Traveling While Texan

Speaker's Corner: Sophia Dembling hears a lot about her home state while she's on the road, particularly from other travelers intent on steering clear of the land of George W. Bush, Jasper and big hair. Her response: Get over it.

02.05.08 | 12:53 PM ET

Photo Big Bend National Park, Texas: iStockphoto

“I‘ve never wanted to go to Texas,” said the well-traveled Canadian in the Cuba T-shirt I met recently in Mexico. “I just think of it as Bush country and over-made up women with big hair.”

I managed a tight smile and said, “There are all kinds of people in Texas.”

Me, for example. When they meet me, people immediately guess my New York roots, but I chose Texas as my home. I’ve made a good life here and consider myself as much Texan as Texans will concede to a Yankee who has been here only 26 years. (Some say it takes five generations to be a real Texan.)

But traveling while Texan is trying. For the portion of the world’s population that believes Republicans, and George W. Bush in particular, are the root of all that is wrong with the world, I am frequently required to answer for the transgressions of my home state.

I am weary of defending Texas to people clinging piously to stereotypes.

My stock response to anti-Texas sentiment is: “We have everything you have in (New York, California, Switzerland, Canada…) but we just might have fewer of them.”

Case in point: I once saw a transvestite lunching in a waterfront restaurant in Corpus Christi.

I am exasperated when people who travel happily to Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia and other nations with suspect human rights and political attitudes and behaviors say they don’t want to go to Texas because our electoral college falls to the right and many of the women have grooming issues. (Is there such thing as over-groomed? Anyway, don’t kid yourself. These women are made of well-polished tempered steel.)

Yes, death penalty. Yes, George W. Bush. Yes, Jasper. But also Ann Richards, Molly Ivins, Barbara Jordan, Kinky Friedman. Even LBJ. Texans don’t all suck, my left-wing Texaphobic friends.

And Texas—with coast and hills, prairie and desert, courthouse squares and skyscrapers, canyons and even, believe it or not, a couple of mountains—is diverse and wonderful. Big Bend National Park is among my favorite places in the world. I defy you to hold on to any notion that Texas lacks soul while standing at The Window, in the Chisos Mountains, looking out at the great expanse of Chihuahua desert.

God’s country, eh? And a variety of Gods, despite the dominance of the Southern Baptists and Catholics. When I was preparing to move down to Texas on what could only be called a whim, my mother pulled me aside and said, “You know, you won’t meet any Jewish people down there.”

Pee-pul!

While Jews are in short supply in small towns, Texas’ major cities have large and vibrant Jewish populations. And around the turn of the last century, thousands of Jewish immigrants entered the United States through Galveston. If you meet a Jew in the Midwest, chances are good his or her forebears entered the United States through Galveston, Texas.

Granted, I have been a few of my friends’ first Jew, which required gently explaining to a couple why the expression “Jewed him down” is not appropriate. Most of them never really thought about it. They say, “It doesn’t really mean anything.” They understand when I explain, though, and when they do, I have done my small part for cross-cultural understanding.

If I hadn’t braved the perils of Texas 26 years ago, they might never have been enlightened. What have you done for the world lately?

Isn’t travel supposed to open our minds? Teach us to understand different ways? Shatter stereotypes? I can think of a lot of people who need a good mind-opening by visiting Texas.

Some Texas natives reading this are planning my garroting. Texans are inordinately proud of Texas and are deeply offended by any suggestion that it might need defending—especially to damn Yankees. In fact, that’s why I chose Texas when I decided to try living away from New York City. Texans are as passionate about Texas as New Yorkers are about New York and that’s good. Actually, I also like to say that Texans and New Yorkers are the same—they are certain they live in the center of the universe and pity the poor fools who live elsewhere.

I didn’t intend to stay in Texas as long as I did, but it’s funny how you set roots without even trying. I won’t pretend I’m not homesick for New York and I’m certainly aware of all the ways that I will never entirely fit into my adopted home.

Nevertheless, if we meet somewhere in the world, over a margarita or ouzo or a bowl of noodles, don’t expect me to join your gleeful Texas bashing. I don’t want to hear about it because you don’t know Texas. And before you start in on me, remember that we all carry concealed weapons.