My Long-distance Love for Ohio

The word Ohio is one that elicits conflicting emotions and thoughts in me. The state is my home but also a place I’ve sought to leave. It’s a source of both pride and frustration. Leaving for college and then returning on a quasi-temporary basis has helped define the nature of my relationship with Ohio—one that’s been aided by distance. José Pablo Fernández García is a sophomore at Princeton University, currently residing in his hometown outside of Cincinnati during the pandemic. The opinions expressed in this essay do not necessarily reflect any organizational stance.

Image by José Pablo Fernández García for Midstory.

A hand-painted tile of a bull from a Madrid street vendor, a hand-printed set of postcards from the Bauhaus museum’s gift shop in Berlin and a handful of giraffe figurines acquired in shops from Mexico City to Disney World to Toledo, Spain all decorate the walls and shelves of my bedroom. The pins I’ve collected, however, are what most encompass my life. I started collecting pins when I was only eight years old, and they’ve been my go-to item for mementos ever since. I’ve picked up pins from Dallas to Paris, from New York to Rome, and yet only a couple pins out of dozens represent my home: Ohio.

While I wasn’t born in Ohio, I grew up here. I arrived when I was only four years old thanks to my mom’s job with Procter & Gamble. I’m anchored to the state because it’s where I became “me.” But as much as my life has been defined by the state, it has just as much been defined by a desire to be not in Ohio—as in, anywhere but here.

Ironically, when I first left home and drove over 500 miles to college, I brought with me so many symbols of Ohio. A pillow with the state on one side and a button stitched right where Cincinnati sprawls through the state’s southwestern corner. A sweater and T-shirts from my high school. A picture frame holding poetry written by a younger friend.

I was finally in “not Ohio”—a place I’d envied for a long time—yet I’d filled my new dorm room with Ohio, a fashion quite contrary to that of my childhood bedroom.

The time I’ve spent in “not Ohio” has shown me the extent to which the state forms part of me. In fact, it’s when I’m hundreds of miles away that I like Ohio most, for as soon as I return, I immediately long for “not Ohio” once again. Still, it’s unsettling how much pride I hold in being an Ohioan when not in the state. It’s unsettling when so many of my life plans—college being the most immediate—have been critically shaped by a desire to build a life in “not Ohio.”

Downtown Cincinnati from Mt. Adams. Image courtesy of José Pablo Fernández García.

As much as I’ve worked to move outside of my home state, my efforts haven’t been that successful. Barely a month after beginning my college career, I drove the 500-plus miles back to Cincinnati with a lump in my throat, constricted breathing and a need for surgery to remove my lousy tonsils. About eighteen months later, during my second go at college, I was sent home for the pandemic, turning twenty years old while in a plane seat from Newark to Covington. And at this rate, it looks like I won’t be trading my childhood bedroom for a dorm room for a while.

It’s been this extra, unplanned time back in Ohio that’s allowed me—for the first time—to properly evaluate why I’ve wanted to leave Ohio with so much determination. Every time I revealed my home state to a new college acquaintance who’s only ever flown over Ohio, I said it with the warmth one only has for a home one actually likes—perhaps even loves. This made me question how much I actually wanted to leave. 

In this time, I’ve realized I don’t actually dislike Cincinnati or Ohio. But with all the angst of anyone who’s grown up in suburbia, it’s home to countless things that induce an intense frustration in me. I may fiercely promote the Buckeye State to anyone who’s from elsewhere, but to my family, my thoughts on the state are comprised of a series of gripes ranging from the mundane to deep-seated differences in values.

Perhaps it’s petty, but one long-standing complaint I have is the excessively low temperature inside grocery stores during the summer. This isn’t exclusive to this state, to be fair, but it’s also not a universal thing. It is, however, in Ohio where I first encountered this phenomenon and where I spent many years carrying a sweater in ninety-degree heat just so I could keep from shivering in the produce aisle while accompanying my mom on weekend Kroger trips. This isn’t my most pressing frustration with Ohio, but I would appreciate it if the grocers here didn’t keep their customers just as cold—if not colder—than the dairy.

With this out of the way, there are two things that truly frustrate me to no end and which will require more substantial effort than simply adjusting a thermostat: the dominant suburban existence and a nostalgia-fueled reluctance to turn the page and open up to new ideas—especially those from elsewhere.

Sunset over a suburban Kroger parking lot. Image courtesy of José Pablo Fernández García.

If I were to distill the source of my disdain for the dominance of suburbia into one statement, it would be as follows: The closest thing I can walk to from my front door (that isn’t a neighboring house) is a big box store 16 minutes away, and the next closest thing after that is a chain fast-food restaurant—an additional two minutes of walking along a 45-mile-per-hour road. Meanwhile, an 18-minute walk from my most recent college dorm through town would easily take me past a diverse array of dozens of shops, restaurants, small businesses, cafes and homes full of life—not just the sounds and smells of speeding cars.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Midwestern suburbia to an East Coast college town—so many other factors like history, geography, demographics and more have made both what they are. Perhaps it’s also a matter of personal preference, but it is very difficult to ignore the differences after living in both places for some time. It’s hard to ignore the disparity when so many other Ohioans I’ve met at my university share in my desire to leave the Midwest, that the few who do want to return to Ohio are practically the exception.

