I’ve heard this city called many things. It’s a blue dot in a red state, the Brooklyn of Texas, or just simply put: Not Texas. Austin prides itself on “keeping weird” throughout growth and gentrification, and the natural changes that occur in a thriving American city. It has arguably one of the best live music scenes in the country, and is not-so-arguably home to the most popular music/tech festival in the country. (South By Southwest, for all you under-the-rock dwellers.) Austin is indeed unique–there is no doubt about it. Where else are you torn between spontaneous outdoor cafe concerts on a regular Sunday afternoon, to be succeeded by eating at a collection of parked food trucks offering some of the most delicious organic/local/vegan/gluten-free concoctions you have ever tasted? No where else. (Okay, maybe Brooklyn.)
The city’s residents, transplants and natives alike, make valiant efforts to differentiate themselves from their Lone Star brethren, through things like co-operative grocery stores, unique outdoor film events, deliciously unique food offerings and bans on plastic bags. And they’ve done a pretty good job of it.
But Austinites, here’s a newsflash for you. No matter how many gluten-free bakeries you build, or refurbished port-o-potty collections you turn into female-author-only bookshops, this is definitely still Texas.
Prior to moving to South Korea, I mentally prepared for language barriers and culture shock, knowing that I would be faced with new cultural practices and different everything. I read books about Asian manners, studied a bit of Korean history (yes, Wikipedia does count) and tried eating kimchi to prepare my pallet. Never did I think this sort of preparation would be necessary in my move to Austin. Afterall, it’s the Brooklyn of Texas…what could be so shocking?
I had visited Austin twice before, visiting my then long distance boyfriend and clouded in a sea of live music, new sights and tastes; that general travelers excitement of being in a new place. There was no culture shock–I was just an excited visitor.
As a working resident of the city, the culture shock kicked in almost immediately during the tour of the office at the communications firm where I am employed, just two days after my flight landed in Texas. I naively assumed that the Austin office would resemble the firm’s New York headquarters, where I had interviewed, with its contemporary white and red furnishings, sleek interior decór and trendy little receptionist. Instead, I was surprised by wall photos of cowboys (literally!), LBJ posters and a conference room–charmingly nicknamed “The Texas Room”–with tawny leather chairs and a wooden conference table with spurs on the corners. (Okay, there are no spurs. But still…it’s rustic and wooden!)
When I saw one person wearing cowboy boots with a suit, I thought it was a sort of, casual-Tuesday joke. When I saw another and then a third…I realized the joke was on me and my Marc Jacobs handbag.
While people in Austin generally do not have the accents we New Yorkers associate with all those elected officials for whom we don’t vote, everyone still says ya’ll. Saying “ya’ll” is my public enemy number one. “Ya’ll” is my worst nightmare. If you personally know me, saying “ya’ll” is like stepping into a room filled with pigeons and having someone lock the door behind me. Basically, I’m a little self-conscious about saying it. I mean, texting and typing it in e-mails and blog posts is one thing (it feels more like a joke to me than I’m sure it does on the receiving end) but my attempts to say it out loud are worthy of placement in an episode of Seinfeld or Sex and the City (RIP, RIP). But I promise, I’ll keep working on it…ya’ll.
And then there is the mother of my problems, the biggest hilarity of all, that stems from growing up in a place that has just as many people walking around in tubes underground as it does above ground, and subsequently moving to the state that thrives on the automotive industry and its fountains of oil. Yes, I got my driver’s license, went through the motions of driver’s ed and practiced pedaling the metal up and down Broadway a handful of times. I wouldn’t consider this to be driving experience…would you? (If you are my car lease dealer and are reading this for some insane reason…it’s all a joke! Haha!) I now live in a place that requires you to get in a car if you ever want a taco. And you do want the tacos. (However, and this is a big however, Austin is so incredibly bicycle-friendly, I have done very well thus far in my taco consumption and other necessary ventures.)
So there goes my rant, my culture shock laid out for all the world to see. Now I shall pose a question: Is Austin cool because it’s in Texas or despite the fact that it’s in Texas? (Am I wrong to hate on Texas so much? Please, correct me if I am.) Does its bible-belt surroundings and gun-toting neighbors make it shine bright like an actual lone star? Does Austin seem so great simply because of what we have to compare with it? Young hipsters from the coasts and midwest, whose parents worry that their children will become creationist Rick Perry devotees, get a thrill out of moving to the foreign south and being totally badass. Kind of like smoking cigarettes in high school. People feel a sense of ruggedness, too, by living somewhere with a reputation so different from where they grew up.
But I’m not sure this is true. Austin is unlike any other city I’ve ever seen. Austin would be cool and unique in any state. The lack of chain restaurants and shops amazes me, and the majority of residents are clearly and truly devoted to keeping Austin weird, in whatever way that means to them. The fusion of southern charm, open-mindedness, college town folks and tacos and BBQ make it such a special place, no comparison is needed.
A Jew Yorker in Texas…let’s see how long I can last without passing out before I get a real bagel. Ya’ll.