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Indiana to New Jersey: A Culture Shock


This is a topic that’s sat in my queue for a while, and I decided to finally tackle it. I will quickly note that I think I have adjusted pretty well to the differences, but it’s interesting to look back and see the transition from a distance.

In lieu of a full memoir, I will just say that I lost my job in Muncie, Indiana in late 2008, and found a new job in northern New Jersey in early 2009. The economy had just cratered and I had a family to support, so nothing was off the table–if I had to move, I’d move. Turns out that’s how it went down, and I moved here. My family stayed behind because my wife at the time didn’t want to live in an urban area. This resulted in a chain of events that would be better related in another post. This one is about the differences between where I lived and what I was accustomed to, and how all that changed when I moved to the east coast.

One of the first things I noticed was that people here are less polite. I don’t intend this as an insult, but in Indiana (and the Midwest more generally), people pepper their language with random dashes of politeness. There is a “please” and a “thank you” attached to everything. People want to know how you’re doing. They smile and say “hello” as you walk past. They hold doors. They may not know you at all, but they treat you like family anyway.

It’s completely different here. You hold your own doors, the pleasantries are perfunctory (if you get them at all), no one cares to ask how you’re doing, and there’s no time to greet passersby because everyone’s walking too fast, and there are too many people around for that to be practical, anyway. It’s not so much that people are rude, they’re just busy. Life moves faster here. People drive faster and more aggressively. Those providing services to you are much less patient–they’re in a hurry, too. There’s just no time for simple acts of kindness, at least not for strangers.

And that’s the key part. People here aren’t cold in general, but they are certainly wary of folks they don’t know. This is understandable in a part of the country where you’re likely to be accosted by panhandlers and hustlers who want your money and attention. I’ve not been mugged or anything like that, but those working the streets and plazas come on strong, knowing that a lot of people have a hard time saying “no” to a person who is in your face, talking quickly, and promises to go away if you just buy something or throw a few coins into a cup.

I had to train myself to ignore all that, the way people who grew up here learned when they were kids. I had to grow that cold exterior shell where people I don’t know essentially don’t exist–the bodies around me are impersonal, animate masses that I must simply navigate around. Of course, sometimes the illusion is broken. My foot is stepped on, or I’m backed into, or I clumsily bump into someone else or step on their shoes. You get the quick, awkward apologies, and then we’re right back to unpersoning each other.

With so many strangers around, spending time with people you care about becomes all the more special. I’m an introvert; social interaction tends to wear me out. Just being in a large crowd takes its toll, even when I’m not interacting with anyone. Being able to hang around a small group of people I know and trust is much more comfortable–and comforting. People here are just as warm and caring as anyone I knew in Indiana–once I manage to get to know them. People here seem to open up more slowly. They don’t trust as readily as Midwesterners–there are too many people out to take advantage of you. I’ve been on the wrong side of that, myself, and it sucks. I do prefer to trust people, and I’m almost never thinking when I meet someone, “This person is looking for a way to exploit me.” Some would say you have to worry about it even more in this part of the country, but in truth I was stolen from multiple times in Indiana, yet not once in New Jersey. The people I have gotten to know have been nothing but kind to me, and helped me adjust to this new and very different environment.

As for myself, I’ve picked up both good and bad habits. I’ve lost a lot of weight, largely thanks to how eating and exercising habits differ here. I’m in the urban sprawl around New York City, and people here just plain walk more and eat less. It was hard for me to understand just how different it was until I lived it myself. Now, when I go back to Indiana, I find myself shocked at how much people eat (and drink, considering the 64 ounce sodas that you essentially never see here). On the negative side, I’ve acquired some of that coldness and impatience. I get frustrated when Hoosiers drive so slowly, when they accelerate at a leisurely pace rather than taking off like a rocket the way we do here in Jersey. I want to get in and out of places quickly, but everyone in Indiana is just taking their time. I’m still polite, but I very much feel the impatience, the persistent sense of urgency. I may have always had that, to some extent, but it has only exacerbated here.

Then there’s staying up late. Unless you’re having a bonfire, folks are hitting the sack in Indiana pretty early, maybe 10pm if not sooner. Some towns shut down completely after sunset. But out east, you can be up all night if you want, and there’s plenty to do. Not being much of a night owl myself, I can’t say I take much advantage of it. Still, it’s there if I ever want to!

Along with that goes volume. People talk not only faster, but louder. That’s because everything is louder. More cars, more sirens, more people on phones, more loud music. There’s never any silence, and rarely is it quiet enough for you to hear nothing but the distant chirping of birds. It’s all noise, all the time, which is what you’d expect from a place where everyone lives much closer together and there is more going on at all hours.

Of course, it also costs more. I’m not sure I will ever adapt to how much more expensive New Jersey is, especially in terms of housing. In Indiana, $500 a month could get you a detached house with a yard and even a garage. Here, you’d be lucky to get a studio apartment in a large building, forget a house or a yard and maybe even designated parking–it’s street parking for you! And that’s another one: Indiana’s got free parking lots for almost everything, and here it might be the street, a small lot, or meters. Jersey’s got the toll roads, too, though I hear those are becoming more popular in the Midwest these days (thanks, Republicans!).

Where I lived in Indiana was reasonably diverse, too, but it scarcely prepared me for what I would encounter here. If I heard another language in the Midwest, it was usually Spanish, and maybe Chinese, Korean, or Hindi once in a while. Here, there are people and languages from more places than I can count. It’s said that New York is an international city, and that goes for the massive sprawl around it, too. I have never been exposed to so many people from so many places in my life. It is, at times, daunting, but also refreshing and intriguing. It seeps out into the surrounding culture, creating something unique, rather than the bland sameyness of a rural Midwestern town that’s 99.5% white people. What I don’t do as well as I could is try to get to know people from different cultural backgrounds–that can be made more difficult by barriers like language and the aforementioned cold exterior, but I could certainly do better.

I have my complaints about living here, but overall I vastly prefer it. Sometimes I miss the quiet and the slower pace (and the lower expenses!) of Indiana, but there is simply so much more here, and the people are just fine once you realize that the coldness and impatience are defense mechanisms against a chaotic, fast-paced culture, and that quiet times with good friends are cherished here as much as anywhere.

I don’t like the circumstances that led to me living here–they were very unpleasant. But after getting over the initial shocks of this place, I’ve come to like and appreciate it a lot. It feels more full of possibilities, and much more dynamic. Something is always happening. I used to think I wasn’t a city person, that I wanted a slow, quiet life rather than a busy, loud one. I could do without the volume sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade this for living in the Midwest again. No disrespect to people who live there and love it, but I just don’t think it’s for me anymore.

At this point, when people ask where I’m from, I just say “all over.” Not a bad conversation starter, either.

Photo by davejdoe