31 December 2009

Train Transit in Texas?

Who says you need a car to get around Dallas. This truck-driving, SUV-obsessed metroplex has finally gone metropolitan. From Plano to Pearl Street and Fort Worth to Victory Park, DFW residents can now commute cross-town by train.

In 2002, the beginnings of the DART Rail System made their debut traversing from northeast Dallas to downtown. And with the new TRE line (opened last year) and the forthcoming Green Line from Carrollton, you can get anywhere from downtown to the airports to Cowboys games, all for less than $4 a ride.

Taking the plunge myself, I opted for TRE transit on a recent jaunt to visit my sister in Fort Worth. Now I don't claim to be a public transit expert by any means but I am fit to compare, having lived in and visited countless cities all with very different interpretations of what constitutes "public transit."

Logistically, DFW's train system can be a bit confusing, especially for a city not honed in the art of train travel. There are different fares for local and regional travel, and travel direction is not clearly marked. Luckily (in true Texas style) there are plenty of locals and seasoned train travelers who are more than happy to help you along. From buying tickets, to reading maps, to just passing time on the train, DFW commuters are the friendliest and chattiest I've met. The personal touch doesn't stop with the riders either. Train attendants announce each stop, remind you to collect your belongings, and periodically patrol the cars to answer questions and monitor clientele.

Scheduling can be a bit of a setback for the late-comer; at times the next train won't arrive for another 1.5 hours! But for those proficient in punctuality, travel time is fast...so fast that
“it’s not even enough time to get into a good conversation on the phone” according to one rider. And the plush seats and free wi-fi make it all the more convenient and comfortable.

Despite some minor drawbacks, this first-time rider gives props to DFW for tackling public transit. While Dallas' larger-city counterparts notorious for sardine-like population densities
(like D.C. and Chicago) have maintained fairly successful public transit programs, Dallas has gone above and beyond offering similar transit in a low-density metroplex whose borders span 9,286 square miles. And more so, it's done this in a town whose citizens truly take pride in their ride.

29 December 2009

D-town Dustings

For the first time since before I can remember, Dallas has celebrated the holiday season in true fashion...with a glistening, gleaming White Christmas. Yep, you heard it folks...3-plus non-consecutive days of snow, including a rare Christmas Day appearance. And after 14 months of perpetual summer in Nigeria and Singapore, the white-dusted December was a real treat.

Snow in Dallas is not a novelty by any means, but it is a rarity. Several years may pass without the precipitous winter wonder making an appearance. As such, it's never expected but overwhelmingly appreciated. Children will yell out in class when snow starts to fall; co-workers will stop work, debating the likelihood of accumulation; and people actually pause to glimpse the wet flakes before they kiss the warm Texas ground.

Dallasites know to watch keenly for its silent procession. It marches softly in, the rain stepping softer on your roof. It approaches with the silent sloth of a bell-less steer and the rain-turned-snow falls long and slow like the twang of a Texas drawl. It retreats just as clandestinely, turning back to rain, and washes away the powdery evidence that it had once touched surface.

Though not a necessity for the holiday season, Christmas snow in Dallas is always welcomed, genuinely appreciated, and never taken for granted.

23 December 2009

Dressing for Dallas

Have you ever noticed how pretty people in Dallas look? Like the city in which they reside, Dallasites portray an air of groomed casualness that is all there own. It's not fancy, but manicured. It's not formal, but deliberate casual. You see, Dallas attire (and attitude for that matter) makes casual look formal and formal look casual. And the Christmas season makes this all too apparent.

Everyone who's anyone in Dallas has professional pictures taken for events and milestones: engagements, first babies, and yes, Christmas cards. But a Walmart sitdown session for 12.99 just will not do. No, no. Blurred backgrounds, creative clothing color combos, and looks of candid blissful perfection are musts. It's the glamor shot look without the off the shoulder dresses, caked on make up, and, well....glamor.

Perhaps the Reata (a true Texas restaurant inspired by southern flavors) epitomizes this unique DFW style to a tee. My sister calls it "cowboy fancy." While atmosphere and cuisine indicate upscale dining, there is still room for the casual cowboy. Calf fries (a Texas delicacy made from the more sensitive calf parts) are deep fried chicken style. Gourmet elk sausage sits atop a down home favorite - cheese grits. And those are just the appetizers.

Dining attire also reflects the duality of farm yard formal that epitomizes Dallas. Waiters don Wranglers and formal black Western-wear shirts bedecked with silver accents. The clientele show up in anything from suits to boots (or both). Jean, t-shirts, blazers, ropers, and Stetsons...all wear is welcome.

