Breaking the bubble: Revelations in Small Town, USA

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Hannah Nguyen/Staff

As one approaches Teutopolis, Illinois, a sleepy rural town about two hours east of St. Louis, one is greeted by the largest cross in America. Standing at nearly 200 feet tall, the “Cross at the Crossroads” towers over the massive stretches of farmland around it and casts a formidable shadow across the highway as you enter the city limits.

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As a kid growing up, going to visit my mom’s family in Teutopolis, fondly referred to by locals as T-Town, I was always intimidated by the cross and what it seemed to stand for. Looking up at it towering over me, it felt as though everything I did was being watched and judged by the higher power it embodied. But on my most recent visit, passing it as a 20-year-old in the middle of a college education at one of the most liberal universities in America, I started to truly appreciate the meaning of words such as “echo chamber” and “bubble.”

In my mother’s hometown in rural Illinois, Christian faith and principles guide the daily life of the inhabitants. It seems as though many hard-left progressives would have me believe this reality to be a detriment to the country, for its impediment of multiculturalism, personal liberties and forward thinking. But throughout my trip, I started to realize what sharing and upholding Christian values means to the people who are looked down on by these progressive individuals, whom I usually identify with. In this small little town with a population nearly the same size as my Data 8 class, people work hard for their keep, with the faith that good things will come. They love one another more deeply than any city or suburban folks I could imagine. In towns like this, people know your name, your family and your story. 

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“They’re just working to survive, Hannah,” my mom told me as we drove through the wide streets passing simple, dilapidated houses, family-owned businesses and lots of empty space in between. Her comment struck me into silence as I contemplated what that meant. In the Bay Area, the common conception of having a job rarely refers to working a graveyard shift or performing manual labor so you can avoid foreclosure on your house or keep your kids from going hungry. Instead, jobs in the Bay Area held by those who scorn rural folks as ignorant and uneducated are often at a desk, in air-conditioned buildings, with free Wi-Fi and happy hour on Thursdays. As I looked around at the young boys sweating on lawn mowers and young girls working long lines at the ice cream shop, I developed a profound admiration for the way they truly worked for a living — a respect that I then realized I had never observed in language used to describe the “uneducated whites” or “ignorant Republicans” by my peers and fellow left thinkers.

Throughout my trip, I constantly reconsidered the notion of privilege — if what everyone around me in Berkeley said was true, that being white in the United States makes your life easier, then why did the people of this town, which is overwhelmingly white, live in near-poverty conditions? How were my peers at UC Berkeley, a significant proportion of whom are people of color, affording a world-class education and the privileges that accompany it? How do teenage students at UC Berkeley, who complain about things as trivial as finding seats in Moffitt and whether or not the Golden Bear café serves chicken nuggets, have the nerve to call these hard-working, faithful people privileged or ignorant?

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In the materialistic world of the Golden State, we demand high internet speeds for our Netflix streaming and blow hundreds of dollars on music festivals such as Coachella. The residents of T-Town are brought greater satisfaction by sitting around drinking a cold beer with family or watching the sunrise on a clear morning. While my friends and I waste away time on Snapchat and Facebook, the good folks of T-Town are laboring away in the hot sun to take home the paycheck on Friday. And yet, liberals, myself included, have had the nerve to say they’re the ones with mixed-up priorities when it comes to political issues.

As the days of my visit with my family passed, I started to notice how the lived experiences of folks in T-Town challenged many things I had accepted as true politics over the past few years. I noticed how my uncle woke up before the sun each morning to put in a hard day’s work, went to bed before 8 p.m. and rose again the next morning to do it all over again. I noticed how the neighbors wore big, friendly smiles and asked about my life like they genuinely cared. I noticed how my grandmother, the kindest and most caring person I’ve ever met, took up a coin collection in her kitchen for money to support local children afflicted with diseases. Surely these people, my own blood, could not be the “deplorables” that are allegedly degrading America’s values. Surely their acceptance of their lot in life and their willingness to work hard for everything they earn is not an exercise of privilege or ignorance. Surely there must be a way for my peers back home in California to understand that their struggles are not fundamentally different from those felt by my family here.

