Small Town Girl

A few of you may already know this.  But for the rest of you, I’m going to confess a little secret.

Despite my rants and raves about gourmet Chinese food in cosmopolitan cities like Hong Kong, Vancouver, and Seattle, deep down—I’m really just a small town girl at heart.  Like bona fide, middle-of-nowhere small town.

I kid you not.

I was born in a small town.  And I grew up in that same small town, much like the character in John Cougar Mellencamp’s hit song, Small Town—though I come in a slightly different color than the folks in his video. (Also, I’m *really* hoping that my dance moves are better than Mr. Mellencamp’s “skinny-white-guy-rocker” moves here!)

“My parents lived in that same small town” for almost 40 years.  But a few years ago, my dad retired and my parents relocated to the big city across the state: Seattle.

I’m getting a little misty-eyed these days because over the next few weeks, my parents will be going back to my hometown to sign the closing documents officially selling their house.  It’s terrific news as they found a buyer for their home, and it will certainly be a financial and emotional load off of their minds, particularly in this economy.

But selfishly speaking, I’m a little sad.  I’m sad because this officially means that I no longer have any real or tangible ties to my hometown.  And I’m sad because the next time I visit my hometown, I’ll have to stay in a hotel, which will be totally bizarre as I’ve never stayed in a hotel there.  I’ve never needed to.

I love Mr. Mellencamp’s song because it captures a big part of my formative life, and every time I hear a part of it, I’m immediately transported back to my idyllic childhood among the rolling Palouse hills in Pullman, WA.

Pullman is a terrific place to grow up.  Growing up there in the 1980s, it was the picture of the quintessentially wholesome, all-American hometown—the perfect place to raise a family.  A college town surrounded by rolling wheat and lentil fields, there was virtually no threat of crime.  And unlike Seattle, we grew up with plenty of sun.  With only one public middle school and one public high school, there weren’t “school choice” dilemmas.  Everyone went to the same school.  When we weren’t busy with school, we were occupied with various sports camps and other activities during the summer.  It was a simple life.

I benefited tremendously from my excellent public school teachers.  Having a major university as the town’s main economic driver also had certain positive (or potentially negative) externalities, since most of your classmates were also PKs (professor’s kids), which explains the good test scores.  Summer school or Running Start and AP programs were easily supplemented with college-level classes at the university down the street.  I actually felt academically prepared for college by the time I graduated from high school.

But I think the best thing about growing up in a small college town is that you are forced to learn about and embrace NCAA Division I college sports, particularly football and basketball.  There’s really nothing else going on, so the whole town will show up to watch the games live on Saturday.

And so we watched.  I grew up with terrific seats at Friel Court, and witnessed many sports stars in the making.  And while I’d always cheer for the Cougs, sometimes we would go to the games just to watch the superstars on the opposing teams up close.  I still remember gawking at “the Glove” Gary Payton when he was a pesky and unstoppable point guard at Oregon State, as well as Jason Kidd when he was at Cal.

Pullman also boasts its own “local” sports celebrities who had their stint there, mostly because of WSU sports.  I still remember gazing at old John Elway photos in dusty sports trophy cases when he was a Lincoln Middle and then Pullman High School freshman as Elway’s father was a former football assistant coach at WSU.  I’ve also had a few Drew Bledsoe and Dan O’Brien sightings in town, usually down by the WSU athletic facilities.

And while I don’t remember this incident as I was an active and expressive three year old, my parents tell me that they brought me to the old WSU indoor field house to burn off some energy.  As I was running around the track, I apparently ran into and had a full on “conversation” with the “Throwin’ Samoan” himself, Jack Thompson.

I’m a Greyhound, and while I enjoyed my eighteen-years in Pullman, when it was time for college, I knew that it was a time to leave.  I couldn’t wait to get out and to see the real world.  So after high school I packed my bags and headed west to the big city: Seattle.  I left Pullman as a Greyhound to become a Husky.  Needless to say, I was always torn over which team to cheer for during each Apple Cup.  Was it weird that as a UW undergrad, I knew the WSU fight song, but not Bow Down to Washington?

There were some adjustments during my first year in Seattle on my own.  The weather was depressing and my freshman year of college was a little rough.  I also found that the social construct of separating “cool” western Washington kids from “hick” eastern Washington kids to be palpable, and I remember an affinity towards fellow UW students who were also from the 509 area code side of the state.  Most folks from the 206 or 425 thought that we 509ers were redneck hicks.  As a result, none of my close friends from college were from Seattle, but from Eastern Washington or from out of state, since we were the kids that didn’t already have old local friends when we arrived in Seattle.  So we had to make new ones.

Dominic Black, in his four-part series for KUOW, “Behind the Cascade Curtain” explains the concept that Washington is naturally split into two distinct halves, separated by the Cascade Mountain range.  He writes:

“There’s a coastal side and an inland side; a wet side and a dry side; a blue side and a red side; a tree–hugging, Prius–driving, salmon–loving, granola–eating side and a gun–toting, deer–hunting, Jesus–loving, redneck side.  And from a distance, that split can seem like an eternal truth about Washington state.  But when you stop and look for a minute, you realize that it’s all much more complex and conditional than that.”

Mr. Black is right.  It is more complex.  Growing up on the far eastern border of Washington, Pullman didn’t strike me as particularly redneck, though I did grow up with classmates who showed up to school in dusters and had gun racks in their pickups.  However, I remember most people being relatively educated, open-minded, tolerant, and liberal, even.  But maybe that’s because Pullman was a college town.  We were so far east that we were practically on the border with Idaho.