So when dressing in Dallas, just remember: it's one of the few places you can wear jeans to a wedding (but you better have some boots to scoot).

18 December 2009

Dallas Driving

After 14 months of commuting by foot, train, or taxi, I finally returned to the wonderful and reckless world of Dallas driving. Yep, you heard me right…100% non-defensive death-wish driving. And the reality of the hopeless and hapless situation hit me full force last night.

My roommate from college lives close to the Dallas’ trendy Greenville Ave. Convenient to many a Dallasite, but not so much from where I grew up in Carrollton. When I asked my father how to get there, this was what he said: “take the George Bush Tollway to the Dallas North Tollway then 635 to 75 south.” Four highways? You gotta be kidding me!

But here’s the kicker…he said I might consider going straight to 635: “those tollway drivers go way too fast.” Now dads never stop being dads; but, come on. I grew up flying down 35 and zipping along 121 and 635. I knew Dallas highways and knew how to drive on them. But seeing as I am a pre-George Bush Tollway transplant out-of-state, I took my dad’s advice and went the sure way to avoid getting lost. And boy was I glad I did.

I was barely on the entrance ramp to 635 when a driver almost hit me from behind. Quickly getting away from the entrance and exit points to avoid a similar (and perhaps less lucky) situation, I clicked my signal and headed left. Not two minutes later I was slamming on my breaks (and my horn) for another driver who obviously didn’t check his blind spot. By this time, I had to make my grand exit-ramp entrance onto Central Expressway. Two cars in front of me, I see a car shoot across the solid white line right in front of the ramp divider, barely missing the safety barrels and causing everyone in front of me to stop short. If 635 is considered “safer,” I can’t imagine the tollway tribulations!

This morning, my prejudice against Dallas driving was reinforced. Shutting down the entrance from 635 to the tollway was a tanker that shook buildings as it collided, exploded, and not doubt killed its driver. And this isn’t the first time a wreck so dramatic has topped the news. On my last visit to the D-town a semi fell from an upper ramp to a lower ramp, crushing cars and stopping traffic for hours.

Now you may say this sort of stuff happens everywhere, and it does. But I’ve driven in lots of cities with lots of traffic (Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco); and nowhere else have I found a consistent disregard for and a general collusion against anything and everything that travels over 55 miles per hour. Maybe we should all take dad’s advice and go the sure way.

17 December 2009

You Can Take the Girl BACK to Texas...

So I've officially landed in the Lone Star State (and Brian is soon to follow). Though I haven't lived here since college, I've been a regular visitor for over 8 years coming home for the holidays and to visit family and friends. So imagine my surprise when, upon returning home, familiar morphed to foreign.

Houston is the first place we landed. Flying into Intercontinental on the north side of town required us to do two things: rent a car and drive clear across the city to our finally destination in Nassau Bay. Though not a ground breaking observation to say the least, I had never considered just how difficult it would be for someone (say from China where the general public has been driving for only 8 years) to visit Houston. Few public transit options, the city has to be 4-times the size of Singapore or more, and the size of the highways are a bit intimidating even for a native like me! Let's just say I have a new respect and appreciation for any foreign resident who travels here for business or pleasure.

Though the highways are mammoth to say the least, the "everything is bigger in Texas" mantra stops there. Upon entering the city, there was a complete absence of big-city shock value (despite Houston's standing as America's 4th largest city). No doubt a result of Houston's expanse, everything seemed too short for a city so populated. For someone just returning from the concrete jungle where everyone lived and worked in 30+ story buildings, I found myself wondered where all the people went. Even Lagos' downtown seemed a bit more "city-esque" than this southern Texas oil town.

Along with the big, small things that I hadn't noticed before jumped out...like how much I missed hearing tejano and country music on the radio (There's some sort of familiarity that comes with flipping through stations and getting "whiffs" of Spanish and twang). Or restaurants with names like "House of Pies" or "Sushi King" (Do you really want to eat sushi from a place that sounds like a burger joint?). Or how about a Bud Light truck being pulled over by a cop in a pick up (Sounds like inspiration for a county song).

But one thing that was and still is familiar is Houston's southern charm. Though not as pronounced as the sugar-coating in say Savannah or other self-proclaimed "true" southern towns, people and politeness go hand-in-hand here. A former roommate (and fellow Texan) noted upon her inaugural move from Texas to Chicago that men don't offer seats to the ladies on the "L." I guess politeness is bit like tejano music...you don't miss it 'til it's gone.

