Identifying Houstonians

January 1, 2005 by  
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When you are traveling afar, if someone asks, “Where are you from?” how do you reply? “Houston.” “Texas.” “America.” “You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition.”

This is a sticky question because our answers speak volumes about how we view ourselves. Where do our allegiances lie? Where is home? Exactly, what are we? If you are in Waco or Dallas (You do love missionary work, don’t you?), and someone springs that location question, it would not make much sense to answer, “America” or even “Texas.” So, replying that you are from Houston is the correct answer.

But what if you are in Chicago or Miami and get hit with that question? The proper reply is: “Ah’m frum Teck-siz.” To which the interrogator says, “Now what was my first clue, besides the big hat, boots, belt buckle the size of a hubcap and your lapel pin reading, “$100 a Barrel?'”

You may wish to narrow down the answer to two words, “Houston, Texas,” but that is a condescending term used mostly by network TV anchors, “In Houston, Texas, today, another BP plant exploded with ” – Why the extra and gratuitous explanation of the state in which we live? “Houston” as in “Texas.” Perhaps our happy home might be confused with a Houston in Ohio, Nevada or Burkina Faso. Maybe we are such a little-known sleepy fishing village on the bayou that the viewer needs to be told exactly where we are, probably with a map in the background pinpointing our location.

Would the TV anchor intone, “In Los Angeles, California, today the smog was so heavy it surpassed Houston, which is in Texas, a state located between Mexico and Oklahoma.”? How about, “Meanwhile, in Washington, the District of Columbia, Congress passed a …”? So the term, “Houston, Texas,” is sort of demeaning when used in any of the other 49 states (which are not in Texas). The farther we go from here, the more the explanation changes. In Mexico, saying you are from Texas is ample explanation, if not deportation. In Louisiana, when asked from whence you come, you reply, “I’m from Houston.” To which the inquirer says, “Hey, I got a brother in Houston.”

“Oh, really?”

“And three sisters, 14 cousins, both parents and grandparents, a dog and two pet ‘gators. But they are only there temporarily, after the hurricane damage is fixed. Until then, FEMA is putting them up.”

“Where?”

“Two suites in the Warwick.”

“When are they going back to Louisiana?”

“When room service stops replenishing the mini-bar.”

While traveling overseas, this location information takes a totally different meaning. Saudi Arabians love Texas and are thoroughly familiar with Houston. Between going to school at UH, UT or A&M, it seems half the Saudi petroleum engineers and geologists I met there spent some time in Houston, and a few had apartments here because of their constant business trips. They didn’t need any explanation as to the whereabouts of Houston, except maybe to inquire on what street my wives lived.

Elsewhere, the best way to describe our hometown is to simply say, “Texas.” The whole world knows about Texas. A friend of mine, Phillipe (fill-LEAP), was the executive director of a hotel in Paris called the Hotel de Crillon, and one time he asked me, “Lean, (that was about as close as he could get), why is it Americans say that they are from Boston or Los Angeles or Atlanta. But Texans always, and I mean always, say they are from Texas? Don’t you have any towns there?” What a kidder, that Phillipe, but he made a telling point.

Some Houstonians take this word form to task. In her recent obit in the Chronicle, former Houston Post columnist Marguerite Johnston Barnes was quoted as complaining, “I always felt Houston has never gotten acknowledgment for its leaders at a national or international level. You always hear that they’re from Texas, but never from Houston.” Then there was this observation by a Houstonian, Yao Ming: “Today is barbeque my feet. It’s pretty warm here. It’s soft turf, but it’s heat. But we’re from Texas.” Note, not, “We’re from Houston.”

When quizzed by a border guard while you are trying to smuggle into Tibet, do you reply, “I’m a Baytownian.”? Or, perhaps, “It says right here on the forged passport, “Piney Point, Republic of Texas.” As for the photograph, since then, I’ve had a sex change operation, gained 40 pounds and lost my mustache.”

Once I wrote a column about the most obscure place in the world, Ouagadougou, international capital of Upper Volta, in Central Africa, a nation now known as Burkina Faso. A few weeks later, I got a phone call from a Foreign Service officer on leave from ” where else? – Upper Volta.

“So what’s it like to tell people back home that you are living in Ouagadougou?” I asked.

“Nothing like when I tell people there that I am from Clute, Texas.”

Actually, I have been to Clute, and it is a very nice town filled with lovely people. The Ouagadougouians should be so lucky. But did he really have to add, “Texas?”

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