Last Saturday was Texas Independence Day, and seeing the Princeton Texans Club table set up in Frist, with our giant Lone Star flag and representatives decked out in Stetson hats and cowboy boots, reminded me once again of how much pride I have in my home state. There were a few students who scoffed or made snide remarks, but most non-Texans just seemed slightly bemused by the whole display — after all, what kind of state has its own independence day? However, if you ask any of the students from Texas, you’ll find that many of them will fiercely defend her regardless of their political affiliation or socioeconomic background. Although being a Texan or a New Yorker or a Californian is technically just a geographic affiliation, it carries a regional identity with it that greatly influences our personal identities in more significant ways than superficial differences such as clothing choice or accent.
Before I came to Princeton, I had never really identified with my hometown or home state, and I imagine the same applies to many students here. Perhaps for those students from nearby states, the atmosphere is similar enough here to make them feel somewhat at home — and it does indeed seem like half the students here are from New York or New Jersey — but even then, the regional differences quickly become apparent. My roommate, who is from northern Connecticut, is always eager to point out that southwestern Connecticut is full of New Yorkers and doesn’t really count as part of the state. However, many Manhattan residents will probably tell you that Greenwich is most definitely in Connecticut and not New York. Even within cities, people divide themselves based on where they live — every neighborhood and suburb has its stereotypes — and as a result, even minute geographic differences are associated with deep cultural divisions.
After I arrived at Princeton, I realized how strange I must have seemed to the various new people I was meeting, and it made me realize that a large part of who I am depends on the culture of my hometown and home state. Even the way I talk can sometimes flag me as Texan, or at least vaguely Southern; for the first few weeks, I was met with incredulity every time I said “y’all,” but my friends soon accepted it as a “Texas thing.” The most prominent difference I’ve noticed is how fast everything is in the Northeast. The people talk quickly, walk quickly and generally seem to be in a hurry all the time. I discovered that saying “sorry” or “excuse me” after bumping into people is quite unusual and calling older people “sir” or “ma’am” is often seen as patronizing. These small, noticeable things might not represent a cultural difference by themselves. However, they are symptoms of a deeper ideological divide, the kind that inspires such stereotypes as the rich, preppy New Englander or the bumbling Texas cowboy. The culture shock I experienced upon arriving here was very real, and in some ways I still feel out of place. I might be able to change my superficial habits, or others might get used to them, but the deeper ideological differences, such as the pace of life or the ways in which people show respect for others, are much harder to reconcile.
I had never been truly aware of my habits and beliefs until now. If I had not come to Princeton, I probably would never have noticed them. As much as I miss my hometown, I am glad that I decided to get out of Houston, out of Texas and out of the South to attend college in New Jersey. It’s hard to build up a strong personal identity when everyone has similar identities, whether those are people of the same ethnicity, people of the same nationality, residents of the same neighborhood or even students from the same school. Until they leave behind these homogenous populations, most people don’t fully realize that many of the practices and habits that they take for granted back home are unusual and foreign to almost anyone who lives anywhere else; for most, this epiphany should occur during college.
Unfortunately, many of us decide to stay in the same groups — ethnic, geographic or otherwise — that we spent high school with, meaning all this talk of “broadening your horizons” is simply empty words on an admissions brochure. The safe choice that many of us make is to stay in a comfort zone of familiar friends; however, we should instead be adventuring out and meeting not just new people, but new kinds of people. We should have our habits and beliefs challenged by people from radically different backgrounds from our own and figure out which beliefs are worth keeping and which ones are not. Being exposed to as many different cultures as possible will provide valuable insight into how the rest of the world lives and make you more appreciative and aware of your own cultural identity, something that we should all strive to do.
Spencer Shen is a freshman from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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