Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

October 30, 2004. People and values and culture

In Laramie, Wyoming, I stayed at a motel, for the first time since I began my travels. I talked for a long time with the girl at the reception desk. She came to Laramie from the suburbs of Chicago when she was fifteen, when her parents decided to buy the motel and get away from the big cities to the small world of Laramie. She’s now in her last semester at the university. Her parents just sold the motel and retired, but she still works there part time.

She hates Laramie. She gave me two reasons. Everyone at the university drinks too much, she said. And none of the amenities she enjoys in the city are there.

I scoured Laramie for the amenities I enjoy, and found them in spades - good strong coffee, bookstores, nice walkable streets, and a reasonably strong liberal community, at least for Wyoming. That’s not what she wanted, though. Her complaint about Laramie was that she has to drive an hour to get to a shopping mall, to find reasonably priced goods in big stores like Walmart or TJ Maxx or The Gap. The stores in Laramie are expensive, and there’s no competition from the big chains to drive down the prices. Apparently there was some attempt to bring a mall to Laramie, but to her frustration and chagrin it was stopped by people concerned about local shops being forced out of business and the town’s “historical downtown” by the railroad tracks wasting away. She doesn’t care about the small walkable downtown or the opportunity to avoid the big chains. She’s happy to drive everywhere, and wants the chain store prices. She just wishes she didn’t have to go all the way to Fort Collins to find them. And she loves suburbia. She wants to get out of Laramie, but not to head to a “real” city – she’d happily live an hour outside the city in an area of huge malls, chain superstores, highways, and recent subdivisions where she can buy a home that hasn’t been “used” by someone before her.

Her choices were so antithetical to me! Everything that I fine sterile, wasteful, and distasteful about suburbia, she counts as its charms – living in new suburbia where the traffic is not yet chaotic, where the malls are easy to get to, and she can buy a brand new home. I emailed Bill from Hot Springs about her in my amazement. He thought she just needed a break from Laramie to come to appreciate its small town charm. I don’t think that’s it, though.

A few weeks later, on the plane to Viet Nam, I talked to someone else about her, a young man from the Los Angeles are whose Indian immigrant parents were building a 5000 square foot house, but whose Indian wife didn't want to live with her in-laws. They had bought an almost-new townhouse, which he felt was acceptable because everything still worked well in it. But he doesn’t expect to stay there long, just a few years and then they’ll move into his parents’ newer, bigger place. His father is dismayed. He sees houses as something that wear out and are discarded, to replace with a new one, like a new appliance. So buying a used one was a bad business.

It sounds pretty silly – no, self-righteous – for me to be scornful of their views or their tastes. I should accept that other people like things that are different from what I like, and not suggest that my preferences are intrinsically better. I could rationalize a view that my preferences are really better, with some recourse to the environmental impacts of one land use pattern over another, or the desirability of minimizing materials used, or something about economic sustainability of the community. But then, lots of people could have other perspectives on how their choices improve the world, and those are probably no less valid than mine.

The young man on the plane is in business with his father, and no doubt feels that their work provides goods that people want and creates jobs. Plenty of the serious mechanics on the Vanagon list feel that their work actually accomplishes something while other people just push paper or write useless reports to make a living.

So maybe I have to stop looking for some redeeming social value in my lifestyle or preferences, and stop looking for reasons to feel my way is any better – or any worse – than anyone else’s. Especially since I began my travels by saying I wanted to meet people who weren’t like me. And when I meet them, I put all my effort into rationalizing why my ways are better than theirs!

As I write this, I’m in a very calm and relaxing café on the fifth floor of an old building overlooking one fo the more famous lakes in downtown Hanoi. Two young women are seated on nearby couches with two children, who are running in circles around the café and shouting. It certainly doesn’t seem to faze their mothers, nor apparently anyone else in the place. Last summer I had dinner with George and his friend in a nice restaurant in Cairo, and the group at the next table let their children carry on between the tables and under them. George was livid, but no one else in the restaurant seemed to mind. Perhaps that is cultural as well. Americans can hardly be accused of treating their children strictly, but we certainly have different standards for restaurants.

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