In his piece, Mr. Black also interviews WSU history professor, Dr. Jeffrey Sanders who talks about a certain tone that is set by different patterns of migration into the region.  Dr. Sanders explains how earlier 1850s settlers to the Willamette River Valley spilled over into southeast Washington (the entire area was then still designated as the Oregon Territories.)  These earlier settlers were primarily family units from the American midwest who were more conservative and focused on farming and agriculture.

And so they tended to favor settling in places like Walla Walla versus Seattle–which was then still a backwater prior the railroad and gold/mining boom of the late 1800s.  These earlier farming settlers were quite a contrast to later settlers who came to Seattle on railroads en route to the Alaska gold rush.  This historical pattern of migration may partially explain why certain parts of eastern Washington tend to be more conservative relative to western parts of Washington.

Dr. Sanders also explains how fascinating it is to spot the differences in perception between eastern and western Washington undergraduates in his classes today, where his students hail from all over our state.  On the first day of class, he asks his students to draw a map of Washington.  The western Washington students from the suburbs of King and Snohomish counties often draw Seattle and I-90 and nothing else. But the eastern Washington students are much more detailed in their maps, and some don’t even mark Seattle.

Throughout my own college years, I was very aware of the geographic and cultural differences on my countless drives across Washington from Seattle back home to Pullman during various school breaks.  After praying for a non-snowy clear path through Snoqualmie Pass, I’d always catch myself gasping in wonder at the beauty of crossing the great geographic and cultural divider of our fair state: the Cascade Mountain Range.  Visually the drive is always stunning from West to East as you move from the majesty of the snow-capped mountains and evergreens through the Columbia River Valley, finally reaching your destination among the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse.

After college, I left Seattle for graduate school back east to be a Bulldog before I ended up in Hong Kong.  And during the whole time I was in Hong Kong, I really was just a Greyhound faking it as a Husky masquerading as a Bulldog!  It was a three-dog tale that no one in Hong Kong had the time, or inclination to understand.  Everyone just assumed I was American and I finally got used to fake being from Seattle.

The funny thing about living in Hong Kong is that nearly everyone in the expat community you meet there will assuredly be from somewhere else.  The other guarantee is that they will also probably only be in Hong Kong for a while, just like you.  So the “Where are you from?” conversation is always staple kindling to get the conversation fire going, much like talking about the terrible weather here in Seattle.

Well, it’s a sure fire hit until you have to explain that you are from middle-of-nowhere, USA, which generally kills the conversation.  It also gives the impression that not only are you a dumb American, but a dumb hick American.

When people asked me where I was from when I first arrived in Hong Kong, I’d reply proudly that I was from “Eastern Washington.”  But the hard-of-hearing cosmopolitan Hong Kong expats from New York, London, or Sydney kept misunderstanding me, and our conversations would go something like this:

Cosmopolitan Expat: “Oh, so you’re from Washington, DC!”

Me: “No, I’m from Eastern Washington.”

Cosmopolitan Expat: “Oh wait, so you went to Washington University in St. Louis?”

Me: “No, I’m from Washington State!  Like the US state north of California and Oregon.  Right next to Idaho.”

Cosmopolitan Expat: “… Ore-gone?… Idaho…?”

Me (exasperated): “Actually I’m from Seattle!”

Cosmopolitan Expat: “OOOOHHH!  I know Seattle!  I loved Sleepless in Seattle with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.  So did you live on a houseboat too??”

Me: “Uh… no.  Excuse me, I’m going to need another drink…”

After several rounds of this conversation in various Hong Kong bars or fancy parties, I finally learned to give up and tell people that I was from Seattle.  This is obviously only a partial truth.  The real truth is that I’m from an obscure town 300 miles east of Seattle no one’s ever heard of.  But what did these people care (they didn’t) and “being from Seattle” just made small talk conversation so much easier.  It was only on the very rare occasion when I actually met someone from Seattle that I’d explain I really was from Pullman. The authentic Seattle person would always exclaim: “Woah, I never met anyone who was actually from Pullman!”

I’m pretty sure I was one of the few people born in Pullman living in Hong Kong at the time.  But I’ll never know.  Those of us from middle-of-nowhere USA don’t really like to broadcast the fact that we were born small-town folks, particularly as we try to fake our way in the big city life amidst the big city folks.

Being back in Seattle these days, I like to tell people that I’m from Pullman.  I especially like to tell them that I was raised in Cougar Country, became a Husky, then a Bulldog, and that I still cheer for the Cougs (silently, in my heart) since my dad’s paycheck from WSU paid for the roof over my head, the food on the table, the clothes on my back, and all of my school supplies, dental check-ups, braces, and physicals until I left Pullman.  Pullman is a part of me that I can’t ever deny or get rid of.

I think I’ve finally come to terms with being a small town girl.  I am proud of where I come from, but I’m also grateful to have had the privilege of living abroad in a world-class cosmopolitan city.  I’m also glad to be living in Seattle today.  These days when I explain to folks that I’m from Pullman, people here don’t automatically assume I’m from Washington, DC or St. Louis, and that’s a relief.  But it will still be a long while before I can consider telling people that I’m from Seattle since really, I’m just a Pullman girl at heart.

So go Hounds, Cougs, Dawgs, and Bulldogs!  WOOF!