My frustration with suburbia lies in the great physical separation it dictates. A little extra space isn’t bad, but my suburban upbringing has been characterized by a physical polarization that necessitates driving everywhere, encourages mega-stores with ever-bigger parking lots, and inhibits almost any and all sense of a local, shared community that a bustling and vibrant main street usually provides.

Previously, when reflecting on this frustration, I wondered why my parents couldn’t have chosen a more downtown home to raise my brother and me. But it doesn’t take much effort to remember that these more urban areas were presented to us—new American immigrants—as undesirable, unsafe, poor, lesser. And it’s not too difficult to see the stubborn persistence of these perceptions when every year has brought new developments of supersized, monochromatic neighborhoods increasingly farther into the countryside and increasingly isolated from any potentially vibrant city center.

Of course, there are logistical, economic and equality concerns regarding the current, dominant suburban existence. But from a more social perspective, what troubles me the most is the social separation it creates—its proclivity to divide us and to disconnect us from our fellow citizens through carefully-placed fences and the ability to exist almost entirely independently. Throughout my childhood, I would easily spend weeks or months at a time without talking to or even seeing some of my neighbors if we didn’t share schools, churches or workplaces simply because the surrounding community didn’t require us to interact. In fact, as I grew, I gained the impression that these suburbs promoted an increasingly debilitating isolation that limits a richer sense of community. And it made me question how much people actually need to care for each other beyond friendly waves from our distant driveways and passing cars—a mutual agreement to niceties without any further engagement.

Downtown Cincinnati looking east down E 6th street. Image courtesy of José Pablo Fernández García.

The prevailing narrative I’ve been told throughout my upbringing about the Midwest by politicians, media personalities and the like has been one of decay—of industry vanished, of livelihoods lost, of populations shrinking. The story I’ve been told of my home is a story so enchanted with the past that it cannot possibly account for other stories of the Midwest’s present or its uncertain future.

It is this nostalgic reluctance to tell a future-facing Midwestern story—one inclusive of differing ideas—that fuels my second deeply-held frustration with the place I’ve called home for so many years.

This frustration is also one that’s incredibly difficult to challenge since it’s of a rather intangible nature; it’s not that easy to capture an entire region’s psyche. If anything, that is the elusive thing novelists have long sought to portray, sociologists to analyze and politicians to exploit. As difficult as this psyche may be to define, it is, however, something one can feel within and around one’s self after years of growing in one place.

Years of so consistently hearing about bygone industries (and, depending on who you talk to, ones that should be brought back at any cost) leaves a sense of there being no alternate future available. Years of the national narrative so often reducing the Midwesterner to a near-mythical, disgruntled older white man in a diner leaves a sense of there being no place here for a young, brown-skinned immigrant like me. Years of seeing empty storefronts and empty sidewalks and empty lots in once-thriving cities leaves a sense of there being no life—even at times no soul—left in the place.

The unifying quality of these experiences is their focus on the past, which is understandable; it is natural and fully human since loss is so difficult—whether it be the loss of a loved one or of a life once lived or of a way of life once experienced. But letting past losses—and the loss of the past—define one’s self or an entire region is suffocating. It stunts any further growth. It has personally weighed down on me. 

In place of all these years of looking to the past and to the lost, we could have had years of looking ahead. Years of investing in new industries—and the training and education needed to engage in them—could leave Midwesterners with a sense of future opportunity in abundance. Years of trusting the younger generations—with all their differences and new ideas—as the new stewards of this region, built on the hard work and sacrifice of the older generations, could leave a sense of connection, of potential growth, and of belonging. Years of encouraging local investment and community engagement could revive a sense of once-again thriving and growing cities.

It’s not that these things haven’t been going on in small pockets of the Midwest during my years living here. Rather, it’s that too often they are overwhelmed by a long-standing narrative of decay so forceful and widespread, rust becomes the region’s name and symbol. It’s that too often I run into people who are interested only in looking back, imagining a future that looks more like the past than an improved version of the present. 

At surface level this may seem like little more than a desire to rebrand the Midwest or Ohio. In reality—in action—it is so much more than that, so much deeper than regional marketing. It is a hope for a shift in the prevailing attitudes, prevailing values and prevailing desires of a place home to millions.


My frustrations with this place I’ve called home for so long have rendered my love for it recognizable only when a long distance away from it. They have driven a wedge between me and all the positives of this place. They have pushed me to build a life in not-this-place. They have even fooled me into believing I strongly dislike this place.

But the truth is I love Ohio—maybe in a “you can’t choose your family” or “nice to visit home for the holidays” kind of way—but love nonetheless. I hope one day it’s not only a long-distance love, but a local affair.

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