Sunday, January 08, 2006

Are You Happy to Be Back Here?

A year and a half ago, if you had told me that so many of my classmates would come to despise This City (the city, not the school), I doubt I would have believed it. But I have been amazed at how many people I know who hate This City with a passion and are literally counting the days until they can escape this state and go back to where they came from. And I’m not exaggerating – I know so many otherwise calm and normal people who practically start foaming at the mouth when they start talking about how much they hate living in This City.

For me, I’m keeping an open mind. I don’t hate This City. It’s not my favorite place to live, either. I’m planning on staying here after graduation but I can’t say I’ll stay for the rest of my life. I’ll take the bar in This State, get a job here (hopefully) and then see how I like living here while not being a student for a few years. Then I’ll decide (oh yeah and of course my wife will have a say in it, too) if I want to stay.

As far as I can tell, here are some of the things people loath about This City and the Southern part of This State in general:

1. The language barrier
Here in This City, it often sounds like you’re living in a suburb of Havana. When you come to This City on vacation, the extent of the language barrier is barely visible. When you visit the city and law school to think about going here, you don’t get a sense of how pervasive the Cuban (or generally, all Hispanic) influence is here. I read in a magazine a few weeks ago that the city of This City is 11 percent white, something like 60 percent Hispanic and about 20 percent African-American. (Sorry I don’t have a link but I’m sure you could look this up; also, I’m not sure how the percentages break down in the small city where this school is located, but for those who don’t know, this small city is an enclave surrounded by This City; unless you’re a millionaire, living in this small city is culturally the same as living in This City.). But my point is that this school is much less Hispanic in its makeup than the surrounding community, so visiting the school a couple of times does not give an accurate sense of what it’s like to live here.

I don’t think many of my classmates are racist, xenophobic or even have a general dislike of people who speak Spanish as a first language. But it’s occasionally difficult to do things when you’re used to everyone around you speaking English and suddenly you can’t communicate with the guy at the gas station or the driver blocking your car or the clerk at the supermarket when you need to find light bulbs (bombillas, I think). If you’re not used to it, it’s jarring and somewhat unsettling when you walk into a store and don’t hear a single word spoken in English or you sit in a bar or coffee shop and everyone around you is speaking Spanish. Again, I don’t think people who feel this way are racist or hate Spanish speakers. I just think this is such a foreign concept that it makes people feel out of their comfort zone. And it’s made even more disturbing to a lot of people because it comes as a surprise.

2. The cultural barrier
Along with the language problem, Cubans (or again, all Hispanic people here) have a different culture than most Americans are accustomed to. I’m not saying it’s worse or better, but a lot of people at this school who come to This City from large east coast cities or their suburbs (Boston or New York come to mind) apparently spent most of their lives associating with only their own, so they can’t relate to the Cuban culture. To some extent, this is true regardless of where you came from; as for me, I’m not saying I’m better than anyone, but growing up, I moved every couple of years (overseas and within the U.S.) so I experienced different cultures. So it’s not that people dislike individual Hispanic people or all Cuban-Americans; I think they immediately assume that they have very little in common with the people around them. And they don’t make an effort to probe whether this assumption is true.

After living here for a year and a half, two of the most significant cultural differences I see between Cuban Americans and non-Cuban Americans that bother people I know are (a) the perceived work ethic and (b) a casual entitlement that can easily be mistaken for selfishness or lack of consideration.

The roads are clogged 24-7 here. Go by one of those Cuban bakeries or groceries or fruterias at any time of day or night and a dozen men are outside drinking coladas or cortaditos and I assume gossiping. In my neighborhood, few of my Spanish-speaking neighbors seem to have full-time, 9-6 jobs. I’m often home during the day because I’m studying or I have class at night; I have no idea why they seem to spend hours on end at home regardless of the day. Maybe they all have home-based businesses or they’re all in law school too, but I doubt it. On the other hand, go to a residential area in Boston or New York and the neighborhoods are like graveyards Monday through Friday during the school year. You could lie in the middle of a suburban residential cul-de-sac naked from 9 a.m. until kids come home from school and the only person who would notice would be the mailman.

So I think this means people in law school have the impression that natives of This City are lazy and have no work ethic. As a friend of mine said when I discussed this topic with her, people often make the fundamental mistake of judging others’ character based on their perceived work ethic (or lack of it). So these Cuban men standing outside Versailles at 3 a.m. and 2 p.m. don’t have the same work ethic as men their age in New York, Minneapolis or Topeka. That does not make these people lazy or worse than you. That just means they are different—maybe they have different goals in life beyond accumulating wealth. They have different values than a lot of people are used to seeing in other major cities. So for many people, this is disturbing and it’s easy to simply assume that it means everyone here is lazy.

As for the lack of worth ethic that people see here, based purely on the number of hours people work, I guess it might be true to an extent that people work fewer hours. I’m not sure this is such a bad thing. But the point here is that I don’t really think many of us in law school will be joining the lazy portion of the populace – if it in fact exists. Few of us will immediately become celebrities who roll out of bed at noon and party until 4 a.m. At top (and most not in the top) law firms here, I doubt many lawyers are punching out at 6 p.m. on a regular basis. I have no doubt that you work longer hours at a top firm in New York or Boston than at a top firm in This City, but saying This City lawyers are lazy because they work 70-80 hours a week while New York lawyers work 100 hours is a flawed argument.

