“You’re from Houston? I’m so sorry.”

georgia and tracie parzenAbove: my wife Tracie (left) and our oldest daughter Georgia P at Hermann Park Conservancy in the heart of Houston not long after we moved to the city from Austin last year.

On Friday night, I was at Terroir, the natural wine bar in San Francisco. It’s one of my favorite wine destinations in the country and I go there every chance I get. In part, because I love the wine selection and the vibe of the place. In part, because one of my best friends from my New York days, Bill R., is one of the managers there and I love hanging out with him.

He introduced me to some of his regular guests and friends as my colleagues and I sat there for the better part of the evening tasting whatever wines he proffered.

No fewer than three times, when I made the acquaintance of fellow revelers and they asked me where I was from, their response came in the form of a question and feigned sympathy.

“You’re from Houston?” they asked as if on cue. “I’m so sorry.”

Ever since I moved to Texas in 2008 and especially since I moved to Houston in 2014, this happens a lot, nearly everywhere I travel.

I’m not really sure how people expect me or any Houstonian, for that matter, to react. Do they imagine I’ll thank them for their earnest concern? Do they not realize that they are, in fact, mocking me?

But what troubles me even more is their inability to grasp the intrinsic racist subtext of their sardonic manner.

If I were from, say, rural Mexico or north Africa, where our fellow humans have faced extreme socioeconomic challenges for generations, would they say, “You’re from Chiapas? I’m so sorry,” or “You’re from Benghazi? I’m so sorry.”

Can you imagine how offensive that would be?

And beyond the morally reprehensible tone of their sarcasm, do they not perceive how rude they are being?

In a social setting like a natural wine bar, where the guests ostensibly share an affinity for a style of wine that reflects progressive attitudes, how can I respond without escalating the tension that has been created?

I could answer by thanking them for feeling sorry for me and telling them that my life in Houston really sucks and that the only reason why I live there is because I my financial situation is so challenging that I accept my bitter fate of residing in America’s fourth largest city.

I could tell them that my ugly shrew of a wife forces me and our two bratty, cosmetically challenged, ingrate children to live there because she takes pleasure in our suffering.

I could reveal that despite my higher education and my career as a writer in the wine trade, I inhabit an intellectually and gastronomically inferior urban environment because I masochistically enjoy denying myself aesthetic and sensorial fulfillment.

But all three of these options would require dissimulation and when they realized I was lying, what kind of first impression would that make?

It’s true that Texas and Texans are often considered by their fellow Americans as having backward social attitudes and attenuated cultural self-awareness.

It is also true that Texas governor Greg Abbott recently deployed the Texas State Guard to ensure that the U.S. government wasn’t using the military training operation known as Jade Helm 15 to take Texans’ firearms away from them.

Texans often propagate the very same mythologies that make them and their state so unsavory to the palates of their compatriots.

But this is no excuse for the microaggression that comes in the form of their “I’m so sorry.”

And in today’s American society, where there is a heightened awareness of social politesse and racial and social sensitivity, their microaggresions are no more acceptable or tolerable than the outright racist attitudes they might expect of my fellow Houstonians.

I don’t tell them that, of course. To do so would be a proverbial conversation stopper.

I simply say, “no, please don’t be sorry. I love living in Houston. It’s a great place to live and I have a great life there. It’s actually not that place that you might imagine it to be. In fact, it’s one of the country’s most ethnically diverse and progressive cities. My children go to school with kids from all over the world. And the wine and food scene there is great, too.”

That usually ends the conversation anyway. Most people seem entirely nonplussed that my view of my own life is contrary to what they perceive my life to be. And in my experience, no panegyric will convince them otherwise.

Of course, not everyone acts this way when they learn I’m from Houston. Some people say things like, “I’ve heard great things about Houston” or “how do you like living there?” or they just say, “cool.”

But as someone who grew up in Southern California, lived in Europe on and off for ten years, and lived in New York City for ten years consecutively, being on the receiving end of this pungent microaggression has been eye-opening for me.

It’s been amazing to see how people size me up drawing their impression solely from the knowledge that “I’m from Houston.”

If only they could take a stroll with me and my family in the Hermann Park Conservancy to visit its Japanese garden or zoo, to see the collection of fossils in the Natural Science Museum there… They’d probably say something like “you don’t look Houstonian at all!”

40 thoughts on ““You’re from Houston? I’m so sorry.”

