A Last Look at Columbus

Last sunrise in Columbus

Speaking of reflections…

I took this photograph the morning we left Columbus. It seemed important to have photographic evidence of it and I liked the pink light coming through the grey curtain.

Columbus challenged me. It was the smallest place I’ve ever lived and I am a dedicated city girl. Hanoi is a city of 10 million where life is lived on the street, in full view of the public. Columbus is a town where life is lived in private homes and backyards. We had good neighbors and spent many evenings drinking beer, roasting marshmallows over candles and playing with the dogs in their backyard.

People were friendly. I used to live in Minneapolis, a city famous for its “Minnesota Nice,” which is a Minnesotan way of saying “Minnesota Passive-Aggressive.” Minneapolitans look away from each other on the street and do not say hello. But one evening as I was walking home from the library, a man passing me on the sidewalk said, “How ya doin’?” I didn’t know if it was a catcall or a greeting. But it happened again and again from passers-by of any gender.

To say I disliked Columbus would oversimplify my feelings toward it. I had barely been there a month when I found out my parents–and I, since I was living on their dime–would move to Rockford, Illinois. The town was pretty; the architecture and the ideal weather saw to that. But the lack of civic engagement shocked me. There were no trash bins downtown, there was no curbside recycling, the city didn’t fix cracked sidewalks.

When I started this blog I wrote, “I don’t have a choice but to like where I am so I might as well know where I am.” The truth is, however, that I was never quite fair to Columbus. It was a short-term, loveless affair. I knew I would leave it shortly after arriving so I never became attached to the community. I never did pursue volunteer work, which is how I commit myself to a place. I never planned to keep in touch with any of my former co-workers.

I was horribly unfair to Columbus. Sure, it’s a town with a meth problem. Sure, the teen pregnancy rate is through the roof compared with other places I’ve lived. Sure, upon learning that I had relocated from Vietnam, a man replied, “Vietnam, huh. I dated an Oriental once.” Those things are inexcusable but aren’t they just pages in the town’s book? There were other stories, too: The Vietnamese couple at my parents’ church who came from Hanoi and had a daughter named Thuy, my Vietnamese name. The retired nurse practitioner who organized the small number of Obama supporters in Bartholomew County because she could remember the days before Roe v. Wade. The Couchsurfer who met me for ice cream at a place downtown then, a few weeks later, invited me for lasagna night.

What I disliked was myself in Columbus. I can write excuses–reverse culture shock, difficulty adjusting to living with my parents after six years of living away from home–but they would just be excuses. As a traveler, I try not to make assumptions about people and places. I try to understand, not judge. I measured Columbus according to a double standard. Because it wasn’t Asia, because it was small, because it was in Indiana, I assumed it had nothing to offer. I was wrong. It had modern architecture from the Saarinens and IM Pei. It had the Savory Swine. It had Ethnic Fest, an event in October that celebrates the town’s diversity, which everyone looks forward to. It had truly kind people.

Nothing stimulates me more that to have a new place to explore. I like to meet new people, to engage in a new community. I am not a perfect traveler but I aspire to be an always-learning one. So, I must revise my statement: I don’t have a choice but to know where I am so I may as well greet it with an open heart and mind.

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