"Where are you from?" It's a question that I'm frequently asked. For one thing, it's one of the few questions that most of my Japanese students know how to ask. In addition, people are in the habit of making inferences about character based on one's origins, so it's only natural that there is a fair amount of curiosity about one's home town. For me, however, the answer to that question is not so simple. I've lived in Minneapolis, Seattle, Grand Rapids and Austin in addition to St. Louis, and now I live in a beautiful, small town in Japan.
When I first arrived here about a year ago, fresh from graduating from Washington University, I would answer the question with the long list of places I've lived. I quickly realized, however, that most of my day would be spent explaining my life to people if I continued in this manner. So, instead of having a tri-fold brochure printed up, I decided I should pick a place as my home. Now, when people ask me where I'm from, I definitively say, "St. Louis."
Instinctively, it was easy to choose St. Louis as my home, but I started wondering why I felt that way. St. Louis certainly isn't the best city I've lived in. Seattle has a much more vibrant downtown area, Austin's live music scene is more prolific, and Grand Rapids....well, St. Louis is definitely better than Grand Rapids (my apologies to any Grand Rapidians out there). But the truth is, St. Louis isn't necessarily the city I like the most. In fact, I don't think I would tell any of my students to visit St. Louis if they were going to visit America. Don't misunderstand, there are many things I love about St. Louis, and I would show someone a good time if they came, but it wouldn't be on my U.S. highlights tour.
Still, I can think of no other place that I would call home. I lived in St. Louis during two very different periods of my life. From age 7 to 13 I lived in Ellisville out in West County. It was very positive place to grow up and I still carry with me very fond memories of spending summers in Bluebird Park and watching my first baseball game at Busch Stadium. Following a move to Grand Rapids, MI, where I went to high school, I returned to St. Louis as a student at Washington University. The campus was in a very different neighborhood than West County but it still had a profound, and positive, effect on me. Wash U is where I became an adult, where I learned to live on my own and explore the world as I saw fit. I learned to be myself on the streets of The Loop, and learned how to maintain my inner child at the City Museum.
And that is why St. Louis is my home. It defines who I am. It is the place, more than any other, that has served as the backdrop for the most important and most character-shaping moments in my life. It's part of who I am now, whether I like it or not. It's like a family member you may not always be proud of, but whom you love nonetheless. I have an inescapable connection with the city, because I see myself as a St. Louisan. The other places I've lived have never put as much of an imprint on my character as St. Louis has. It was a subtle connection that was all around me, and I didn't notice it until I was gone.
In fact, when I left St. Louis for Japan, I didn't necessarily think of St. Louis as my home. However, I found myself in bars here looking proudly at the Budweiser they were pouring, and being overjoyed to see the Cardinals in the sports section of the Japanese newspaper. It wasn't until I was in another country that I really started to feel like St. Louis was home. In a place where I was inherently different, it suddenly became much more important to be able to define who I was. Here in Japan, I found that I see myself as being from St. Louis, being of the culture of the Gateway to the West.
Here in Japan, I've also found that this connection means something. True, many people look at me with blank faces when I say I'm from St. Louis, but you can be sure they know about Budweiser. Japan is a country that loves to drink, after all, and though Bud is like tap water in St. Louis, it's foreign and exotic over here. Also, I live in Nagano prefecture, which happens to be Missouri's sister state, so many people here have actually met people from St. Louis while they were on an exchange program. In addition, there seems to be general interest in their sister state here, as I was asked to give a presentation about St. Louis to a group of tour guides in a nearby city. Though at first the thought of giving a 2-hour-long presentation on St. Louis seemed a bit much, I found myself truly enjoying telling people about my home. Just talking about it seemed to make it feel a little closer.
I love St. Louis not because of its superlative excellence, but because of what it has meant to me. It's shaped and defined me in ways that I never realized until I was so far away. It's the basis of comparison I use for everything in Japan. When I go into a grocery store here, I compare it to Schnucks, not a grocery store from Austin. I get excited about seeing Budweiser much more than other American beers. I am much happier talking about the Arch than the Space Needle. It's because St. Louis is the place that connects me to the States and to home. I feel it reaching out to me even so far away. It's a connection I will carry with me always, and a connection I am happy to have.
Aaron Shumaker is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and is currently enjoying his time teaching English in Toyoshina, Japan.