    • I know where you are coming from Jeremy. Even people and kin from my hometown act like it’s a monster city with the rush hour traffic and diverse population. I’m proud to be from such a diverse city as Houston….stay off the highways at rush hour! My grandchildren are exposed to many cultures and experiences no one in this family ever was.They are growing up being open-minded and informed. The social and cultural opportunities are countless and you can drive 25 miles S of Houston and be in the ‘country’. I can’t wait to snap back when I’m made fun of or given sympathy for being from HOUSTON. I have a trip booked and look forward to my reaction when it happens. LOL!

  1. As someone who lived in San Fransisco for 5 years, I can say that city is nothing to brag about. Small, dirty and filled with people how believe it to be the best place on earth, most of whom moved there from someplace else. The locals, if you can find one, are great. I left, never looked back and will never return. It’s not the place that makes it special, it’s the people.

  2. Thank you for writing this. It happens to me often when I travel, and I’ve never been sure how or why I am expected to respond positively to someone who denigrates where I have chosen to live (for now). Mind boggling.

  3. Adrian, I remember your comment on my post about urban ranching in Houston. I loved that.

    Mo, as much as I love visiting SF, it’s like Manhattan these days, where only the super rich can afford a decent lifestyle… crazy to hear them all complaining about how tough it is to live there.

    Alfonso, I met these two guys from Rome in LA and they said “Houston, bellissima!” They work with the Cane Rosso group. They were great. It’s really hilarious when people take me for a cultural stereotype. It literally happened three times at Terroir. Btw, do you know my friend, Bill? You should meet him next time you’re out there. Great guy…

    Tamara, the one thing that I’m seeing change is that restaurant trade people really appreciate our wine/food scene. I’m glad that you liked the post. I still don’t know what to say to the “I’m sorry” people.

    Thanks, everyone, for being here…

  4. Wonderful Article. I am a Native Houstonian and I have heard that response all my life. Houston has a lot to offer and it is often over shadowed by urban myths. If Houston is such a horrible place to live and raise a family, how come traffic is so bad and getting worse. Also, why is there a shortage of resale homes on the market. Anyway.. I am glad you are happy here in my hometown.

  5. I’m fairly sure that I made a snide comment like this when you told me you were moving to or living in Texas. We’ve all heard the popular joke about hell and Texas.
    I’ve been to Texas a number of times, Houston included, and I found myself mostly drawn to the quirky energy of Austin, but I enjoyed my visits in every part or the state and met tons of wonderful people of all types and backgrounds.
    That said, you have to admit that Texas has a image problem. Numerous calls to secede, George W. and Rick Perry have all contributed to a media presence that could be called less than enviable.
    That said, once you have a personal involvement in Texas, you stop labeling and start understanding.
    Kinda like Dick Chaney and LGBT issues after his daughter Mary came out.

  6. Angela, thanks for the solidarity and the kind words. Houston has been a great place to raise a family, for sure. As much as we loved living in Austin, it didn’t have nearly as many resources for kids (museums, outdoor spaces, kid-friendly restaurants). And most of all, it didn’t have Houston’s NY Bagel shop! ;)

    OldWhiteWine, I do remember that conversation. But keep in mind, you’re my friend and have been my friend for like 20 years! You’re not someone I met for the first time in a bar… And yes, for sure, Texas in general has a huge image problem (everything’s bigger in Texas). Honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with the local media and how it portrays the state. But that’s changing as so many people — like me — have moved here from other states. I moved here to be with Tracie P but I’m still an immigrant… Thanks for being here, man… :)

  7. This is similar to the comments I get when I am asked where I’m from. Mississippi. I love my home and know that it’s simply not as bad as it’s portrayed to be. People think they complement me when they act surprised or say “you don’t sound like you’re from Mississippi,” as though I need to drawl like Foghorn Leghorn or some cross-eyed character from Deliverance. I used to be upset by this. Today I’m glad it keeps such close-minded bigots from invading my beautiful state like they did poor Austin. ;-)

  8. Houston is a city that is palatable to certain people; it’s all how you see it. Personally, I’m a native Houstonian and while I think it’s devoid of culture for people like me, it’s a good place to raise children if that’s where you are in your life I’m not in that point of my life and it’s good for certain things but it does lack things that interest me. So, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

  9. You might have answered them by pointing out a few things: 1) their cities declining diversity due to skyrocketing prices from tech companies (whereas Houston is the most diverse city in the US) 2) For a city that claims to be the most progressive LGBT community how come they’ve failed to actually elect someone from that community to lead them like Houston. 3) Their art scene is actually quite disappointing with the building actually being far more interesting than what’s held inside. Meanwhile Houston crushes it across the board with our year round collections as well as getting the most sought after traveling exhibits. 4) They keep having to hire people from our symphony and ballet to stock their own. 5) Having their nose that high in the air is going to require regular chiropractic sessions.

