12 Things You Have to Explain to People Who Aren't From Houston

Houston: It's not what you think it is.
Houston: It's not what you think it is.
Photo by Alex

All cities are saddled with misconceptions fostered by ignorance and popular culture, but we wonder if any city is more misunderstood than Houston. Even with all the positive publicity we've gotten over the last few years, it seems like dispelling myths about our city is an uphill battle that even a fierce publicity campaign cannot completely overcome. It would be one thing if we were reduced to a simple stereotype like New Jersey or Los Angeles, but Houston isn't so much pigeonholed as it is ignored.

Explaining what we are like to those who don't live here and, worse yet, people who have never been to Houston, is mostly about telling them why they are wrong and watching them stare back at you with skepticism.

So, we put together a list of some things you might want to know about our city and its people for the next (or first) time you decide to visit.

12. No, I don't have an accent. Yes, I was born here.

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It often feels like the first bit of learning we have to impart on anyone who doesn't know us is that we are not the Rich Texan character from The Simpsons. That means, first and foremost, we don't all sound like we just walked off the ranch. Sure, there are plenty of people with drawls here in East Texas. You might hear it slip out when someone says, "wins-dee" instead of "wens-day," but this is a big cosmopolitan city with a lot of variation. As a result, accents are not as prominent as they might be in other parts of Texas.

11. Like our state, Houston is big in both population and physical size.

It's shocking that so few people realize Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S. behind only New York, L.A. and Chicago. We bet if you asked 100 people what the fourth largest city was, fewer than 10 would guess Houston. We also are not a quaint little town. Our sprawling circumference is more akin to Los Angeles than Austin, and if you counted the entire region, we'd be almost as populous.

10. We are the most racially and ethnically diverse city in America.

Yes, even more than New York now according to recent numbers. We all have friends who live in other cities who think we are a bunch of back woods, racist rednecks, but Houston has exploded with cultural ethnicities from across the globe. In fact, whites are by far the minority.

9. Houston has rich cultural arts and food scenes.

Like any other major metropolitan area, we have a vast cultural scene, but you probably didn't know that we have world class museums and art galleries, more theater seats per capita than any city in America not named New York and a dining scene that is being called one of the most exciting in the country.

Real Tex-Mex.
Real Tex-Mex.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

8. Speaking of food, Tex-Mex is not the greasy garbage you get at a drive-thru window.

Jack in the Box may serve tacos, but that doesn't make them edible. Anyone who has had the pleasure of eating real Tex-Mex food knows the difference. Fajitas were popularized and, arguably, perfected here. We actually feel sorry for people who don't know what queso is and have to pay for refills on tortilla chips. And God help the poor soul who has never had a really great margarita.

7. We are less conservative than you think.

Houston is a big, urban area. Like many other urban areas, we tend to lean left. Get out into the suburbs and rural areas surrounding Houston and you will most certainly experience the reverse. Without question, the region fosters some pretty dramatic political diversity -- or as a friend put it recently on Facebook, "I know just as many dope smoking rednecks as I do gun toting hippies." But Al Gore beat George W. Bush in the 2000 election inside the Houston city limits. At the time of writing this, Democrat Wendy Davis was leading the governor's race in Harris County by 5 points despite trailing Republican Greg Abbott in the double digits statewide. We had a female mayor in the '80s and have an openly gay mayor now. Texas may be deeply red -- sometimes radically so -- but the city of Houston is varying shades of blue.  

See any tumbleweeds? Neither do we.
See any tumbleweeds? Neither do we.

6. Yes, we really are that friendly.

Talking to strangers in line at the grocery store, waving hello to neighbors and greeting people you have never met with hugs is fairly standard practice here. Years ago, we were told the story of a transplant from New Jersey who thought that when the person ringing up her purchase at a store said, "Thank you!" enthusiastically, she was convinced it was sarcasm. Not the case. That's just how we roll.

5. Driving is mandatory.

And when we roll, it's on four wheels. There are lots of bikers here and people who do walk from one building to the next downtown, but as we've said, this is a very big place. To get from one end of it to the other requires a car, a sack lunch and a bathroom break.

4. The phrase "Houston we have a problem" is both incorrect and annoying.

Every time a Houston sports team struggles -- and that happens a lot -- this ridiculous phrase made famous during the Apollo 13 mission and reinforced by the Tom Hanks film about it gets trotted out by media across the country as if they are being clever.

Fact: Jim Lovell, the Apollo astronaut, didn't say, "Houston, we have a problem." He said, "Houston, we've had a problem." So, first off, you are saying it wrong.

Fact: No one in Houston thinks it is remotely clever and we are all sick to death of hearing it and reading it in headlines. Please, for the love of all that is holy, stop.

3. Not everyone is in the oil business.

In the oil boom-era honkey tonk film Urban Cowboy, Madolyn Smith's character says to John Travolta when asked what her daddy does, "Daddy does oil. And all that that implies." Nevermind that we are stuck with that turkey of a movie as one of our defining moments in cinema, but it typifies how we are perceived when it comes to industry. Yes, we are the energy capital of the world, but we also have the second largest port the in the country and one of the largest medical complexes. We have fortune 500 companies from technology, manufacturing, professional services and a range of other industries. And while oil may be at the core of how we earn, the energy industry includes everything from natural gas to wind and solar.

2. We are more rainforest than desert.

Whenever someone asks how we deal with the dry, desert-like conditions, we chuckle and realize they think Houston is some old west town with tumbleweeds rolling through the streets. In fact, it is entirely the opposite. Our proximity to the warm, humid Gulf of Mexico air results in nearly as much rainfall every year as Seattle. We have dense vegetation and an impressive tree canopy when seen from a tall building. We have taken advantage by building park space throughout the city. Unfortunately, the combination of heat and humidity makes many of us wish those parks had air conditioning in the summer.

1. We don't wear cowboy gear or ride a horse every day.

One month out of the year, the rodeo comes to town. It is one of the largest in North America, but even then, our days of dressing up like a cowboy are relegated to "Go Texan Day," which opens the whole western-themed insanity. We can't remember the last time we saw someone strolling down the street in a cowboy hat. And this is a major metropolitan city, not Dry Gulch. You might see a mounted policeman on occasion, but there are quite a few of us who have never ridden a horse, let alone climb on one every day to get to work.

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