We’re not in Arkansas anymore

Chicago is great, but having as many people in a 243 square mile radius as in my whole state feels a little crowded to me.

Photo illustration by Leah Graham.

“What’s Arkansas like?”

“What do you even do in Arkansas?”

“Where is Arkansas again?”

Cherubs asked me those questions daily.

I expected to be the only cherub from Arkansas. I expected Evanston to be completely different from Bryant, my hometown. I expected to have different childhood experiences than the friends I would make from Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago. I expected to be asked if I owned a farm. I didn’t expect that once I landed at Midway, the first person I would meet — a cab driver — would not even know that Arkansas was a state.

At that moment, I realized I was in for an interesting experience. Upon explaining where I live, my driver immediately bombarded me with questions concerning population, politics and cows. I wanted to scream that I am from a suburb of the largest city in a state that has more Walmarts than it does farms. But how do you explain that to someone who had just met his first Southerner? I didn’t want to crush the poor man’s dreams, so I just went with it.

I’ll never forget the faces and sounds people made when we went around the room to introduce ourselves on the first day and I said I was from Arkansas. The raised eyebrows and gawking that came from my newfound peers are embedded in my brain. Unlike the kids from California and D.C., nobody had any connection to my state whatsoever. Ellie Lieberman came the closest because she occasionally visits Missouri.

Over the next few weeks, I became acquainted with the cosmopolitan lifestyle Evanston provides and realized how uncultured I truly am. I had never had curry, gyros or latkes before. Where I’m from, the only food options are Mexican, Chinese, Italian and American. I’m still not even sure what a latke is.

The biggest difference between my peers and me was my pronunciation. Two weeks into the program, it was brought to my attention that I was mispronouncing Ben Goldsmith’s name along with the words “pen” and “ten.” Apparently it’s not “Bin,” “pin” or “tin.” After that conversation with several of my new friends, I looked it up, and the “pen-pin merger” is a common issue in the South where “e” sounds become “i” sounds. I began to watch out for my pronunciation habits. But because of my accent, I bonded with Goldsmith and Remy Farkas, who actually liked the way I said their names.

Growing up in the South gave me habits that make me unique and make me who I am. Chicago is great, but having as many people in a 243-square-mile area as in my whole state feels a little crowded to me. The conservative lifestyle I am surrounded by has allowed me to see the other side of liberal debates I follow on the internet. From there, I am able to make a fully educated decision about my own beliefs. I also don’t know what I would do without a Walmart around every corner and a Slim Chickens five minutes from my house.

My hometown makes me stand out from the crowd. There are 80 cherubs, and several come from the same state. There is only one from Arkansas. When applying, I worried that coming from a small town would hinder my chances of getting in or making friends I could relate to. After arriving, I realized my origins had no effect on my admission, and I made several friends precisely because I was different. It’s not every day you get to see a girl in an Arkansas shirt drink apple juice from a jug. And for me, it’s not every day that I am named #tgfa (aka “that girl from Arkansas”) and voted Ms. Cherub Teen Arkansas.