Growing up, I can honestly say that I never gave a second thought about my home state of New Jersey. Most of my friends and I appreciated it for what it was: a place to call home. Late night visits to a local diner, going down the shore for a weekend and never having to pump my own gas was just a way of life.
It was only until I arrived at Bowdoin that I really began to experience what—along with baseball and apple pie—seems to be a national past time. Of course, I am referring to Jersey jokes. I can't count the number of times that I've been asked, "What exit do you live off?" (which I still don't get), why people say Joisey (people do, and they're from New York), or if I've ever met Snooki (she, like most of the people on Jersey Shore, is from New York).
Now, no one is claiming that Jersey doesn't have its fair share of problems. Yes, it has some pretty rough cities like Newark and Camden. Yes, there are more oil refineries in Jersey than anywhere else in the United States. And sure, it does smell a little bit on stretches of the Jersey turnpike. But so what? Every state has its own set of issues, and crime and pollution are pretty typical ones for states as populous as New Jersey.
I could go on and on explaining how the criticisms and jokes are unfair. Newark is undergoing a slow and steady revival after years of decay. The oil refineries may be an eye sore, but they also keep gas prices lower than almost anywhere else in the country. And for the record, there is no "Jersey" smell throughout the state; it's not one large Superfund site.
For most Jerseyans, however, the put downs don't mean much. Residents understand that the jokes are inaccurate, relying on a tired, false image of the state. To be sure, it's rough around the edges and heavily ingratiated with working class values—somewhat like Brooklyn before hipsters decided it was cool to live there. But that's part of Jersey's charm: These values keep the state and its people grounded, despite being the second-most affluent state in the country.
New Jersey also has one of the best public education systems in the country. Jersey students have top test scores and graduation rates, and they don't need to flock to private schools to receive a good education. The easy access to major financial and cultural resources without the typical drawbacks of urban living creates a unique opportunity for residents.
However, while New Jersey might be exceptional and have its own unique strengths, it's not a state that prides itself on an image of exclusivity or elitism, unlike many other states along the East Coast. It doesn't claim to be the supreme authority on class and etiquette like the south, or the embodiment of old-fashioned values such as the Midwest. New Jersey doesn't consider itself trendy, offbeat, carefree or whatever else the West Coast loves about itself. In short, it's not a state that thinks it's better than anyone or believes it has a way of life that everyone else should emulate.
It's thus ironic that the state that does the least to impose itself on others has become the biggest target for shame and ridicule. Yet in a strange way this dynamic instills a sense of pride among residents of New Jersey. You could chalk it up to the pride that comes along with a bunker mentality, but it's precisely because Jersey gets so much criticism—especially from those who know the state least—that residents are so loyal to it.
Having to stick up for the place you call home time and again to friends and strangers imbues you with character. It's a character that comes only from the clarity of your convictions: Your belief that Jersey represents a place in this country where disagreements can become colorful and confrontation isn't necessarily a bad thing.
New Jersey isn't the place where Tea Party supporters come from or hipsters live. It's not where politicians, out to change the world on the taxpayers dime, run things. It's not a place where Bible thumping or radical activism from either the right or the left is received very well. New Jersey is a place where you work for yourself and your family, and you respect your neighbors. Am I tossing out hyperbole? Only slightly. Am I saying such attributes aren't found elsewhere? Not at all.
What I am saying is that despite New Jersey's status as a national joke, the state nevertheless offers qualities that residents are and should be proud of. These qualities can be attributed both to the constant barrage of criticism and the experience Jerseyans—from both north and south—have lived. Jerseyans know it's an exceptional state that doesn't impose itself on others, all while quietly offering tremendous diversity, natural resources and an exceptional standard of living.
The people who drive through the state on the Parkway and complain about the smell may not appreciate that reality, but Jerseyans certainly do.
I guess it's a Jersey thing.