Story last updated at 5/9/2012 - 1:17 pm
I'm from Sitka, Alaska. If you know me, chances are this isn't news to you. If you don't know me, well, you already know I'm from Sitka because pretty often it's the first thing I tell people.
It might as well be my last name. "Hi, I'm Jonathan. I'm from Sitka." Sometimes it becomes my first: "Hi, I'm from Sitka. My name's Jonathan." It's not just me. When making introductions, friends often deem my geographic provenance more salient than any sort of legal identity ("He's from Alaska"). And sometimes I singularly become from where I'm from, such as when I first ventured away to summer camp in the Lower 48: "Hey, Alaska. How's that sun treating you?"
If Sitka and Alaska are integral to my identity, so is my being happy. That's not to say I don't get unhappy. I definitely do that, too. But it's never for too long and always feels contrary to my true state of being.
I like feeling happy, although I suppose few people don't. I think about it a lot, though - more than other people, I'm pretty sure. In elementary school, my parents bought me purple socks ("a nice color") the same time Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby, was mocked by my playground. By middle school, I was fiercely determined to find personal popularity, which at the time I mistook for happiness.
I watched my "popular" friends and studied what they said and did. When I realized that Conan O'Brien was source material for a significant fraction of in-jokes, I adjusted the coaxial cable on our TV with my dad's homemade antenna - my parents didn't subscribe to cable - so that we'd pick up NBC. Conan and the Late Show had no more dedicated fan those following months.
I somehow ended up as prom king my senior year in high school. That's hardly a badge of success. I wasn't ever "popular." Moreover, I really believe that unlike at Sitka's middle school, the camaraderie of Sitka High's student body obsolesced popularity and social hierarchy. Whatever the social reality, I had found a happiness, which I suppose my classmates equated to prom royalty.
Sometime between Conan O'Brien and prom, the ferocious observation I aimed at my popular friends was retrained on myself: introspection. I constantly parse my emotional data: What and who is making me feel happy? How?
Answers are scarce and often slight, but I've found at least a few of them. I like giving to people and I like caring for people. I appreciate, deeply, being cared for. I've found happiness tends to echo around inside of me until encountering my conceits and pretensions, which, ever greedy and always too present, absorb it. I've come to think that these are my intrinsic, inherent qualities and would be true no matter what.
But I'm also a creation of where I came from. Growing up, and especially in high school, I began to appreciate Sitka as a truly special place. I like that cars swerve slightly out of their way when passing me on my bike. If I forget to bring my wallet downtown, I know I can walk into the Backdoor Café and, at the expense of some gentle ribbing, borrow a few dollars from one of the at least several friends that I know will be mingling inside. I still find entertainment in high school memories of mildly illegal late-night shenanigans that involved, in no particular order, wet suits, sleds and storm drains.
Every day, after coming home from elementary school, Mr. Rogers would tell me - kindly, reassuringly - the same thing: "Each one of us is special and it's because of who we are inside. We're all different and we all have something to offer our world."
I'm special, certainly. Not everyone can say they sported purple socks on an elementary school playground contemporaneous to Tinky Winky's Teletubby fame. But Sitka is special - its bicycle-conscious drivers, abundant lines of coffeeshop credit, amusingly deviant, wet suit-wearing high school hoodlums.
Even if I lead a life of quintessential mediocrity, even if I amass all the distinction of one of those people who is not Waldo - even if I'm nothing more than nothing - at least I'm from Sitka. It's my fail-safe for when I fail; it's apparently the stuff of prom royalty. Sitka is very much a source of happiness. So, have I mentioned yet that I'm from Sitka, Alaska?
When I first started college "out east," I was surprised others weren't similarly gushing about their hometowns. I first met my roommate's stuff before I met my roommate, and he was: a poster of Albert Einstein squinching his face and sticking out his tongue, sheet music for the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, and a Hebrew-English dictionary. To my roommate, I was: countless posters of Sitka, an Alaska flag, and a book of poems contemplating the Alaskan Panhandle.
As was true with my math-studying, piano-playing, Hebrew-speaking freshman year roommate (who is from Seattle), not everyone needs an overzealous sense of hometown exceptionalism. But for many, I can't help but think it's important. I'm working on a writing project right now that considers identity and community, and I've come to realize the importance of belonging. As I discovered in finding my own happiness, the need to belong includes a need to belong to place.
The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child best distills this truth. The third article affirms that, "The child shall be entitled from his birth to a name and a nationality." When I first read this in my seventh-grade social studies class, I found it curious. Name and nationality seemed petty to more humanitarian considerations, such as the right to a life free from hunger.
Only after beginning my writing project did I realize that the right to a name and nationality was a different way of expressing the need to belong. Gosh, I thought with shudder. What would my life have been like without the identity - the nationality, really - of Alaska? What if I had grown up in suburbia? What if I were from Orange County? I don't know the answer to that sobering hypothetical, but there's a perfectly terrifying Halloween costume idea in it somewhere.
So, no need to apologize for saying it: I'm from Sitka! In a way, it's a name, and in a way, it's a nationality. It's definitely my identity, and I could not be happier that I have a place where it feels so right to belong.