And saying everyone is lazy here because an awful lot of people seem to have nowhere to go during the day when few of us will become like those people doesn’t make much sense. So I don’t know who these people are or what they do that allows them to hang out drinking coffee all day long but I think they inhabit a different universe from the one that my classmates and I will be joining once we graduate from law school. In their universe, priorities are different from those held by much of the middle class, white world in the rest of this country. That’s why I think so many people can’t relate to the culture here. But all in all, that work ethic, or lack thereof, is something tangible that people latch on to when they talk about how they dislike the city.

The other part of the cultural barrier is the indifference, rudeness and general attitude toward people not in their community. I agree that there is a general lack of civility among people here in This City, but I see the same thing in New York or Boston. It’s just that here, to people who don’t speak Spanish, it sometimes seems like you’re being treated with a lack of civility solely because of being different and in the minority. I have no idea if this is true or not but it sometimes seems this way. On the other hand, at my internship last summer, when I spent a considerable amount of time with Cuban-Americans and people with whom I seemingly had nothing in common, I found – not to my surprise – that they were the same as everyone else. Some were nice. Some weren’t. Some I could envision being friends with if I worked there permanently. Others, not so much.

A friend of mine, who is from Venezuela, insisted that Latin American people are all warm and friendly. But then as the conversation progressed, he realized that what he really meant was that they are mostly warm and friendly with their own people. In fact, racism or nationalism among different Hispanic nationalities runs rampant. Cubans hate Columbians who hate Venezuelans who hate Puerto Ricans and so on. He didn’t say, and I don’t know, if all Hispanics have a general disposition toward all white, non-Hispanics.

But how is that so different from the way white people act in predominantly white cities and neighborhoods? (You can substitute any race for the word “white” in that last sentence). Are you telling me that if a Cuban family moved into a middle- or working-class white neighborhood in Boston or suburban New York they would be welcomed with open arms? Maybe. Maybe not. If they weren’t embraced, it wouldn’t necessarily mean the neighbors were racist. It would probably mean they had nothing in common because they were different. That is (unfortunately) what people do everywhere in this country: we associate with people like us. It doesn’t mean white people hate black people or Cuban people or that Venezeulan people hate Columbians but it’s somewhat natural to want to associate with your people with whom you clearly have much in comomon. Of course this is a broad statement and plenty of people have no problems associating with people of different cultures. I’m generalizing here for the sake of argument. So I guess the reason why cultural barriers are so off-putting is that the people who want to flee here want to be surrounded by their own people. They are uncomfortable with anything else, especially when they are in the minority.

3. Driving
Everyone I know thinks the worst drivers live in their home state. (I even have a friend who lives in Des Moines who swears Iowa drivers are the worst drivers on earth. Right.) Driving here is treacherous and even if you don’t commute much, it wears you down. Rules that apply in other American cities (turn signals, traffic lights, stop signs, yield signs, speed limits, etc.) are entirely optional here. I spent time in Seattle and Vancouver over the break and I think I heard a honking horn maybe twice. Here you can’t drive for more than 10 minutes without hearing someone honking at someone else. Ever.

The strange thing about bad drivers here is that there are just as many crazy, reckless daredevil types as there are slow, plodding, indifferent drivers who either think they are the only people on the road or know for sure that there are others and just don’t grasp the concept that the roadways only work if all drivers remain aware that other drivers exist and act accordingly. These people actually need to be honked at because they have no intention of driving when the light turns green or they see nothing wrong with cruising along at 20 miles per hour when the speed limit is 45. Anyway, even for normal, confident, aggressive, attentive drivers (like me!) driving takes a toll and people often don’t realize how driving increases their overall level of stress.

4. Hurricanes
Not much to say here. They are not fun at all. Before I moved here it was kind of cool to watch one on TV in the same way that big explosions are cool: only if you’re totally detached and obviously it’s not cool that people and property are being destroyed. And the scary thing is that even though we missed nine days of classes and (at my house) had 13 and a third days without power this past hurricane season, we didn’t even get hit with a big one. If a big one hits, this area is doomed. Not so much in that everyone will die, but the disruption to our lifestyle and the destruction could be of epic proportions. Think Katrina, (without the flooding) and with an inefficient and ineffective cleanup. For the haters of This State, the seven months of beautiful weather don’t outweigh the misery of hurricane season.

5. Livability
People from Boston or New York always seem to be disappointed that you can’t walk anywhere in This City. This City is like a giant suburb. I don’t know the city all that well but it seems like with the exception of a few parts of town (South Beach, for example, but living there comes with a whole other set of issues and a few areas in the small city in which the school is located), you have to drive everywhere. Public transportation is virtually non-existent, although there are busses and a metrorail, it’s nothing like in Boston or New York. It’s just not a very urban city.