    In terms of bashing Houston, because we have some unfortunate people/pockets in Texas, that’s like saying I hate Italy because you had a bad meal once at an Olive Garden. Broad declarations, especially those made without actually experience, just serve to promote ignorance.

    • It’s not reserved for just Texans. I told several overly condescending wine snots in California that I was from Michigan and to a man they all said “My condolences.” So it think the issue is not where you are from, it’s where they are from

    • Well said, Sean. I was going to say something very similar to that, but I’ve also once or twice said something along the lines of, “oh good, I’m so glad to hear you feel that way…last thing we need is more people crowding our city and ruining its heart. When I lived in California, I loved the weather, the food and landscape…I left because of they people and it is so nice when they automatically identify themselves for me.”

  10. Interesting comments. I’m in China teaching currently and have lived in Saudi Arabia as well as worked in Cambridge England. There are plenty of people the world round that think they are a step above others, and enjoy making others feel as if they don’t belong because of where they are from. I’m originally from Houston and my great great grandfather was Davy Crockett. I have pride in my heritage, which originated in Tennessee and continues to thrive in Texas. I have found that those that travel less and experience less of the world have tunnel vision and their need to make others feel inferior is derived from their own insecurity. I wouldn’t let any comments made by others about Houston or any other area of the world bother you. I often find the response of, “Excuse me!” can shut down that sort of arrogance. They aren’t truly interested in you or where you are from if that’s their response, so I’d turn to others if you are looking for interesting conversation.

  11. The problem is, all of the places you’ve listed at the tail end of the article represent about 1 square mile of the city. For the most part, Houston is an eyesore of a city with an abundance of billboards, worn down car dealerships, closed malls and restaurants, power lines, etc. Sure there are nice portions of the city, but the visually unappealing and intellectually unchallenging of the city certainly dominates. My pocket of Houston is nice, and I tolerate the city, but if it weren’t for the cheap cost of living and thriving job market, me and my family would make our homes elsewhere. The city needs to do a lot more to beautify this place…

    • I agree with you about much of our city being visually unappealing and I don’t think many people envy our hot, humid climate.

  12. Houston is great if you have the jack to live inside the loop or in the Galleria, or other similarly high end areas that are close in. Commuting to and from the suburbs sucks, though.

  13. I use to hear the same thing on occasion traveling domestically particularly on the coasts. Recently people seem intrigued by the city and have heard about the food and beverage scene here including the top notch TexMex. I’m fortunate to have a Montrose address which stirs up fun conversation immediately when my ID is seen by anyone who has spent time in Houston. Me and my better half received a completely free dinner during our stay at the Applewood Inn in Sonoma County after discussing being from Houston with the owner who is from Dallas. I’m sorry doesn’t seem to be said ever anymore although I think people know after talking with me briefly that would invite a snarky remark reducing them to rubble about the beauty of the needles covering the streets of the Convention Center or Mission district in “amazing” SF. I mean what doesn’t go with a nice Sonoma cab like stepping on a needle and seeing the friendly San Franciscan drive-by?

  14. The fact that you had to qualify your opinion of Houston based on the fact that you lived in Southern California, NYC and Europe just goes to prove the other sides argument… Your opinion on Houston shouldn’t be better qualified because you age lived in stereotypically “better” cities

  15. thanks, everyone, for checking out the post and for sharing different experiences here. I never imagined the response that this post would get. I really appreciate all the notes in the comment thread.

  16. To each his own. I’ve spent over 20 years living in Houston and now live in Austin. Having spent a significant amount of time in other large cities, it is easy to understand why people look at people from Houston and say, “I’m so sorry.”
    The nice areas of Houston such as Hermann Park and the Museum District are comparatively small relative to other cities. Houston as a city is defined by the suburbs not by the “inside the loop” area.

