Hometown Glory: How where you grow up shapes who you become

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Downtown Eugene, Oregon, from the top of Skinner’s Butte

I grew up with hay fever in the grass seed capital of the world. It’s a $256 million industry dedicated to giving people across the world beautiful lawns and to giving me watery eyes, swollen sinuses and a new section of my budget dedicated to Claritin and Kleenex. For months each year, the air over Oregon’s Willamette Valley—and my hometown of Eugene—sits heavy with yellow clouds of pollen.

Despite this, in so many ways, Eugene is the perfect city for me. It is Track Town USA—the birthplace of Nike, and the perennial host of the Track and Field Olympic Trials. Eugene runs, so I run. Its roots in the 1960s counterculture movement also characterize my town’s culture. In Eugene, tie-dye-wearing protesters are not a thing of the past—it was recently named “The Best U.S. City for Hippies,” ahead of both Boulder and Berkeley. This explains the bins for sorting recycling in my dorm room, the home-dyed sweatshirts in my closet, and my frustration that I can’t pinpoint exactly where my tap water comes from here in L.A.

Where I grew up, I fit in. But that’s no coincidence—as much as the city fits me, I think it would be more accurate to say that I grew up to fit the city. Everything about my hometown—the people, the geography, the culture—shaped how I spent my youth, how I grew to perceive the world, and what I value when I am away from it. I never quite realized its impact until I moved hundreds of miles away to study in Los Angeles. I have met people who have never heard of curbside compost pickup, who speak differently and wear different clothing, even people who—gasp—use umbrellas when it rains. Predictably, they are from all over the country, where lifestyles, cultural norms and even speech has individually molded their habits.

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In terms of language alone, even different regions within the United States vary in dialect. From the pronunciation of common words like “crayon” and “pajamas” to whether you say tennis shoes or sneakers, a recent study compiled fascinating maps of the language differences across the country. And of course there’s the timeless, “pop” v. “soda” debate—all depends on where you are from.

I will talk about my hometown any chance I am given. However, I will also take advantage of the opportunity to ask about other people’s hometowns.  Seeking to understand somebody’s hometown can lead to meaningful conversations, offer insight into unexpected culture variations, and tell you volumes about a person’s worldview. You can never truly know a person without knowing where they are from.

There’s a sentimental idea often thrown around that home is not a place, but rather the people with whom you surround yourself. While this is a nice notion, and the people you love definitely deserve a lot of credit, it sells your hometown a little short. I think we say this because we can find comfort in the idea that it doesn’t matter where we are, because we can still be home if our loved ones are close. But I think we can also rest in the fact that where we grew up leaves an indelible mark on our individual identities, which we have with us no matter where in the world we find ourselves.

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Eugene Marathon in front of University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium, 2012

For me, home is leaving my house for a run and within three minutes sailing alongside fields of wheat. For me, home is being able to hear the trains at night all the way across town. For me, home is hearing about Ducks and thinking of football instead of waterfowl. It’s the endless bicycle lanes, the constant rain, the delicious tap water, and the millions of trees. But even more than that, home is the set of values, memories, traits and lessons that I acquired growing up in the specific place I did.

I love living in Los Angeles, and in time, I’m sure elements of its culture will become a part of me in subtle ways I might not even recognize. But right now, even if my hometown is 860 miles away, what that place instilled in me couldn’t be closer.

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