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December 16, 2006

This week, I went downtown to take my GREs.  The testing facility
was in a large, white-stone building with a huge marble foyer inside
the main entrance.  A massive Christmas tree stood at the center
of the foyer in front of a water fountain adorned with huge gold
Christmas balls.  As I walked through this holiday scene, past men
and women dressed in tailored suits, I realized that I felt the same
way in downtown Philadelphia as I do in foreign countries:  I feel the
same sort of awe at my surroundings that prompts me to think to myself,
“Wow, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about this for people here.” 

You’re probably thinking, Why does a Christmas scene make you feel like
a foreigner?  But this wasn’t just any Christmas scene:  you
needed to see this particular larger-than-life display to
appreciate my amazement at its extravagance.  It reminded me of
the grandeur that people in cities are used to seeing: big buildings,
big avenues, big buses, big traffic jams.  It’s just so far
removed from my own daily experience growing up that it really does
make me feel like a foreigner.

There are other things about the city that make me feel like a
foreigner as well.  For example, running and biking along the
Schuylkill River.  I marvel at the fact that running and biking
along a narrow path alongside apartment buildings and a busy avenue
(granted, the river is on one side) is routine for
Philadelphians.  So is getting stuck in traffic EVERY morning and
EVERY afternoon on the way to and from work.  The fact that people are
willing to live over an hour from their workplace is perhaps the
farthest removed from my own experience.  Of course, some people don’t choose this:  the urban
poor who have to commute to suburban jobs would much prefer to take a
job in the city, or to live in the suburbs, than to ride on SEPTA for
over an hour every day–but they don’t have any choice in the matter.

So what’s my overall point?  Well, I realize that I feel as much a
stranger in American cities as I do in foreign cities–and that I feel
as much at home in, for example, Brazil’s countryside as I do in
America’s countryside.  Perhaps because rural vs. urban lifestyles
are more distinct than American vs. foreign lifestyles; or perhaps it’s simply
because I feel most like myself in the countryside.


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