Friday, August 1, 2008

A Quintessential New Jerseyan and American

I have been living in New Jersey longer than I had in Taiwan where I spent my first 24 and formative years of my life. While Taiwan will always have a special place in my heart and memory, I can’t say I don’t have some feeling of belongings about New Jersey where we work and raised our kids. Chinese have had a custom to ask people about their ancestral hometown 祖籍when first met. For one, it helps to identify connections and social networks quickly in a vast country if you happen to come from the same hometown. In U.S. on the other hand, as a young nation of immigrants and being more mobile, it seems much less often to hear conversations about people’s hometown.

New Jersey is one of the oldest (one of the original 13 founding states), smallest (less than 70 miles by 150 miles, ranked 47th), but most densely populated states (ranked 1st). With its diversity and long history, it seems difficult to stereotype New Jersey and its people although there have been a few jokes about it. One came to mind is a political satire when the former New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman was appointed the Administer of EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) by President George W. Bush in 2001. That gives you some idea of the negative environmental image of New Jersey.

Much of the peculiarity of New Jersey and its people may be attributed to its proximity at north to New York City cross the Hudson River. It has been serving, among other things, as a daily and seasonal refuge and retreat to the bustling and fast paced large city life. Yet at the same time, especially in the western, central and southern part of the state, it is rich in farms, natural reserves, scattered factories and office parks. The net result is like the crests and troughs of waves; New Jersey is the state of troughs.

New Jersey has had its share of famous citizens such as great inventor Thomas Edison, ingenious physicist Albert Einstein, celebrated poet Alan Ginsberg, and the only non-consecutive termed President Grover Cleveland. However if you ask me who is the most representative New Jerseyan, I would pick Bruce Springsteen, a 58 years old legendary Pop singer and song writer.

Bruce Springsteen was born and grew up in Freehold Borough, a historical town that is 7 miles south of where we live and due west of it, one of the largest land battles – Battle of Monmouth - took place 230 years ago during the American Revolution. With an incredible 40 years career and huge fans behind him, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down a bit. Only last Sunday, CBS 60 Minutes aired an updated story of Bruce Springsteen in which several highlights of his life were shared including his response to the “anti-war” labeling of his latest album Magic and why he considers “Silence is Unpatriotic”.

Bruce Springsteen’s music defined blue-collar rock or Heartland rock. Raised in a struggling hard-working family of loving parents with expectations, growing up not doing that well in schools with experience of 60s' racial unrest, he searched his own identities and communicated it through his music. His 1975 claim to fame and forever popular song Born to Run captures youngsters’ desire of breaking out, grasping in the stifling air that we all lived through sometimes in our life. His Oscar winning song Street of Philadelphia in the wonderful 1994 film Philadelphia was very much a part of battles against discrimination of AIDS patients. Bruce Springsteen continues to write and sing about protest. He wrote in one of his latest songs Last to Die “…Who'll be the last to die for a mistake, The last to die for a mistake. Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break. Who'll be the last to die…”, echoing then-young Vietnam veteran John Kerry's testimony about the Vietnam War at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971 (which might have cost him his 2004 presidential election 33 years later, but without regret). “How Do You Ask a Man to be the Last Man to Die for a Mistake?"

What sets Bruce Spingsteen apart from most other rock stars though is his strong and deep bond with his root that he had never parted far or long. His final leg of the year long Magic Tour started last Sunday night from the Giant Stadium in Meadowland, New Jersey. Over 55,000 fans showed up in all ages, among them, professionals, blue collar and working class folks. Welcome home (again), Boss! Here is his 2007 live performance at the Rockefeller Plaza Center of his 1985 song My Hometown with the E-street Band - his perennial New Jersey musician friends of decades including his wife. Enjoy it and talk to you soon!

My Hometown

I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
I'd sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town
He'd tousle my hair and say son take a good look around this is your hometown
This is your hometown
This is your hometown
This is your hometown

In '65 tension was running high at my high school
There was a lot of fights between the black and white
There was nothing you could do
Two cars at a light on a Saturday night in the back seat there was a gun
Words were passed in a shotgun blast
Troubled times had come to my hometown
My hometown
My hometown
My hometown

Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more
They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back to your
Your hometown
Your hometown
Your hometown

Last night me and Kate we laid in bed
talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
I'm thirty-five we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good look around, this is your hometown

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