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GOZUN: Midwest lives up to its image of the American heartland

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gozun colorBeing from Hawaii, I am always bemused when I tell someone what state I come from, as it inevitably leads to me being asked at least one of three questions: “What island are you from,” “Do you surf,” and most importantly, “Why the heck do you go to Marquette?”

Even more amusing is when I am back home and tell people where I go to school. “Marquette… where is that again,” is the usual response, which, when answered, is usually followed by some comment about Wisconsin’s cheese and how cold it is must be up there.

To say I knew absolutely nothing of Milwaukee before I came to Marquette would be an understatement. After deciding to go to Marquette, I began telling my friends that I was going to college an hour north of Chicago. But even using Chicago as a frame of reference was rather problematic since I knew nothing about it either, other than the city’s questionable taste in pizza.

It’s not that I had never left Hawaii and was thus ignorant of the rest of the country. I was born in New York City, so my family would often fly to the East Coast, California and Colorado during vacations to visit family. But I had never visited that large swath of land between the East Coast and the West, literally making the Midwest “flyover country” for me.

Before coming to Marquette, my initial impression of the Midwest was that it was “boring.” Now, being boring is not necessarily a bad thing, but rather a reflection of its perceived normalcy. We tend to find the familiar boring and uninspired while the unique and odd tend to be celebrated. Even those born here seem to have that impression of their home states. How many kids from the Chicago suburbs dream of shipping up to Boston, Portland or Seattle? Those coastal cities have always drawn young people hoping to live somewhere ‘cool’ or ‘interesting.’

When I first came to Marquette, my father and I drove around the Milwaukee area during my initial hunt for college supplies. Looking at the endless rows of suburban housing, I joked with him that we were finally in the “real America,” since of course, Hawaii and New York City don’t really count. It is interesting to me to see the Midwest championed as the epitome of Americana, though in my four years it no longer surprises me, despite the fact that most of the population lives outside of it.

The truth is, the normalcy of the Midwest is what makes it so highly regarded in the American psyche. The Midwest, with its friendly people, small farm towns and industrial blue collar cities represents the values that many of us believe to embody America. Hard work, family and modesty, many of the things we value in the United States, can be found in the Midwest. It lacks the baggage we often associate with other regions, such as the often overt racism in the South, vanity on the West Coast and aggressiveness in the East. As Americans, we perceive the Midwest to be ‘normal’ because it represents the image of what we believe our country  to be.

While America is a large and diverse country, we always return to the Midwest because it reminds us of what America is supposed to be at its heart.

I’ve always found it interesting that foreigners often associate the United States with Hollywood celebrity culture, New York City lights or the cowboy-ism of Texas. The truth is, we as Americans tend to revere a region many people outside of the country know nothing about, which says something about how we wish to perceive ourselves compared to how others view us.

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