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College Townies

How do you honor a place as you breeze by?

 

I’ve spent most of my life in college towns, with a few outlier years in cities like Chicago, Hartford, Boston, and Honolulu. These exceptions have been important if only in the sense that they felt like destinations in their own right. College towns, including the one I live in today, are more like layovers, waypoints on a journey someplace else. This, to be sure, is precisely the kind of condescending talk that drives full-time residents of such towns crazy. I understand them; I’m one of them, too — almost.

A professor’s son, I grew up looking at college students as something to admire, something to aspire to — I still have this vague inclination that “college students” are older than me, though I am at least a dozen years older than most undergrads — but I also viewed them with frustration. Living in a college town will do that. For all of their sexy mystique, for their cool and their passion, for the dedication they showed to partying and learning, they also exemplified thoughtlessness, arrogance, and selfishness. The internality that I admired when it came to academic and artistic pursuits became a kind of social myopia when it came to their treatment of the people who lived and worked in my hometown.

As a faculty kid, I was not treated with the full application of classist disdain that are a hallmark of callous university students, but I witnessed the casual judgment and dismissal all the same. This attitude manifested itself most corporally in the behavior of the local college students in traffic; they would wander in and out of the street without looking, exuding a kind of studied indifference, sending a clear message to the local people that the streets were for them, risks of blunt force trauma notwithstanding. The problem with places that exist, in the eyes of many, as places you work through on your way someplace else is that you always end up running over the people who intend to stay awhile.

The question I often find myself wondering is, how do you respect and honor a place as you breeze your way by, on the road to someplace else?

Which brings me to my current college town: is West Lafayette, Indiana, where I’ve lived as a Purdue University student and teacher for the past five years, a destination or a checkpoint? Have I been living here, or just passing through? The town, if it had a psyche, could not really get upset if I decided on the latter. There are some 40,000 students at Purdue, in any given year, and just about all of them have designs on leaving.

The relationship between Purdue and West Lafayette is sometimes mutually beneficial, sometimes mutually parasitic. The university gets many thousands of acres of cheap Midwestern land, a fairly pliable local government, and a citizenry that backs the sports teams with the kind of sweet fervor that almost makes you forget about the endless vagaries of college athletics. The town gets an institution in which to place some civic pride, the enterprising young sons and daughters of professors and administrators who raise test scores sky-high, and a local economic driver that brings jobs and construction and dollars from far away. Like any successful marriage, this one requires a constant investment of time and effort in order to achieve transitory benefits that still, somehow, are well worth the price.

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There are tensions, of course. A student population this size risks throwing local politics into chaos, and battles over whether and how Purdue’s dorms should be represented in local and state elections have periodically raged. Though Indiana is a purple state, not quite the arch-conservative place many assume it to be, there is little question that the local community is far more right-wing than the school’s population. This causes conflict, none more common than when aggressive evangelists crowd the campus in warmer months and rail against the horrors of multiculturalism and abortion. Meanwhile the school, like so many others, has grown continually, pressing its own borders deeper and deeper into territory the locals have always thought of as their own, hollowing out neighborhoods and causing tension among those who both need and fear the university. This past year, the campus finally crossed Northwestern Avenue with its immaculate, fabulously expensive Seng Liang Wang Hall of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Though it had no official designation, that street was long considered a kind of local boundary for their university’s perpetual expansion efforts, and the building caused more than a few raised eyebrows. The amoeba only grows.

The Wabash River divides Lafayette and West Lafayette physically, bureaucratically, economically, racially, and undergrads rarely cross it. Located in rural Indiana, neither city is what you would call particularly diverse — except, that is, for the 20% of West Lafayette that’s Asian American, ten times the next city over. You’ll forgive me if I make this seem remarkable; I have no interest in deepening the stigma of a stigmatized group. It’s just that you don’t get a lot of small towns out here, among the cornfields and soybeans, with Asian populations that high. These students, too, are here and not here at the same time, biding their time, passing through.

In many ways, the 6000 Chinese students at Purdue have formed their own, separate community, living in the same apartment buildings, attending the same clubs and events, even filling the same sections of classes. I don’t judge them for that; if I went to school in China, I’m sure I would socialize with those who spoke English. As thankfully rare as open racial antagonism is on campus, I also doubt that the domestic students are going out of their way to welcome and engage with their international counterparts. I often find myself saying, god, these kids are so young, and when you’re eighteen, nineteen years old, social life is scary. It’s often easiest to turtle up, withdrawing into the groups of people that are most like you. And four short years later, you’re gone, on your way to work for General Electric or Google, heading back to Illinois or Hubei province or wherever else you really call home.

That’s the risk of cosmopolitanism: that your efforts to find yourself at home everywhere in the world instead leaves you feeling at home nowhere at all. 

The question I often find myself wondering is, how do you respect and honor a place as you breeze your way by, on the road to someplace else? How do I treat my temporary home with the same regard I would a permanent home? This question, for the past five years, has been made more acute by the fact that I have no such permanent home, no family homestead that I could return to if I had the inclination or the means. So West Lafayette has been home even as my status as a grad student, up until last May, made me part of the permanently itinerant class that moves in and out of college towns like the seasons. Though friends complain about its smallness, its provincial nature, its lack of many of the same amenities in towns like Ann Arbor or Madison, I confess that I’ve come to like it here, to feel comfortable, to move around in it on foot with familiarity and warmth. You find that, without intending to or really noticing it happening, you put down roots even as you make plans to leave.

Which I am. Leaving, that is, though I have no particular destination. Not having a job will do that for you. When this semester is over and my lease runs out, I’ll be packing up and heading to who knows where. I never intended to stay even this long. I finished my PhD here in four years, which is something like a miracle, but the job I was hoping for never panned out, so I took on a few classes to teach and a lease in a cramped apartment where I’ve never really bothered to unpack. The sense of permanent transience has only deepened since then. Even in a community of people who are mostly on their way someplace else, I’ve felt like a house guest who has stayed a bit too long. I’m no longer a grad student, though grad students dominate my social network. I am a Purdue teacher but nothing so grand as a professor. Books are my life, but mine are still in boxes, ready to be shipped to a permanent home that remains entirely theoretical. That’s the risk of cosmopolitanism: that your efforts to find yourself at home everywhere in the world instead leaves you feeling at home nowhere at all.

So it’s been easy, the past year, to appreciate West Lafayette, and to accept it as a place itself, rather than somewhere I’m passing through. I don’t mean to sound maudlin; I’m still youngish, and I’m educated, and I can write a little bit, and I have no responsibilities to a spouse or to children to make me worry about the immediate economic future. I can go anywhere, and that’s a profound opportunity. But “anywhere” is not a destination, and so for now as I walk my way around West Lafayette, I find its modest virtues appeal to me more and more. If permanent residents see the shadow of condescension in that statement, I hope they will see my real love, as well.