Thursday, January 05, 2006

Transplant - Learning the Language

I grew up in upstate New York, and after a couple of years in Connecticut, spent the rest of my time before South Dakota in Buffalo, NY. Buffalo was actually a great place to live – people usually think of it as a place with a lot of snow and little else, but those of us who spent more than a couple of years there learned that it was, as someone told me when I first moved there, “one of the best-kept secrets in the country.” If you’re looking for a busy and varied arts community, you will find it in Buffalo, home to any number of active arts organizations. I think it’s no accident that Ani diFranco, the Goo Goo Dolls, and 10,000 Maniacs all live(d) in or near Buffalo.

Anyway, after living in NY State for so long, I qualify to myself as well as the rest of the country as a “New Yorker.” This is different from the kind of New Yorker that someone who actually lives in New York City is. Generally, if you say to anyone in CT, NJ, or NY State that you are a New Yorker, they will assume that you mean that you actually live in “the city.” But once you leave the state and the “tri-state region,” “New Yorker” takes on a different meaning. People outside of the New York area don’t really care about the distinction between actually living in “the city” and living in the state. (People who live in NY City don’t really care about the distinction between living any number of places outside of “the city” – if you don’t live in New York, you might as well live in Washington State, for all they care, but don’t expect them to understand or appreciate the pleasures and unique qualities of Buffalo (and certainly not Sioux Falls).

Being a New Yorker means, first, that I greet each day with a healthy dose of cynicism. When I first moved out here, I was suspicious of all the friendliness that I encountered on a regular basis. It seemed too good to be true. And indeed, it was – I have since been told, on numerous occasions, that no matter how friendly South Dakotans might be to your face, they are definitely talking behind your back. Still, there is a cheerfulness, a quickness to smile and to exchange pleasantries, that you won’t find with such regularity in New York. In the face of such cheerful, warm “good mornings” from co-workers, I find it difficult to sustain my cynical outlook. In fact, after living here for several years, I have found that I, too, have adopted the cheerful outlook on life that so distressed me when I first arrived. While I am still suspicious, I now save my suspicion for institutional plots and conspiracies rather than the nice woman standing next to me in line at the grocery store.

But cynicism is only part of being a New Yorker. New Yorkers speak a different language from that found in the Midwest. Frankly, New Yorkers bitch. When we greet each other, we don’t say cheerful things. Instead, we begin sentences with, “Can you believe it?! Wait till you hear what this jerk did on the highway this morning,” or “I am so pissed about...” or “Don’t you hate...” Shortly after I first moved to Sioux Falls, I went into work and a co-worker very genuinely (and naively) asked me how I was that morning. I responded, “Oh, God! Can you believe this weather?! And then the bus was late, so I had to stand in the rain for 10 minutes. AND I am so depressed after looking at the headlines this morning. How are you?” My co-worker looked shaken, and very sorry she had asked. Clearly, this was not the expected South Dakotan response to the question.

But perhaps the most important point about language is that New Yorkers curse. My friends from back east and I pepper our language with various swear words, mostly notably the trinity of all-purpose curses: fuck, shit, and damn. We also say “hell” quite often. I have found, however, that since moving to Sioux Falls, my language has been cleaned up considerably, at least in public (and especially in the University of Sioux Falls library). Case in point: back home, when surprised by distressing news, one might say something along the lines of, “Holy fucking Christ!” Here, a response of, “Gosh!” is more likely.

But now that I've been here for a while, I'm noticing that the New Yorker in me is making herself heard more frequently. I'm no longer the same New Yorker I was; I can control my tongue and my temper most of the time without even thinking about it. But more and more, I'm finding that while I like the general cheerfulness in others and in myself, I also really like the occasional bursts of discontentment, ire, and just general bitchiness.

I'm a New York feminist in exile...and a South Dakota bitch.


Anne B said...

Interesting post!

I had a sort of converse experience when I moved from Wisconsin to Buffalo, NY. I was used to the standard Midwestern manners... for example, when someone offers you something say, a piece of cake, you refuse (out of politeness, so as not to appear overly grabby), they reoffer, you might refuse again (again to show your pure intentions), and then they insist and you take the cake, or whatever.

My first week in Buffalo, this happened with a slice of pizza at Casa de Pizza. My new friend said "Hey Anne, do you want to try a slice of this white pizza?" "Oh, no, that's okey." I said, eyeing it longingly. "A'right," he says and without another solicitation gobbled up the rest of his pizza. !!

In the end, I came to appreciate the directness of NY over the intricate politenesses of Wisconsin/Minnesota. Now, when I go home, I am sometimes frustrated. Like in NY, a person you barely know, say, the guy at the bodega counter will say "Me, I'm voting for John Kerry. He should win." (maybe even without being asked!). If you're CLOSE ENOUGH to get someone's vote OUT of them in the WI/MN, you STILL might only get a comment like, "Yeah, a guy could kinda see voting for someone like John Kerry..." Grrr! (Who is this "a guy" anyhow?) :)

plain(s)feminist said...

I'm laughing hysterically at the thought of that pizza! I had a roommate from Indonesia who had that exact same experience when her family moved to America.

Yes, the NY direct approach has a lot in its favor. At least you pretty much always know where you stand with people. It's much more difficult for me to suss that out in this part of the country.