I have to agree with this. Every time I leave This City, which I’ve done only four times since moving here a year and a half ago, I find that other cities are so much more livable. Things I like just aren’t widely available here. Just to cite a few minor examples that make life a little more enjoyable but that aren’t very important in the grand scheme of life: good places to go for breakfast; delivery or convenient takeout food; nice grocery stores; conveniently located movie theaters that play things other than blockbusters; etc.

6. Who cares?
Putting aside the racial and nationalist issues, people here have a general lackadaisical attitude that I assume can only come from too much time in the sun. This is a blanket statement referring to all people in this city, regardless of ethnicity or race. As someone who is often fascinated at observing others, I love reading in the newspaper the accounts of government incompetence, corruption and fraud. The levels of ineptitude are just astounding. Unfortunately if you have to live here, this can be a problem when you have to deal with an inept bureaucracy run by government workers who don’t care about their jobs. I’m not referring to government lawyers, of course. I’m thinking more along the lines of services that residents have to deal with. But I don’t see how this is much different than government in most major cities.

Yet again, I have no grand conclusions from this post. I’m not a civic booster and I’m not here to tell the people who hate This City to give it a chance. I do think that life as a as a practicing attorney with a paycheck will differ from life as a law student...


At 12:15 PM, Blogger LawDawg said...

Well if I had any doubt what city you're in, now I know. You should tell these nay-sayers that it could be A LOT worse, promise.

A lot of people here hate My City too, which is totally ridiculous because everyone knows it's the best place there is. It's where most Georgians pray to go when they die. I think the verdict is that some people just can't be satisfied.

At 12:45 PM, Blogger Klio said...

Now I just have to know what city lawdawg's in!

As someone who's lived in 8 different cities during the last 14 years, I'd have to say that This City is certainly unique.

I can't figure out if it's a run-down, overcrowded and filthy roach infested metropolis or a tropical paradise.

Good job, by the way!

At 1:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The racial makeup of The City is 66.62% White, 22.31% African American, 0.22% Native American, 0.66% Asian, 0.04% Pacific Islander, 5.42% from other races, and 4.74% from two or more races.

65.76% of the population are Latino of any race. 11.83% of the population are non-Hispanic whites. The ethnic makeup of the city includes 34.1% Cuban, 22.3% African American, 5.6% Nicaraguan, 5.0% Haitian, and 3.3% Honduran.

The government is the way it is -- laregely a mess -- mostly because this is a new place, without a long civic tradition. Things should improve a lot in the next 30 years as it regresses to the American mean. Unless of course Chicago is the American mean. But I think the dig about hurricane cleanup was unfair: that's actually the one thing the local government does quite well compared to other jurisdictions.

As for the city as a whole, at least it's not boring. And, if you're not a whitebread sort of person -- e.g. foreign-born, gay, or in any way not stereotypical middle/suburban American, it's actually a very cosmopolitan and accepting place to be: the fact that people just don't care what you are can be very liberating.

PS. Historically, the law school's problem is that too few of the students want to leave, or even move 60 miles north where jobs are. Which means too many grads chasing too few jobs. If half the class really wants to go back where the came from, expect the US New ranking to spike up -- since everyone will have a job!

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen for voicing your displeasure with This City. What disgusts me the most about the language barrier is that those who don't speak English get frustrated when you are unable to communicate with them ... don't blame me because you arrived on a boat and don't speak a word of English. This is America, not Cuba. Furthermore, they make no attempt to learn English. I speak a few words of Spanish that can help me order a pound of turkey at Publix, but when the bagger starts talking to me all I can do is smile and nod, pretending like I have an inkling of what he is saying.

The other problem that I have with This City that you neglected to mention is that everywhere you go you have to park in either a garage or at a meter. I can't possibly be expected to constantly carry around a roll of quarters. At least South Beach is reasonable charging $1/hour, but still, this paying to park thing is getting rather old.

Oh yeah, and the driving ... what's the deal with trying to see how many cars can go through the light when it turns red?

At 1:41 PM, Blogger some guy said...

A lot of people tell me that, too -- that a huge number of students fall in love with the area and end up staying forever. I'm not saying this is false, but I see no evidence of this among people I talk to. It guess it could just be that only the people I know have a particular hatred for the place and they're not representative of the rest of the student body.

At 6:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post, someguy. I've been living here now for 7 years and you have picked up on a lot of what I hate about This City. There are lots of things I really like about This City too, though. It's certainly the most cosmopolitan city in Florida (in my opinion...). Unfortunately, the recent real estate boom has made owning a nice piece of property here more of a dream if you aren't already an owner in the area. (We'll see what happens this year, though). I think the biggest problem I have with This City is the fact that all of the little annoyances that you've pointed out can add up to some major frustration. On a typical day, you run into communication problems, bad traffic, parking problems, etc....a bad day is just multiple instances of this getting the better of you. The weather certainly is nice, though!

At 8:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I graduated a while back and moved to the northeast. While I was there, I had the same opinion. It was not until I was done with my second year that I finally started accepting "This City." I realized that I had to embrace the madness. Start driving poorly and honking your horn - this type of self therapy will go a long way. Good luck.


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