Growing up across multiple states West of the Mississippi, the concept of ‘we before me’ was ever present in our lives. There was this fairness and consideration that underlaid just about every interaction. Are you ok? Are you hungry? Can I help you with that? Oh please you go first… and so forth.
Bummer stickers saying it takes a village to raise a family were common, although it wasn’t until many decades later that I would really realize what that meant. Or at least, what that meant to me. It was the ‘we’ before ‘me’ concept. The I’ll take care of you, you’ll take care of me, so together we’ll be taken care of.
Having moved to the East Coast a number of years ago, that mentality was often characterized as ignorant and naïve. The first couple months were an interesting transition. I would say, ‘Are you hungry’ ‘Do you need anything’ and they would answer and then we’d be done. Um what about me? I’d never had to think about me before. The culture hadn’t taught them to ask that back. It was a ‘you take care of you, I’ll take care of me’ mentality. If you’re hungry, you’ll tell me. I don’t need to ask you, that’s your responsibility.
I spent the first couple months thinking, wow, how can everyone be so self focused. Isn’t that lonely? If I only focus on me and you only focus on you, when would the two ever meet? Just for the fun stuff? What about real life? I was so confused. However, I’m sure you can guess which culture won. Not only was I on their turf, but the only way your needs could be met was to become focused on taking care of me.
I’m not proud that I adopted these habits. I will admit I tried long and hard to find people within the city that were more like the culture I was raised with, and truth be told, if you search, you will find them. They aren’t the majority, but they do exist in pockets here and there. Though even those with a ‘we before me’ driver had to carry characteristics of ‘you take care of you, I’ll take care of me’ or they wouldn’t survive. So it wasn’t the pure ‘we before me’ society I’d come from.
I spent the first year trying to fight the culture, refusing to assimilate and give up my values, but over time my values were more and more eroded. When I travelled back to the West I saw how different I had become. It warmed my heart to be back in that culture, to feel the love and community I was raised in, but it also pointed out how different I’d become, values I’d started to adopt that didn’t match who I was or wanted to be.
I understand why the East Coast is the way it is, if no one is taking care of me, I have to take care of me. Once we all start focusing that way, there’s no stopping it. Not to say there aren’t exceptions, but it’s not the norm. It’s funny, the first guy I dated in New York, I did what any Denver girl would do, I asked him if he needed help packing up his apartment for his move. The answer was no, which was so weird to me. Years later as I watched people pack and move I noticed it was considered selfish to ask someone to help you, it was considered a burden to help someone, so it didn’t happen. You take care of you, I’ll take care of me.
Who knows which is the ‘right’ culture, I think it comes down to what works for you. Just as my cultural values were a misfit in the East and created a lot of misunderstandings and difficulties, the flip would likely be the case as well. If a ‘you take care of you, I’ll take care of me’ personality moved to a ‘we before me’ city, they would likely be viewed as selfish, high maintenance, and all sorts of other things that would not enable a kind assimilation. So does that mean we are best fit in the culture of our core? Not the culture we wish we could be.
When people ask why I’m leaving the East Coast and why I don’t feel I’ll ever live East again, it is in this basic underlying foundational difference that living in New York taught me was incredibly important to my quality of life and enjoyment as a person. I’m not saying New York or the East Coast are bad, there are many many many people that have so much pride, loyalty and love to that side of the country, it’s just not a fit for everyone. Fair enough.