  17. I too have had to deal with many peoples preconceived ideas of Texas. During my travels, many people have asked how many horses I owned or how large my ranch was.(yes I’m serious) And yes, I have had my fair share of “so sorry to hear that” which like you, would get under my skin! When I would counter them with facts that you stated they would always come back with “but it’s so hot”………and I would just look at them and say “umm we do have air conditioning”

    Here’s the thing though, if you don’t get out and explore the culture of the place you are living, then you are not giving it a chance!! Military life is stressful because of the uprooting of your life every so often. But I was raised to embrace the culture of the places we lived and I have instilled that in my girls as well. I don’t know how someone can live in a place and not experience the downtown life or take in the local festivals, parades, or events that take place in that town/city. And money is no excuse because taking your kids to the local park for a picnic is free–minus the food you have in your house ;) and the first place I always took my girls was to the public library of our new home! But you get my point. Didn’t mean to take over your story. Great job standing up for YOUR home, Jeremy!!

  18. I hesitate to chime in here, but as someone who spent most of the last 20 years living in the Bay Area, and now the last 2 years living in Houston, I have some perspective on the issue. Everyone needs to just relax. First off, are people rude for insulting Houston, whether in SF or elsewhere? Yes. But this happens pretty much everywhere. I grew up in Winnipeg, in Canada, which is a city most Canadians love to make fun of. Big deal. People from Florence make fun of people from Sienna, and vice versa. Last time I checked, they were both chock full of tourists, so they must both be considered pretty nice places. As far as being rude goes, look how many of the commenters here felt the need to express how horrible San Francisco is. Politicians down here make a living off of insulting “San Francisco values”. It’s hard not to see this as ignorance and thinly-veiled envy in some cases. In the 2 years I have been living here, I have encountered at least 20 people letting me know how happy I must be to be out of horrible California, and how much better my life is here in Texas. People everywhere have a habit of being pretty self-satisfied and proud of where they live. Texas and the south in general are full of magazines and essayists writing article after article bleating on about how wonderful southern or Texas culture/food/wine is and the rest of the country just doesn’t compare. Well, for the record, I loved living in the Bay Area. I kept my house there (in Berkeley), and plan to return to live there in a few years when I retire. The weather, the beauty of the landscape, and the opportunities for outdoor activities are unparalleled for what I want in my lifestyle. Are there problems? Sure. The cost of living is making things very difficult for most people. But this is the same for every “world” city (NY, London, Sydney, Tokyo, Paris, Rome, etc.) All of the cities in the world that are considered desirable by the educated, creative class, are very expensive places to live. Their local economies become detached from the economies of the rest of the country, and they become global destination cities. As for people being “unfriendly” in California, I basically find this argument to be specious. If you find the people in CA to be unfriendly, have you ever considered that they may be responding to what they perceive to be rude behavior on your part? I find the people in both Texas and California to be a range of friendly, unfriendly, and indifferent, depending on the person and situation. Now all of that being said, my wife and I are enjoying our time living in Houston. We are trying to make the best of what Houston has to offer. It does not offer the beauty and outdoor activities we had access to in California, and the weather is truly unpleasant for 4 months of the year. But it does offer some great food and cultural activities in the city center, and it is clearly a vibrant, diverse, prosperous city that is a more affordable place for most people to live, work, and raise a family than San Francisco. They’ve managed to build the 4th largest city in the country here in what is essentially a hot, humid, swamp, so they must be doing something right. Houston is a fine place to live. Do your best to enjoy it if this is where you hang your hat. I will return to California in a few years because the geography and climate fit my lifestyle better, but for now, Houston is home.

  19. It mayt be rude to dis someone’s home city, but it’s certainly not “racist.” Your point would be true if there was some structural reason Houston “can’t have nice things” but the fact is that Houston has certainly had the capacity to build a beautiful city and great cultural institutions, but it has chosen to devote all of its resources into suburban living arrangements and tastes.

    Despite massive influxes of wealth in the 60s, 80s, and recently during the fracking boom, the city has only marginally improved its culture, urbanization, and amenities.There seems to be a deep-seated mistrust, if not outright hostility to foreign ideas that make other cities great. Take for instance the intense opposition to any sort of mass transit, pedestrian, or biking infrastructure.

    Instead of pioneering local and sustainable agricultural system that feeds into local groceries and restaurants, Houston is mostly introduced to the concepts by copycat businesses interested only in selling to trends rather than starting them.

    I can’t say much for the music/arts scene, but my impression is that Houston is only a stop along the way rather than a source like Austin or New York.

