Friday, June 03, 2011

Big City, Little Town

Last month my family went on a trip to visit relatives, and in the course of that trip we visited Toronto, Ontario. Toronto is a city of roughly five million people, once you take in all of the burbs.

I've done my share of traveling, and frankly I'm not a huge fan of it anymore. But there was something uniquely jarring to me about the day we spent in Toronto. Riding the subway into the heart of the city, I was struck by a  difference between that culture and the one in which I currently reside.

I should explain that subways and big cities are nothing new to me. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin; at the time the population was about 140,000. It has grown significantly since then. In college I moved to Milwaukee, which I think was something like 300,000 at the time. My next residence was in Takamatsu, Japan, on the island of Shikoku. This city was considered a quiet, backwater village of only about 600,000. Then I moved to Osaka, home to about three million people. Subways and trains were common fare to me then. In Japan everyone learns how to build a bubble of privacy around them in the midst of hundreds of strangers, even in the public baths.

And then I moved to Steubenville with its population of just under 18,000 and shrinking by the day.

This is my home in every emotional sense of that word. That means that I find great comfort here, even while occasionally feeling annoyed or amused by some aspects of the experience. I am annoyed, for example, at how drivers seem to constantly disregard the sirens of emergency vehicles (I once saw four cars pass in front of a fire truck at an intersection), and I am amused, in a slightly irritated way, at the pronunciation to which some words are subjected. But, as I think happens when one is very comfortable someplace, I didn't realize just how this place that is my home has formed me with certain expectations, certain assumptions about how people interact with each other.

On the subway in Toronto I was struck by a North American version of the Japanese privacy bubble. The Toronto bubble, however, didn't feel like a cultural understanding of respect-by-distance. It felt more like mutual alienation. Everyone avoided others, except if they traveled as a group, and then the entire group interacted in such a way that communicated avoidance of others. Just an example: in one group of young men, a coffee spilled on one man's backpack. They all groaned over the disgustingness of this while the young man wiped his backpack on the seat between him and another person, as if no one but they were present.

Then I think of life here, where it is not uncommon for drivers who pass each other on country roads to wave to each other, just because. It's not that everyone makes eye contact with every stranger here, but I routinely have strangers greet me. It's just sort of common courtesy that we say hello to whomever we meet when out walking. I've done quite a bit of petition work, and I've found nearly every stranger I've stopped willing to chat. I love the feeling that when I go grocery shopping I usually run into an acquaintance at the store.

I know from my husband, who grew up in a town much smaller than this one, that small town life can instill a sense that one has no private life, because everyone knows everything about everyone, and is probably talking about it with everyone else. Perhaps I just have the best of both worlds: I presume that everyone is minding his or her own business and ignoring everyone else, while experiencing that people are relatively aware of each other. I also have a relatively low level of gossip paranoia.

One might claim the the level of friendliness experienced here is limited in its value because it only goes so far: there are people who are suffering, lonely, abused, and even murdered right in our neighborhoods. A wave and a howdy isn't going to prevent that. But it does do something for me. I have a sense of peace and safety. I have a sense of belonging, knowing that neighbors would help each other in case of any kind of emergency need.

The feeling I had in the big city was by far more one of self-protection, guarding against strangers, mistrust, suspicion. I had forgotten, or not realized, just how much I had moved out of that mindset. I have had to coach my son in the proper application of self-protection and mistrust in public, when he had a gift card stolen from him last Christmas. But I would rather teach him to constantly keep his wallet in his hand than to watch him have to pry his heart open as an adult, constantly and routinely on guard with friend and foe alike.

I do think that human need brings out the neighborliness in most of us, regardless of our culture. I guess what it boils down to is that it makes me sad to think of all of the varieties of loneliness there are in the world -- and especially how it can crush the soul while people are crushing in on you from all sides.

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