12 December 2009

Home Sweet Home

Just because I'm back in the U.S. (yes, you heard me right; we have officially moved back) does not mean America the Beautiful is off the hook. For the past year, I've been writing about my impressions of other countries, other people, and other cultures. I've been genuinely interested, often curious, and at times critical of what I've seen, heard, experienced, and felt. But it would seem a bit unfair for me to write about (and judge to some extent) the going-ons of other cultures and not scrutinize my home culture with the same degree of interest, curiosity, and criticism.

So please continue to read...for as curious as you may have found Nigeria and Singapore, I can almost guarantee the U.S. provides just as much entertainment (and maybe more so). For the month of December, I'm hanging at home in the Lone Star State; then it's back to organic eating and the Wine Country of San Francisco's Bay Area. So stay tuned....

06 December 2009

Ignoring Culture

It's easy when living abroad to focus on differences. I myself am no exception as you've probably read in many of my blogs. Differences are interesting. Differences make for good conversation. Differences are acceptable explanations for things that may go wrong. But what I've come to realize is that our friendships and courtships do not depend on accepting differences, ignoring differences, discerning differences, or being "culturally sensitive." They depend on embracing similarities.

It is not necessarily similar upbringings, but it can be. It is not necessarily similar religious or ethical beliefs, but it can be. It is not necessarily similar cultural backgrounds, but it can be. My point is that often "culture" gets in the way of knowing the person as they are away from the cultural backdrop that might or might not influence their lives.

I think of my friend Esther as I write this. Chinese-born but living and studying in Singapore while I was there, she quickly became a very good friend. Sure, there were times when I did something that I knew was culturally awkward in her eyes. But she knew my character and I knew hers. We both valued education, were hard workers, valued friendship and loyalty, respected family responsibilities, and depended on each other more than I think either of us knew. You see it wasn't despite our cultures that we became friends; culture never was a factor to begin with.

I realize that it's trendy to be culturally sensitive, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. But at some point we should tread softly on the fine line between "culturally sensitive" and "culturally obsessive." When we meet someone of the same culture, we
automatically assume a certain status quo. If someone is late, rude, or cheap, it's just who they are. But what if they're Latino, American, or Jewish? Well then, it must be "cultural." You see, culture is all well and good until you start focusing on it, assuming the presence of it, and choosing relationships based on assumptions that go with it.

When culture is the same, status quo is very often ignored. So maybe that's how we should approach all our relationships...even the intercultural ones.

02 December 2009

Einsteinian Esperanto

In light of some of the recent comments regarding Esperanto, I feel I should digress a bit and address the issue. While comments have been made regarding Esperanto as the future for a worldwide lingua franca, I for one submit to a more Einsteinian approach to language use and evolution: language cannot be created but can be destroyed, and certainly can change to other forms.

Esperanto is a feat in its own right. With vision for a language which could "foster harmony between people from different countries," L.L. Zamenhof completed Esperanto in the 1880s. Since then it has acquired between 100,000 and 2 million speakers, has seen the publication and translation of literary works, and has a passionate following that remains strong today. (Thank you, wikipedia.=)

That being said, many of my blog readers have hit some very important points. As a student of culture, I have been consistently taught that language and culture are inextricably linked. While Esperanto presents a good option for communicating in the multinationally influenced world we now live in, it lacks the naturally evolving culture that goes alongside. From this perspective, language nor culture can be created.

Also, with Esperanto's use of a modified Latin alphabet and the associated phonetic counterparts, there seems a large portion of the world left out of the mix...namely those using various Asian spoken and written forms. One may say that an alphabet of some form had to be chosen; but why the Latin alphabet and the primarily Western-based grammar? After all, by wikipedia's average estimation, almost twice as many people worldwide speak Chinese than English (the most common Latin alphabet language) followed by Hindu/Urdu (whose alphabet is based on Sanskrit). Esperanto clearly has certain socio-political influences, which could not only favor certain languages and cultures over others, but potentially hinder or destroy those from non-Western nations and cultures.

Finally language is not something you can force upon someone. Even during colonization, when English or French or Spanish was brought to other areas of the world, the lingua franca did not evolve in its original form. Pidgins, creoles, and full-fledged new languages were born and evolved into their present-day counterparts. And this didn't happen just in one place, it happened almost everywhere, in places separated by oceans and terrain. As a property of language itself, language (and culture) cannot be created...it can only evolve to different forms.

As an aside, I welcome any and all comments to my blog. But please, if you have political affiliations related to particular topics, I do ask you identify yourself properly. As much for the informational purposes of my readers as for the integrity of the blog I write.