The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Mobile in America

Today we welcome Mandy Rogers to The Displaced Nation as a guest blogger. She wrote this post in response to Kate Allison’s “The Domestic Expat.”

I don’t always understand what people are saying. I’m temperamentally unsuited to the noise and lack of personal space. I don’t think I’ll ever completely fit in. What am I?

A Mississippian in Manhattan!

My husband, Kary, and I moved to New York City two-and-a-half years ago, when we were in our early thirties. Until then, we had spent our entire lives in Mississippi. We loved it and had a great community of friends, whom we still miss.

Making the move

What possessed us to pick up stakes and try out life somewhere else?

Kary and I met in the marching band at Mississippi State. I played the flute and he the trumpet. We both landed jobs at the university immediately upon graduation. But there was something in each of us, a kind of restlessness. We knew we couldn’t be content with staying in Starkville forever. Was it a passion for travel or a fear of growing too complacent? Perhaps a bit of both…

There was also a practical reason for making the move. I’d gone back to school in my late twenties to do a masters in landscape architecture. I discovered I really enjoyed doing projects involving public spaces, such as parks, gardens, and streetscapes. Public green space isn’t a priority in Mississippi, where most people have their own land.

During my graduate studies, I’d taken a road trip with Kary and my sister to New York City, visiting Central Park, Paley Park, and Bryant Park. The amount of green space was a surprise to me. It’s something my mother, another garden lover, noticed during her first visit to the city, too.

In the end, it all happened rather quickly. Kary was offered the first job in New York he applied for. He actually got it via Twitter!

We packed up our belongings in a rental car — our cocker spaniel, Callie, in her seat belt harness and our three cats in their carriers — and traveled over three days to our new home in the Big Apple, staying in pet-friendly hotels along the way. (We’d flown out to find an apartment just beforehand, signing a lease for one in Brooklyn, which several of our friends had recommended as a great place to live.)

When we first moved, I didn’t have a job so spent the time exploring gardens and parks in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island. Even now that I’m working for a landscape architecture firm in Manhattan, I escape to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden whenever I can to see what’s in bloom. My dad gave me a membership there just before he died. We had a complicated relationship so it’s a nice reminder of him and our common love of gardens.

The adjustment process

People still ask me: where are you from? They usually guess North Carolina or Georgia; no one has guessed Mississippi yet.

I’m still picking up new vocabulary and pronunciations. “House-ton” instead of “Hue-ston” Street; standing “on line” at the grocery store (in the South we say “in line”).

And I continue to be amazed that the number of people living in Brooklyn equals the entire population of Mississippi (2.5 million). No wonder one of our most difficult adjustments has been to the noise and (by our standards) overcrowding.

Still, there are lots of things we love in this part of the world, beginning with the climate. Thunder and tornadoes are much less frequent here. And believe it or not, even after this rough winter, we still can’t get enough of snow.

We’ve adjusted very quickly to living without a car. You can see and experience so much more on foot than behind the wheel. That said, I usually did most of my singing in the car, and I miss that! (I don’t sing around my apartment too much, as the neighbors could hear me.)

And, although the South is renowned for its hospitality, I am often surprised by how much nicer, friendlier, and helpful New Yorkers are than they are given credit for being.

Moving right along…

Despite these many “likes,” I don’t think we’ll ever be true New Yorkers. To this day, I always relish running into other Southerners. The past two years, Kary and I have attended the annual picnic held in Central Park for folks from Mississippi. There’s always a blues band and plenty of fried catfish, sweet tea, and other Southern delicacies.

Not all Mississippians have exactly the same values, but each of us knows what it was like growing up in that neck of the woods, and it gives us a powerful bond.

During the year, Kary and I congregate with fellow Mississippi State alumni at a local bar to watch our alma mater compete in football or basketball. We’ve made some new acquaintances that way, such as a native New Yorker who went to MSU in the 1970s to run track.

Like most expats, Kary and I debate about the right moment to move on and where to go next. Will we try the West Coast, or consider moving back south? Every time I visit Mississippi these days — I’ve been back three times since we left — I realize how much I’ve missed its hospitality, beautiful forests, and tranquility. Plus it’s been nice catching up with family and friends over hearty Southern meals.

Still, the hot, humid summer would take some getting used to again. And now that we’ve been bitten by the travel bug, we’re contemplating our wish list again. We visited San Francisco last year and liked what we saw.

Being mobile in America — it’s a trip, in more ways than one. Tell me, why do so many Americans seek adventure overseas when it’s perfectly possible to be an expat here?

Question: Can being an “expat” within your own borders be just as enriching as becoming one by crossing borders?