    There are a couple of nice parks like Hermann but Houston lacks a real neighborhood park system that adequately serves the whole city. If you’re lucky to live near a mega-park that a philanthropist has chosen to condescend upon, great! Or, if you live in a gated subdivision with a private park, great! Otherwise, good luck walking with your kid a few blocks to a park on any given afternoon.

    Despite the “urban mixed use” development going on in the city, it hasn’t happened in any cohesive fashion, so you are left with islands of half-hearted urbanity that don’t provide the same sort of urban explorability, or “charm” that other cities provide.

    Texas/Houston’s education system is also a joke. It’s astonishing hearing from parents how backwards the discipline systems and curricula are in the public schools. Houston’s only “innovative” solution here has been to privatize the schools and shift the responsibility onto wealthy charter school donors with questionable results.

    The recent boom in the fancy restaurant/wine bar scene has been mostly driven in a select part of the city by transplants from the coasts. As the cheap finance for fracking dries up, it’ll be interesting to see if all of this lasts. I say this as a transplant myself who has been here 4 years and came from the rust belt and DC.

    Yes, it sucks to have to live in a second-rate city (for its size), but one has to face the fact that Houston is Houston because of the will (or lack thereof) of its citizens and it’s completely fair to compare the city against its peers. It’s a starting point for recognizing how to change for the better.

  20. Articles like this seem too defensive and unrealistic because Houston has become too much of a cultural heavyweight. I’m from Houston and I’m all to familiar with empathy from strangers when they learn where I’m from. But that just doesn’t happen anymore…I live in Austin now and all reactions are positive.

    So I think this article is a tired argument that isn’t even relevant anymore. Let’s all enjoy Houston’s awesomeness before the oil price completely bottoms out!

  21. Wait a minute. How is saying “I’m so sorry” intrinsically racist? Could it be that they, like anyone else outside of Houston, perceive it as being simply a shit-hole? I’ve lived in H-Town since ’95 and am a native Texan and I have to say that I agree with their perception. I’m sorry I live in Houston too. The weather is AWFUL, traffic sucks, anything outside of 610 sucks and the city is just plain ugly. So could it be that these acquaintances are simply feeling sorry for you living there and it not be racist? I think so.

  22. I’m curious why you didn’t ask your fellow revelers why they felt so sorry for you? This is my usual tact, rather than take offense I try to get them to elaborate on their reasons for feeling so sorry for me. Usually get an answer which reveals the comment is backed up by complete ignorance.

  23. I’m from Houston, I was born and raised here, and went to school on the East Coast. I love Houston, and I love a number of other great cities as well. Unfortunately, Houston is often lumped in with the more insane loud voices that seem to do so well in our state’s politics (Houston politics is a very different scene, but you can’t expect anyone to know localized things like that).

    That being said: It’s a joke. Get over it! I’ve made the same joke plenty of times about New Jersey, the suburbs, and Dallas. No, no one really feels empathy when they say it, yes, they are aware that they’re making fun of the place, but it’s a joke. If it really offends you, then it’s an opportunity to say “actually, Houston is pretty great, and here’s why” instead of writing a defensive article about why your city should never be the butt of a joke.

    I’m way more offended by the “cool” response the author seemed to be ok with. In that scenario, someone asks where you’re from, you say “Houston”, and by abruptly shutting down the conversation, they’re telling you “your city isn’t even worth having an opinion on”.

  24. Thanks for all the comments and thoughts here (even the negative ones). I really intended this post to about microaggressions and rudeness. It was never intended to be a “Houston vs. the world” piece.

    And for those who say, “just get over it!”, I say: it’s time we all start treating each other with a little more respect, regardless of where you’re from or what you look like.

    Thanks for all the comments and taking time to read the post.

  25. Houston does suck & 3/4 people that live in Texas agree. The other 1/4 live in Houston, Beaumont & East Texas. Half of Houstonians are from other parts of the country & have come there not because it’s nice but for work and almost all of them would leave in a drop of a hat if work was available elsewhere. Luckily for Houston is the invention of air conditioning, not oil, otherwise no one would want to live here. Even the found fathers of Texas realized Houston sucked & moved the capital to Austin within a few short years of Texas existence. Yeah Houston has it all Smog & humidity with the worst summers in the country. 9 months of summer that is. Be prepared for 90 degree 80% humidity= 100 feel like days by the end of March! Flat terrain, 30 story office buildings in the backyards of some of the more expensive homes in the city. Yes how could anyone willing “admit” there from Houston? It sucks with a capital S.

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