After two weeks in Belgium, I flew to Dallas, TX for the final week of my training. It was a pretty wild swing from one place to the other — Belgium is almost stereotypically European, with tons of small stores, few chains, narrow streets and close spaces; Texas, on the other hand, is wide and flat and full of box stores. I’d like to say it was just the thrill of being back in somewhat more familiar settings, but Dallas felt wonderful while I was there, and I learned a few things as I visited friends and re-adjusted to American portions. Texas felt like an extension of the discomfort I felt leaving the bubble of California, a place not as shockingly different as Europe but strange enough that it didn’t feel like home either. One of the things I love about the US is how enormous and varied it is; you can learn so much by going into these environments with openness and acceptance.
The cheeseburger really is a distinctly American food.
Belgians are big on French fries. I had assumed that since cheeseburgers were such a ‘natural’ complement for them they’d have a pretty solid burger game — but I was wrong. The patty is formed as a puck, maybe two inches thick, with the dense and highly-processed consistency of compressed pate. It sits there in a bun too large for it, unseasoned and laying it wait to spread misery to the poor unsuspecting diner who takes a bite of it. I was fooled not once, but twice, by this devilish concoction — though to be fair the second time was at an establishment that had advertised itself as a “burger bar”.
I would never have expected it, but if someone had asked me what I missed most about the United States I would have to go with a good cheeseburger. The very first thing I did with my coworkers once we got through customs in DC was go to a restaurant and order a big, greasy cheeseburger. It was the welcome home meal I needed in the worst way, and I now have a greater appreciation of this humble, ubiquitous, American food.
Texas is much more purple than you think it is.
If you don’t live in Texas, most of what you hear about the state is its politics. This is, after all, the place that gave us Rick Perry and Ted Cruz; it’s been the epicenter of a legislative attack on women’s reproductive rights, LGBQTIA issues, and home to very troubling incidents of police brutality against people of color. This is the state where James Byrd, Jr. was killed being dragged from the back of a car; where Alfred Wright was found mutilated in the woods just three years ago. If you don’t live in Texas, it’s easy to see the state as a theocratic nightmare where people of color could be killed at any moment.
I’m not here to downplay the very real issues Texas has both politically and socially, but we also tend to forget just how many people of color there are in the state, how many activists, artists, political operatives, liberals and fighters who are working hard to change the state from within. Most of the state’s population lives within cities — around 85% in fact — and those cities are liberal and open. I was surprised to find Dallas was so diverse, with a thriving artist, student and geek scene. The city council removed the statue of Robert E. Lee from a prominent park the week I was there; while it shouldn’t have been up there in the first place, the fact that it was so quickly and decisively removed is a sign of progress, however small.
Texas isn’t perfect, but then neither is California. The people there aren’t all gun-crazy yahoos, doomsday preppers or unmitigated racists. It’s easy to start believing the stereotype you’ve been fed over time; now I’ll take less offense when people characterize Californians as health-food-obsessed, neurotic hippies.
There is strength in staying put to fix a hostile home.
A good friend of mine took me to an author event at a brand-new bookstore opening up in Dallas, Interrabang Books. The author was east Texas native Attica Locke, there to promote her new novel Bluebird, Bluebird. I was really taken with Locke almost immediately; her prose is so evocative and distinct, steeped in the history and culture of her ancestral home. She clearly loves where she’s from, but she’s not blind to the fact that there’s a long history of racism inextricably tied to it. That clear-eyed affection informs her work and allows her to open the rich, complicated tapestry of the state.
One of the things that struck me is that there is a clear respect for the people who stay behind to make a hostile territory better instead of leaving for greener pastures, and it’s something I had not thought about before. I left Baltimore when I could because I couldn’t imagine a good life for myself there; it fascinates me that there are people who not only can, but are willing to fight like hell to get from where things are to where they ought to be. It takes strength, resolve, and dedication to community to make that choice, and I honor the people who still claim Texas as their home while working hard to change it for the better at the same time.
It’s also OK to opt out of a situation that causes you stress.
While we were in Dallas, one of my coworkers was chosen to drive the rental car we got for the trip. He was, to put it bluntly, not a good driver. On the drive from the airport to our hotel he got lost multiple times, nearly crashed twice looking at directions on his phone, and even went the wrong way down a turn lane because he couldn’t navigate a construction detour. Even after that, he had a tendency to slam on brakes, look down at his phone way too often, and he didn’t take directions or criticism well. Things came to a head when he recommended we just not complain to him about his driving; after that, another coworker and I decided to take a Lyft to the airport. Our driving colleague was not happy about it, but I still feel it was the right decision.
It’s OK to choose to leave a situation that is more stress than you feel it’s worth. There will never be a completely stress-free choice in life; everything we do will require discomfort, especially if it’s worth doing. But there are times where we need to give ourselves permission to walk away from something that is bringing us unhappiness and very little else. Choosing what those times are isn’t easy, by a long shot, but it’s important to know that it’s an option. It’s important to look after our own well-being; it allows us to be better than we would have been otherwise.
Take what you need, but only what you need.
The portions in Texas are as oversized as the ones in Belgium are smaller than I’m used to, and it was almost impossible to actually finish a meal whenever I ate out. I think this trip cemented a tendency I had been drifting towards for a while now — simply opting out of the push to eat everything on my plate. It really isn’t necessary, and it gives you a warped sense of what you need to be satisfied. Filling yourself to bursting just to ‘get your money’s worth’ isn’t the best move most of the time; moderation is a much better way to go.
That being said, it’s important to take time and space to give yourself what you need. If you need more food, eat. If you need space to be alone, find your solitude. If you need to plant your foot and demand something, do not be moved. It can be difficult to know what you need and harder still to ask for it, but it’s vital to our own self-care. Respect really does start from within; we have to learn how to respect ourselves before we can respect anything else.
My three week business trip taught me a lot more about myself and how I’ve come to see the world than I thought it would. (And I thought it would teach me a fair bit.) I’m still absorbing these lessons, trying to find a way to shape them in ways that serve best, but I can safely say it was definitely life-changing. I have a clearer sense of self-worth and what I find important; I know more about just how different people and societies can be; and I have a better appreciation of my home and the cultural forces that shape the people here. I know travel is often seen as a luxury, and I see why. It’s expensive, and people tend to talk about it in terms of enjoyment or self-actualization. But in today’s climate it’s imperative to be exposed to different experiences and viewpoints, to accept them and reflect on them. Nothing gives us the opportunity to do that quite like going somewhere we’ve never been.