Mandy doesn’t have a blog but you can follow her on Twitter: @mandyluvsplants

img: Mandy (right) and a friend she ran into at a Central Park picnic for Mississippians in New York. Mandy’s comment: “My friend still lives in Mississippi but was here with her daughter, who was attending the picnic as part of her duties as Mississippi’s Miss Hospitality. My mom says I can’t go anywhere without running into someone I know — I guess she’s right!”

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5 responses to “Mobile in America

  1. Almost American April 13, 2011 at 6:12 am

    Absolutely – of course it’s possible to travel form one culture to another and stay within the borders of the United States – you described the experience very well. Years ago, I taught a class on cross-cultural understanding to a group of college professors. They didn’t ‘get it’ at first – complaining that they didn’t have any international students in their classes, so why did they have to attend my seminar? Fortunately, by the end they really did seem to get it – that many of their students were coming from other ‘cultures’ within the US, and that in order to help them succeed the teachers needed to be more explicit about teaching the expectations of their academic culture.

    • ML Awanohara April 13, 2011 at 6:24 pm

      What’s interesting to me is how out of touch these teachers of yours appear to have been with mainstream America. When I was growing up in this country, I don’t think that people who came from different states called themselves “expats,” but now they routinely do. I was struck, for instance, by a recent article about the mayor of Laguna Beach, California, Toni Iseman. A Nebraskan native, she has lived in California for 40 years and is now serving as mayor of one of its most picturesque beach towns. Yet she still thinks of herself as an expat. There was an article about her in the Omaha World-Herald reporting that she sometimes ends phone chats with fellow Cornhusker expatriates by saying, “Go Big Red.”

      Going back to Kate Allison’s original post on this topic: I am thinking that although this American usage of the word “expat” is technically incorrect, it sure beats “exile” — which is how Welsh people living in England sometimes refer to themselves (or so I’m told!).

  2. ML Awanohara May 24, 2011 at 9:40 am

    Mandy, at the time you made your comment about being glad to get away from tornadoes, I remember thinking: well, surely tornadoes aren’t all that common? Boy, was I proved wrong! You posted this piece on April 11, and on April 27 nearly 200 recorded tornadoes ripped across the South, killing more than 300 people and making history as the worst tornado outbreak since 1974.

    Then on Sunday, shortly before the Discovery channel was scheduled to air a program about this historic day, called “Tornado Rampage 2011,” it was reported that a deadly tornado had struck Joplin, Missouri, destroying 80 percent of the city.

    Against this background, are you thinking about trying to persuade your relatives and friends to become expats, too? I know I felt that way after the big Tokyo earthquake in March — I still have friends and family who are too close for comfort to the “ring of fire.”

    Earthquakes are like tornadoes in that they’re hard to predict with any accuracy, meaning that people rarely get a chance to evacuate. Most of the time, it’s manageable, but then when the massive ones hit, you always regret that the experts can’t seem to come up with an effective early-warning system. A case where nature nearly always wins…😦

    • Mandy Rogers June 5, 2011 at 12:30 pm

      Mary-Lea,

      The tornados this year have been so insane! During the ones at the end of April, a town in Mississippi, Smithville, was almost completely destroyed. This really “hit home” with me, as it’s in the same county as my hometown of Nettleton and is a small town like Nettleton; if the path of the tornado had been different, it could have been my hometown that was destroyed. I went “home” for Mother’s Day and was so grateful that my friends and family were all ok. (One of the things that has made me proud of the people of my hometown is how they immediately began doing donation drives for the victims in Smithville – using Facebook quite a bit – and they’re still continuing those drives now).

      That’s an interesting question about trying to persuade my relatives and friends to become expats too. No, I really haven’t done that, as so many of my friends have so many family members in the area that I doubt they would be willing to pick up stakes and move. Many of them are more rooted with children also. Also, it seems like no matter what area of our country we live in, there is some kind of disaster to be wary of – whether it’s tornados, floods, earthquakes, blizzards, or attacks by humans on other humans. I guess I’m of the mindset to be as reasonably prepared as possible (but as you said, there’s little warning for things like tornados and earthquakes) but to not let fear keep you from where you want to be.

      Thanks for the question/comment! Very thought-provoking, indeed!

      • ML Awanohara June 6, 2011 at 4:40 pm

        @Mandy
        Not long after I posted this comment to you, tornadoes hit Massachusetts! People were in shock, saying, “This doesn’t happen in Massachusetts.”

        So you’re right: there can be no predicting.

        Rumor has it, meantime, that you and Kerry are moving to San Francisco! By the time you leave there, you’ll be rexpats (repeat expats), having experienced both coasts.

        Best of luck, and please keep in touch about your next “displacement”! (I don’t mean that too literally — no earthquakes please!)

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