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Apr 2003 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

Culture Vs. Diversity
By Andrew Hyatt

They say that St. Louis is a good place to be from. I don't know what that means. Perhaps the emphasis is on the "from" part. If you live in St. Louis, you aren't really "from St. Louis," since you haven't gone anywhere. To be "from St. Louis" means you have moved on.

Dres I am from St. Louis. I now live in San Mateo, California, which is about 15 miles south of San Francisco. It's a nice little town. I live in its downtown area that it somewhat reminiscent of the Loop or S. Grand, except that it is more of a yuppie version of cool than a punk version of cool, like St. Louis. There're great restaurants, a movie theatre, and a nice park with Japanese gardens, but there's no good record store like Vintage Vinyl or indie theater like the Tivoli.

I've noticed a tendency in cities, which is that their residents are constantly comparing their cities with larger cities, and ignoring all smaller cities. There's a Tom the Dancing Bug (my favorite comic) that lists fun facts about Chicago. "Chicago has a good natured rivalry with LA and New York," it states. "Meanwhile, LA and New York have a good natured rivalry with each other." It's the same with St. Louis. When I was in St. Louis, I never really thought about Madison, Wisconsin. But everyone did constantly compare St. Louis and Chicago. In California, I've never heard anyone talk about St. Louis much. Probably they don't think about St. Louis at all. I decided to test this out. I asked two of my coworkers who live in San Francisco about St. Louis. "Um," said one, and stared into space, trying to think of something to say about St. Louis. "I don't really ever think about St. Louis," said the other. "Yeah, well," said the first, "it's better than Alabama. Hey, what's the Arch for anyway?"

If one did want to compare the San Francisco Bay area to the St. Louis area, the differences are fairly interesting. St. Louis is fairly homogenous. Yes, it has some ethnicities living in and around it, but not nearly to the degree that the Bay Area does. However, with so much ethnic diversity here, a real local culture is hard to come by. What you get is instead a smattering of foreign cultures. Another factor that makes local culture difficult is that most of the Americans you meet are from some other city. The more homogenous and settled populace of St. Louis is more conducive to a local culture. I know that St. Louis has a local culture because it has its own style of pizza. Not only that, no one besides a St. Louisan likes St. Louis pizza. But we love it. If that's not a sign of local culture, I don't know what is.

Food is, in fact, one of the areas where the differences really stand out. St. Louis has a food scene that is fairly unique. Besides the pizza, we have toasted ravioli. We have Ted Drewes. We have that Italian pasta which seemed ubiquitous when I was growing up called mostaccioli. I've never even seen that outside of St. Louis. There're some good ethnic places as well. Italian is king in St. Louis, but besides that there are very tasty Indian restaurants, and I've always loved Saleems. San Francisco has, on the other hand, a few local dishes like cioppino, but what is really interesting about the food scene is the ethnic restaurants. So many are there that you not only get more regional ethnic cookery (real South Indian food, halal Chinese food, real Sichuan food, etc.), but you also get what I term second-order ethnic food. Zeroth-order ethnic food is not true ethnic food, but Americanized versions of ethnic food — like Kung Pao chicken or fortune cookies. First-order ethnic food is true ethnic cooking. Indian food from India, or authentic Chinese food from China. The second-order ethnic food is where it gets even more interesting: one ethnicity filtered through another ethnicity. You can get what is termed "Desi Chinese food" here. Looking at a menu is bizarre. What's an Indian restaurant doing serving Chinese food? But Indians whom I know recommend it highly. It's like the Chinese food they ate in India. Similarly, there are Chinese places that serve continental food of the style you would get in Hong Kong, such as borsht and Portuguese chicken stew. It's an amazing phenomenon.

While St. Louis food is good, the local culture is one of the things I really find endearing about St. Louis. The other thing that I do enjoy is the architecture. After coming back from California and its concrete-and-wood look, a nice-looking brick building is quite beautiful, and there are many nice-looking brick buildings in St. Louis. And of course, anywhere where you have family and friends is automatically a good place. Another plus is that the size of St. Louis makes it large enough to be interesting, but small enough so that it's easy to get around and have area-wide communities (such as STLBloggers).

At this point, I think, most people would mention that St. Louis is nice because it is cheap. Perhaps this is an advantage. I'm not so sure. I believe that you get what you pay for. St. Louis is fairly cheap because it's not seen as a desirable place to live. San Francisco is insanely expensive because it is seen as very desirable. I think those perceptions are to some extent grounded in reality. The nice weather, interesting locale, access to the ocean, better job opportunities, beautiful views, good hiking and skiing nearby, and more make the San Francisco Bay Area desirable. I'm inclined to agree. I like St. Louis, but for now I have not gotten the Bay Area out of my system.

Andrew Hyatt grew up in St. Louis, attended the University of Illinois, and is now one of the hordes of programmers working in and around Silicon Valley. He is the father of twin baby girls.

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