• Jason Whong

ExPats: From the Chemung River to the Chesapeake Bay


Sometimes I wonder if I count as a Southern Tier expat because I was born and raised in Maryland.


Don’t get me wrong — I gave a decent stretch of my twenties and thirties to the

Southern Tier, living there from 2004 to 2015. It remains the place where I spent most of my adult life. It’s where I formed most of my adult friendships. I’ve also lived in Rochester, Dallas and southern California, but those places don’t hold the same significance to me as Elmira.



But can you truly be a Southern Tier expat when you left to return to the state where you were born?


Seeing the Chemung River each day in Elmira reminded me of my connection to Maryland because the water that flowed through Elmira would eventually go there. It would meet the Susquehanna River in Sayre, then continue to the head of the Chesapeake Bay in Havre de Grace. When my son was old enough to speak, I made sure he learned that the water in Elmira also flowed past Nana’s house in Lexington Park, Maryland.


Since moving back to Maryland meant I was uprooting my wife, Erin, from her native New York, we agreed to look for a home near a Wegmans grocery store. We weren’t sure where she would eventually get a job, so we chose a place between Baltimore and Washington: Columbia, which has about 100,000 people and 94 miles of walking paths. The move brought us some lifestyle changes. Most of my commute was on a commuter bus, so I didn’t have to drive. Erin’s commute time stayed about the same, but her GPS sent her on a different route each day. Columbia’s development began in the mid-1960s, so a lot of our surroundings were newer than they were in Elmira.


Some things are bigger here. The main highway, Interstate 95, has four lanes in each direction. I worked in a newsroom that was on the 24th floor of a 28-story building. Our Wegmans has a twostory garage, an upstairs dining and meeting area, and an escalator just for shopping carts. One time at Wegmans, I encountered someone who grew up in the Binghamton area. She was excited to learn that I used to live in the Southern Tier. We traded stories, then she said something that made me feel guilty about the prosperity that surrounded both of us: “Congratulations. You escaped.”


I can remember thinking how upsetting it must feel to “escape” from one’s home, and about how external factors affect the relative wealth of American regions.


The Census Bureau estimates that Chemung County had a median household income of $60,782 in 2019. The same statistic for Howard County, Maryland, where I live now: $121,618. Some geographers would say I’m near the southern end of a supercity that stretches from Northern Virginia to the outskirts of Boston. It’s home to about 17% of the American population on less than 2% of its landmass, and has the world’s largest economic output. New York is the center of this megalopolis. Washington anchors the southern part, providing an outsize share of jobs here.


I wouldn’t say I had escaped, but it was clear my career path would take me from Elmira eventually. After 10 years of working at the Star-Gazette, there didn’t seem to be any way to move up locally, so I took the step that a lot of the TV reporters did: I went to a larger market. I became a reporter at the Press & Sun-Bulletin in Binghamton, with an hour commute each way. When the company told us our jobs would end, but we were all encouraged to apply for new, different jobs, I figured it was only fair to also apply to a newspaper in Maryland. In that reorganization, I left on my own terms and became digital editor of The Daily Record in Baltimore. By coincidence, our family also got bigger after we moved. Two of us were born in New York, and now two of us have been born in Maryland. Instead of planning family trips to Maryland each year, we plan family trips to upstate New York. Coming back to Elmira jogs my memory. For a bunch of the places we pass in the car, I’ll remember the Jason with his wife Erin Cassidy, and their two children Julian (9) and Allison (4)news I covered there. It’s exciting and a little strange to have such vivid memories triggered by driving past otherwise ordinary places.



One of the quotes I remember reporting and pondering back then was from Thomas Meier, president of Elmira College. He said to incoming freshmen: “Mark Twain did his best work here. So can you.” Back then, I remember thinking I was doing my best work in Elmira.


It seemed obvious: Elmira was where I learned the value of doing hard work. It’s where I learned to love being an underdog. It’s where I learned how good it feels to work on something that people in the community really care about. Since returning to Maryland, I’ve hoped to do even better work.


After six years as the digital editor at The Daily Record, I’m breaking out on my own. I found an opportunity that doesn’t come along every decade, so I decided to take a risk. I acquired a business. I’m now the editor and publisher of OutLook by the Bay, a magazine aimed at mature Marylanders living in the Chesapeake Bay region. I’m enjoying bringing my experience in journalism to the magazine, and I am hoping to make it connect with more readers. This magazine will become whatever I make it, and it presents a new challenge to me. Since I’ll be working from home, I’ll finally have a commute shorter than I did in Elmira. Something that won’t change: each day, from my home office, I can see a stream, an unnamed tributary of the Little Patuxent River. Both of my kids know the water there eventually flows by Nana’s house.



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