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Bernard: The Trip Home

06/13/12 7:55AM By Emily Bernard
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(Host) Commentator Emily Bernard is an associate professor at UVM who grew up in the South and lived for some years in New York City. Now that it's summertime, she's preparing for a trip home. And that means she's also contemplating where "home" truly is, and what it takes to feel like we "belong."

(Bernard) I went to visit my older brother in New York when I was twenty years old. My first subway ride terrified me. Not because there were so many people, but because there were so many people standing so close together who were not talking. I felt as if I had landed in " Invasion of the Body Snatchers. " In the South where I grew up if someone passes you on the street and says nothing, it means something.

Stranger still was the fact that even though they were not talking to or even looking at one other, the subway riders were obviously aware of one other. Once I saw a woman leave a bag behind as she crossed the threshold to the platform. A man held the door open and reached behind him to take the bag from another man and then handed it to her. Thank you, No problem. That was it - back to science fiction silence.

In college, a friend from New York complained that the problem with southerners was that they stood too close. During a road trip south, he said everyone he met wanted to talk to him, and when they talked, they leaned in to make their points. The more he backed away, the closer they stepped forward. He thought it had to do with geography. There was so much actual space in the south, he said, that there was no need to create and maintain symbolic space - like the kind New Yorkers carve out by throwing up a newspaper on the subway.

During the years that I lived in New York , I, too, tried to remain aloof . But I discovered that I can only be who I am, so I've stopped fighting my tendency to make eye contact. I'll never be quite like the slow-talking southerners around whom I grew up. But neither can I be the kind of fast-moving New Yorker who walks as if a fishing line is pulling her toward her destination. Still, I'm proud of the fact that I've mastered the tight choreography of a New York institution like Grand Central Station. The trick is not to look directly at the always-dizzying number of bodies zooming toward you. It can be disorienting, like looking too closely at the windshield when you're driving home in the middle of a snowstorm.

For me, acting like a New Yorker is a performance, like mimicking the customs of a foreign country. The real me talks fast but walks slow (when we're out for a walk, my husband calls me "Mississippi"). I can be both the New Yorker who stands too close and the Southerner who sometimes pretends she ' s alone in the world. Today, when I ride the New York subway, I know how to act. But occasionally I share a pole with someone who smiles and says hello and how are you and I know I've encountered another in-between alien, both at home and not at the same time.
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