The majority of people I meet abroad are eager to know which U.S. state I’m from once they learn that I’m American. They’re even more excited to hear about where I come from when I mention the word “Texas.”
Alongside California and New York, Texas is among the only U.S. states whose name foreigners are almost guaranteed to recognize. For some, Texas conjures cliché images of cowboys, open space and oil rigs, while those who are more politically-inclined usually make a comment about George W. Bush or, less often, Rick Perry.
People always have something to say about Texas, even if it isn’t kind or accurate – a single mention of the word is all it takes to get a conversation started.
Land of the Cowboys
The most common reaction I get when I tell people I’m from Texas is puzzlement. How, they ask, can a skinny city person like you come from a place filled with cowboys, Indians and guns? To many people throughout the world, images of Texas are synonymous with cowboy movies and folklore, be they classic John Wayne films or more modern volumes like “Kill Bill” or “No Country for Old Men.”
This applies to the Dallas Cowboys, too. And the Houston Oilers. And the Houston Texans. I even had one student in China who’d attended to a Longhorns vs. Aggie’s game. His sister, it seemed, had gone to A&M. His response when I asked him whether he’d been to Austin was priceless. “Of course not. Only trash lives there, right?”
More recently, my Israeli friend Assaf was surprised to find that Austin ranked nearly as high as Tel Aviv in an international competition of the best gay cities. He’s now seriously considering visiting here the next time he comes to the United States. “I thought Austin was more of a town than a city,” he said.
Indeed, a common belief among foreigners I meet is that Texas is still largely uninhabited. Many are shocked to hear that Texas’ largest cities of Dallas and Houston are more populous than other more famous world cities and, in some cases, that more people live in Texas than in their own countries.
Home of Stupid Politicians and Stupid People
If foreigners didn’t know much about Texas when George W. Bush became president of the United States, they sure did once he finished up his two terms. This now-common knowledge is a source of additional puzzlement for many people I meet. You don’t seem like someone who fights in the military or carries a gun.
During my most recent trip to the Mediterranean and North Africa, when current Texas governor Rick Perry’s presidential ambitions were still strong, some I encountered replaced Bush’s name with Perry’s, usually with an addendum. But isn’t he even dumber?
The perception of Texas as an ultra-conservative, religious place isn’t limited to our governors past and present, either. My best friend Bianca, who’s from Switzerland, was hesitant to come and visit Texas when I first invited her years ago. “I’ll get executed if I get caught smoking weed, right?” She was shocked to find that, in Austin anyway, marijuana has been effectively decriminalized.
Sadly, most politically-themed conversations end up pointing toward one common conclusion: Since the past couple Texas governors have been stupid, most Texans are probably stupid as well. Even sadder still is the fact that many I meet name celebrities like Beyoncé, Matthew McConnaughey and Eva Longoria — rather than legendary artists and thinkers like Howard Hughes, Janis Joplin or Molly Ivins — as “famous Texas natives.”
Eastern vs. Western Perceptions of Texas
When I arrived in China to teach English in 2009, students would sit around me in wonderment as I told them tales about my life in Texas. They were surprised that itty-bitty Austin was the live music capital of the world, that Dallas’ airport was busier than Shanghai’s and that my parents had actually met at a now-defunct Houston seafood restaurant known as Shanghai Red’s.
In general, I can say that Eastern people seem far less biased about Texas and much more curious. They generally don’t purport to know a lot about a Texas to begin with and are eager to gain even a basic understanding. America, after all, is still seen as “cool” through much of the Far East.
Europeans, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more judgmental. Just as Bianca had assumed that one could get executed for smoking pot in Texas, other Europeans I’ve met seem equally as convinced that everyone here owns guns, that we lack civil liberties and that everyone is a member of the military. Most are happy to accept different points of view and those who’ve come to visit me — Bianca and, more recently, my Swedish friend Anna — usually fall in love with Texas.
It is usually the Canadians and, to a lesser extent, people from more liberal U.S. states that are most vocal and unshakable in their criticisms of Texas. One night at the Che Salguero Hostel in Corboda, Argentina’s second largest city, a metrosexual from California literally got up from the table when I asserted, drunkenly, that Texas was “better” than California.
What Texas Means to Me
As you may or may not know, I am a Texas native. Born just outside of Houston in 1985 to a Houston-born mother and a Yankee father, I lived here until a couple months before my third birthday, when my family returned to my father’s native St. Louis. I grew up in the midwest, went to college in Florida and moved here to Austin literally the day after I graduated. In total, I’ve spent about nine of my 27 years in Texas.
Although I do tend to go to bat for Texas pretty strongly when it gets attacked — I do the same for America on the whole, in spite of my many criticisms of this country — I can’t say I’m a huge fan of everything in Texas. In fact, aside from Austin, I think the cities here are most uninhabitable. Bianca’s current boyfriend lives in Dallas and while I love chilling in his living room, I’ve never had what I would call a positive experience in the Metroplex.
Likewise, it thrills me when people from bankrupt states like California and New York attack me for being from Texas. Still, it’s a bit disappointing to me that so much of my state’s economic strength comes from our oil, a substance that is almost as big an opiate for the masses as religion is.
At the end of the day, Texas is the place where I was born. It’s where my mother and, consequently, half of my bloodline originated, a huge state about which I don’t have much of an opinion, at least not outside the boundaries of the very center of Austin, the city where I grew from an old child into a young man. It is a word conspicuously inscribed inside my passport and proudly scrawled across my driver’s license. It is home, for now anyway.
What does Texas mean to you?