigrants are common. I think I am coming around the cycle, and fighting to love the place where I live by being involved with the community. More on that to come.

 Today, the third dark snowy Sunday this month, as Alex and I drove to Church in the swirling, colliding confetti snow, I remarked how the picturesque dollhouses (what most houses here remind me of) tucked away in the woods we glided through, looked like the world inside a snowglobe.

In Tokyo and Taiwan I had sent off weekly emails to family and close friends of great length describing all I was doing and learning and the people I was coming to love. Perhaps I ought to be doing the same here. These memories and introspection may be valuable to me and to others as I seek what my place and purpose is here in Massachusetts, and decide on whether I picture myself inside or outside the overturned snowglobe.

Another peripheral purpose of this blog is to explore westward and eastward journeys and cultural meet-ups, those of my students, my reminiscences of the Orient and the two different American geographic areas I reconcile, most recently by my marriage to a man born in Manhattan and raised in the East, and in my life in Boston. Many writers and sages have written about western and eastern movement and meaning. Why not venture forth in their footsteps?