Do you want to try an exercise in understanding yourself?
Here is a test. Make a list of all of the cities you have ever visited, any time in your life. Don’t be lazy. Actually write it down. Even doing the list is interesting. There are probably some you’ve almost forgotten, until now. The list may even surprise you.
Now, assume for a moment that you speak the local language in each city fluently, and from a financial point of view you can work or live comfortably in each place. Based on that assumption, ask yourself this question: in which of those cities could you make your primary, permanent home, if the opportunity were made available to you? Then, ask why you’ve made the choices you did.
Of course, in looking at where you would live, you can assess places on two levels.
One level is amenities. There are things you like to have available to you, and not all cities have them. If you’re a theatre lover, for example, you will like places like New York, London and Toronto, but you will miss that activity in places like Paris, Milan, and Calgary. If you are only comfortable in a warm climate, you may say yes to Manila or Houston, but no to Winnipeg and Stockholm. Sports-lovers may prefer Vancouver over Beijing. Some places have better public transit than others. And so on.
The other, more revealing, level of consideration is the culture and personality of each city. Cities have different “feels”, and the environment that makes you comfortable or uncomfortable is indicative of the person you are. Or think you are. Or aspire to be.
Let me give you an easy example. Many people have been to New York, and so will have an opinion on it. I enjoy that city immensely, and never pass up an opportunity to visit, but I can’t imagine actually living there. I’m already aggressive enough. In that high paced environment, I could easily become a monster. (OK, OK, be nice.)
But, when I floated that same question to a friend of mine, his immediate, almost exuberant answer was that New York would be his preferred place to live in the world. He feels the same unrelenting energy there as I do, but finds it exhilarating and adrenalizing.
New York is an easy one, with strong pulls on both sides, but others can be quite a bit more difficult.
How would you react to San Francisco? Is it too small for you, or too hipsterish? (Yes, that is absolutely a word, Microsoft.) Do you feel that the proximity of Silicon Valley is a plus, or a minus? What about the proximity of Oakland, or Napa Valley, or Marin?
What about Dallas? Some people rave about living in Dallas, but people from Austin, for example, will often cite Dallas as an example of a city too macho for them (or, as they sometimes say after too much wine, “not enough class”). Does Dallas have a personality that favours a certain type of person? Is that you?
I’ve been to Madison, Wisconsin a couple of times over the last few years, and I truly enjoyed that city. I will go back again, probably many times. Would I live there? There are pros and cons, and the answer is not an easy one. Is a smaller city a problem for you? I know a number of people who find Ottawa too small (meaning, to them, parochial). Madison is less than half Ottawa’s size, and dominated by government and a university. Could you live there?
When I first considered this exercise, I looked at it as a positive question: that is, trying to generate a list of cities in which I would live. As it unfolded, I found instead that the most interesting and revealing thought processes were around places I ended up rejecting as potential homes.
Consider Paris, a city I could be convinced to visit any time, even time after time, and never get bored (bankrupt, perhaps, but not bored). Yet, the idea of living there generates in both my heart and mind a strong negative reaction.
Forget the lack of live theatre, which is almost balanced out by wonderful art and architecture everywhere around you. I could probably adjust to that. (Regular trips to London, maybe.)
No, my reaction to Paris is about my perception that it is too homogeneous and culturally singular for me. That is a strange thought, with Paris’ racial and religious tensions so often in the news over the last couple of years. Nonetheless, and perhaps as a result of my highly diverse and culturally wacky home in Toronto, I see Paris as too thoroughly centred around a specific set of cultural norms and expectations. I fear that this well-defined cultural personality would be like a straitjacket, slowly stifling me.
Of course, maybe I haven’t experienced enough sides of Paris to see its diversity. That is certainly possible, although in the end not really relevant to the exercise. If diversity is something I must have, that tells me something about myself. (If Paris does have more cultural diversity than I have seen, of course, that sounds like a perfectly good reason to visit again and check it out.)
My biggest struggle is with Bangkok, undoubtedly my favourite city in the world after Toronto, and one I have visited many times. There is so much I love about Bangkok, and particularly about its Buddhist culture, that it must be right at the top of the list of places I would like to live, right?
Not so. In fact, it’s not even on the list at all.
Notwithstanding that, from a Thai point of view, I’m a “rich white guy”, – which means I am expected to think a certain way – the income disparity and power elitism (and, yes, racism) that is central to much of Bangkok’s social and political structure would certainly cause me pain every day, if it were my home. As a visitor, I am free – perhaps even obligated – to say “This is Thailand, and these are issues that are properly handled by Thais, not foreigners. It’s their country.” It is easy to adopt a position of “none of my business”, which by the way is exactly what many of my (otherwise quite friendly) Thai friends say, to me and to any other visitors that want to express an opinion about Thailand. It is more convenient to accept their view of the tourist’s rightful role, rather than make any attempt to engage the city’s serious issues.
But, if I lived there, I can imagine that every day would bring fresh frustrations, as I felt the need to battle those social ills. Every time I saw or heard the local elite expressing their sadly unsophisticated view of democracy and human rights (“we are smarter than you” – meaning more educated – “so we should have more rights than you”), it would make me nuts. Every time I saw graft and corruption side by side with unnecessary poverty, I would want to cry out.
Perhaps this is actually a statement about how one changes as one gets older. If I knew Bangkok when I was in my twenties, perhaps I could have lived there. The fight to make that world better would likely have made me feel empowered and invigorated.
Today, while I still want everything I do to make a difference, I no longer have the same “manning the barricades” mentality that I once had. As a Bangkok resident, I would be driven by my personal values to fight, but I might now lack sufficient fire in the belly, or killer instinct, to win that fight. (How sad is that?)
Therein lies the self-revelatory nature of this exercise. Your reaction to where you might live, and your assessment of where you could live, can provide a window into your own psyche. Each time I unpeel another layer in my thinking about a city as a potential home, I lay bare another part of my own complicated view of myself and the world.
Cities are complex and dynamic social organisms. This exercise is, in essence, a thought experiment about how you, personally, would interact with those organisms on their many levels.
Imagine a scientific experiment, a petri dish filled with a chemical soup. Into that soup you place a drop of another substance, and you watch. The interactions between the new substance and the initial chemical soup reveal things about the new substance (and perhaps also about the soup).
In this thought experiment, we place ourselves into the petri dish of a particular city, and through our imaginations we see how we would interact with that city.
Try it, and see what it tells you about yourself.
– Jay Shepherd, February 17, 2016