Since most foreigners immediately notice an American accent, it is rare that I have the luxury of blending into the crowd and, after living abroad for years, I have noticed a cookie cutter conversation regarding geography that continues to underwhelm me. It goes something like this—New Friend: So, where are you from? Me: The United States. NF: Wow! That must be nice living around New York City. Me: Actually, I am from Kansas City in the center of the country. It is the city where Charlie Parker was born. NF: So how far away is that from California? Me: Well it’s about a twenty-four hour drive east of Los Angeles. NF: Cool. I always wanted to live in Texas.
People seem to characterize the center of the United States as a vast tornado-bitten plain of cowboys and rattlesnakes where everyone loves Tim McGraw and the public schools are filled with Beliebers. Cultural athletes play jazz and snobbish old people stand alone promoting classical music. There is no inbred culture. It is a rare find to come across publically supported local art shows and concerts from upcoming talents and when it does come, it often carries the form of garage band imitations and Thomas Kinkade reprints. Midwesterners do, however, have deer posts and ATVs with conveniently located strip clubs just off the interstate. Many of the people there come from a generation of nineteenth-century settlers that had to fight to survive. Carrying guns was a question of finding the next meal and defending oneself against unknown elements. Harsh winters required a reliance on friends and family in an open plain where death was never far away. How is someone supposed to build a career on the arts based on such forlorn values?
There is a useful element to this distinctly American worldview, and, for all of its stigmas, growing up in the Midwest is not as impossible an experience as people from the East and West coast might imagine. It is easy to criticize such antiquated traditions as gun socials and country music as old-fashioned, but it does nothing to contribute towards building on already proven building blocks of moderation, creativity, and pragmatism. Americans from Oklahoma to California carry an attitude of independence and entrepreneurship. They realize that the onus of success rests squarely on their shoulders if they are to achieve their goals. Instead of blaming others, they look inward for finding solutions. Sitting thousands of miles away from most continents bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Americans have also embraced isolationism starting as far back as President George Washington: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is . . . to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.” Our history (all kinds) makes us who we are. Being from the “other” is distinct and deserves to be recognized. It is not a pejorative of individual abilities, it’s a facet of our national personality.
After living abroad for three years, I meet many people that seem impressed when I talk about how and where I have lived. People seem to be enamored with a perception that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence; their particular location is somehow less valid than what lies just out of reach. At the beginning perhaps this is convincing; people in Europe suggest that Milan could never be as captivating as Chicago and citizens of the Midwest openly suspect that Columbia, Missouri holds no comparison to Bordeaux, France. Fear of failure is one reason that people make up fantasies that tell them they truly could achieve their dreams if only they were over there. For most, that reality never arrives and they have their excuse.
In sorting out this location conundrum, I propose a basic view of American expatriate Paul Bowles, a writer and composer who spent the majority of his adult life in Morocco. There exist two kinds of movers throughout the world: tourists and travelers. The tourist moves from here to there and everywhere with a willing suspension of reality. They recognize, whether unconscious or not, that this current living situation is foreign to their sensibilities. It is exotic, exciting, and fleeting. It is also likely to be quite meaningful. The traveler on the other hand views foreign worlds as a catalyst for calibrating sensibilities, reconsidering worldviews and perhaps even learning new languages. The traveler carries a more lonely road of discovering for themself the intricacies of what makes the foreign unusual and what makes them who they are as citizens, friends, and artists. If they return, they remain changed forever.
In spite of such pithy comparisons between colors of grass, traveling abroad essentially teaches the individual that most people live like everyone else. People wake up, eat, work or go to school, have a lover or two, enjoy their friends, take a shower, and go to bed at night. Some of us do this process in English. Some of us live this in Swahili. The caveat to self-understanding lies in finding the 1% difference between our culture and the other. Finding and embracing those distinct differences is part of the challenge of artistry.
Today, we live in a time where location is becoming less important. The world is becoming smaller, and people are more connected than ever before in the history of the world with programs like Skype. With a bank card (or a smartphone), you can pay for anything just about anywhere in the world and have it sent to you. Ideas and innovations are being flung around at a velocity that is truly mind-boggling. Location, at its essence, has been and will continue to be a question of finding people that share common values to network and build connections with. New York City has traditionally been viewed as a place for assertive musicians to launch their careers. Today, there are so many voices in the same place with the same mediums to communicate, it is easy to get drowned and burnt out of the system to say nothing of cost of daily expenses. The economic principle of diminishing return remains in force especially here. The question is now more than ever about being clever enough to build your own way from where you are with what you have on hand. Find something compelling to do at a level that reflects everything else you have been paying attention to, and you will become a wild card, a pioneer who had the courage to try.
Choosing a place to live is all about making the choice. Once that is complete, move on with the plan and build on what has been started. It becomes quite simply a question of jumping in with an educated guess, odds be damned, and going for it. Significantly, moving around a lot does not necessarily equate progress. However, it almost certainly will involve closing and opening a lot of boxes, paying tolls, purchasing gasoline, or passing airport security. Have the wisdom and the creativity to take your own gun and stake a claim. Whether it is on a “sexy” tractor or a profound truth, if it is well located, it may succeed.
Just consider the 1998 hit “Kenny Chesney–She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” YouTube (23 November 2009), posted by KennyChesneyVEVO.
George Washington, quoted in “George Washington on Foreign Affairs * September 19, 1796,” Library of Virginia, lva.virginia.gov/lib-edu/education/psd/nation/foreign.htm.
Paul Bowles, “The Sheltering Sky,” (New York: Ecco Press, 2005), chapter 2 .
The law of diminishing return states that if all factors of production stay the same, output will decrease over time if another factor (such as population in a concentrated area) is increased. For example, the Harlem Renaissance was spearheaded by people like Langston Hughes and Billie Holiday, but the movement eventually lost its revolutionary nature over time for multiple reasons, not least of these being oversaturation.