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May 2005 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

Native Son in a Strange Land
By Justin Cox

Temporally speaking, St. Louis is not that far behind: having graduated from Washington University last May, I just moved out of the city a mere 10 months ago. Nonetheless, the St. Louis that I once knew seems extremely far away. Just as you can't cross the same river twice, cities are nothing like the static images we hold of them in our heads. This is particularly true for those in my situation, whose residency was solely based on a transient opportunity — i.e. acquiring a degree.

When I left St. Louis, I went with nearly two thousand other graduates of WU. Like it did me, WU launched most of my closest friends all over the globe: the Peace Corps in El Salvador; teaching English in Japan; three living together in Taiwan. As for me, I spent my first six post-graduation months volunteering in Chile, and have spent most of the time since in Venezuela.

Justin in Chile, which is different than Justin in chili Therefore, when I have returned to St. Louis since moving away — and since Lambert is the closest airport to my hometown of Scott City, a two-hour drive down I-55, I have been back a few times — I always feel a strange home-but-not-quite feeling. It's like I'm watching a favorite movie, one I've seen a hundred times, but with a different cast, as if the director grew tired of the familiarity of it all and decided to shake things up. Less than a year ago I could no longer do homework in Kaldi's, Kayak's or Bread Co. because I'd get interrupted too often by friends, classmates and even professors. But the last time I was back in each place, I searched in vain for a friendly face. The Quad, where I used to play waffle ball and Frisbee, is once again overrun with strangers, which hasn't happened since my first days of freshman year.

As if the recasting of the narrative wasn't disconcerting enough, the director is slowly changing the set as well. Already there are parts of WU's campus I don't know, buildings in which I haven't been, patches of grass in which I haven't lain. MetroLink is coming, Busch stadium is going, the Loop is gentrifying.

I do not lament these changes — not at all. If anything, I harbor a soft regret for not being there to see them. Like a distant niece, I'm forced to watch my former home grow up in pictures and third-party accounts. Though my stay in St. Louis was relatively brief — four years — it coincided with and helped guide a radical personal transformation.

I have spent the last 10 months in Latin America, but when it comes down to it, I'm still just a small-town boy from rural, homogenous Missouri. Before WU, I had never attended any school other than the public one in Scott City, where I have a vast family network condensed into a town of a little more than four thousand people (you can see my older sister's house from my mother's front porch).

However, in recent years I have been able to parlay hard work, an understanding family and good fortune into experiences that are about as far from Scott City as one can imagine, both physically (Chile, Spain, Egypt) and metaphysically (Washington University). Whether it was running with the bulls in Spain, climbing through pyramids in Cairo, or sharing an apartment with a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew in St. Louis, I have often wondered aloud about how I have gotten so far from home.

Each of these moves has inevitably forced me to adjust to a different culture. Leaving for college facilitated the first and most dramatic adjustment I had to undergo. In a sense, I underwent culture shock when I left small, comfortable Scott City for the relatively cosmopolitan surroundings of WU and St. Louis.

The personal changes that these moves have brought about in me have been overwhelmingly positive ones. But no matter where I go, part of me will always remain the same small-town boy, meaning that I never felt fully at home amongst my wealthy classmates at WU, just as I will always maintain outsider status in Latin America. Similarly, Scott City is not the fit it once was. Yes, I'm a native son and have deep roots there, but I have left Scott City, giving me a different (though still very positive) perspective on life there.

But the city, or at least parts of it, puts me at ease like nowhere else can. Those oddities that make me stick out everywhere else become irrelevant when I'm strolling the Loop or the Central West End. No matter the changes the city undergoes, there I'm just another Missourian, yet another WUer. And for one who has spent so much time recently being painfully conspicuous, that seems extremely comforting.

Justin Cox graduated from Washington University with degrees in philosophy and political science and is currently an intern in the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. He will start Yale Law School in August.

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