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After spending six days in T-Town reconnecting with my family, answering their barrage of questions about my life and future, I once again passed the Cross at the Crossroads on our way out of town. I started to understand how, in many ways, America is at a crossroads — we can either let our unfamiliarity of those who lead lives different from our own continue to divide us, or we can look beyond the intimidating cross and try to understand one another. If we continue to make judgments about people we know nothing about, our country will never be at peace with itself — because cities such as San Francisco may think of themselves as the brains of the country, but it’s in small towns like this, where everyone knows your name and you’re always welcome to pull up a chair at the dinner table, where the heart of America lies.

Contact Hannah Nguyen at [email protected].

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  • Abby Cothran

    As a resident of T-town, I find myself a little offended by the way you wrote your article . You make it sound like we are uncultured swines who are dirt poor and only capable of jobs that include manual labor. Lots of people go to college and you made it sound like we drop out of high school so that we could work on a farm. Also, I feel the need to point out that most people living in Teutopolis aren’t poor or living in dilapidated houses. I know for a fact that T-town school district has one of the lowest free/reduced lunch counts in the state of IL and the high school graduation rate is 100%. Also in T-town only 12% of students are considered economically disadvantaged. Real estate isn’t cheap. Especially when a lot of people also design and build their own homes as well. Maybe you should’ve done more research before passing judgement on a town that you occasionally visit. It’s not like you spent more than a week here so you can’t for sure say what Teutopolis is like and how the politics of this town works. I moved to T-town when I was in 2nd grade so my opinion of T-town is some what of an outsiders. While I agree that some of the people are hard working, most of the teen population, along with some of the adult population, spend a lot of time on social media (ex. Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook)and just generally lazing about. Also some people are privileged and ignorant. That just how society works. It would be foolish to think otherwise. Just because our town is small doesn’t mean that we are exempted from all that is wrong with society. We’re just better at hiding it. Oh and the big cross stands on the outskirts of Effingham, you know the town that’s give or take 3 miles away from T-town.

  • Kurt Isley


    Very interesting article. I grew up a few miles away from the author’s mother’s home town (Dieterich IL).

    I believe your comment “…have the nerve to call these hard-working, faithful people privileged or ignorant?” strikes at the core of why people in mid-America voted for Trump (or didn’t vote for Hillary).

    I have one quibble with the article: “While my friends and I waste away time on Snapchat and Facebook…”, believe me, plenty of my friends still living in Effingham county waste lots of time on Facebook. ;-)

  • mickie

    One correction. The giant cross is in Effingham, not T-town

  • Kelly

    I respect your point of view of the small town, but as a former inhabitant of Southern Illinois and now resident of the Effingham area, I can assure you all is not as it seems. I’m not sure if you noticed on your stay, but there are very few people of color in Effingham or T-Town. This lack of diversity both in these areas and southern Illinois lead to an overwhelming amount of bias and terrifyingly too common racists. The amount of times I’ve heard people use the N word referring to black people is astounding. I would also disagree that residents are not privileged. White privilege first and foremost, they don’t face discrimination, unfair bias, as well as the “black tax”. As far as poverty is concerned as well, the median household income is $74,000 compared to the national median of $53,000. Like I said, I respect what you’re trying to do here, but as a resident who has lived in this area her entire life, I can assure you it’s not as simple as it looks. I’m guessing you didn’t come across any of the jacked up trucks with a confederate flag on the back. The largely catholic population tends to hold an intolerant mindset.

    • girlof faith

      i understand your frustrations, but please know that racism and prejudice is just as common in chicago and chicago suburbs unfortunately. not just a small town rural population issue, although i assure you i am aware of the stereotypical mindset of diversity in small rural towns, too!

      • Kurt Isley

        ” please know that racism and prejudice is just as common in chicago and chicago suburbs unfortunately”

        Too true, Girl Of Faith! I too live in the Chicago suburbs. There are just as many racists (if not more) up here, if not more per capita. They are just better at hiding it or they couch their language in softer terms.

    • Kurt Isley

      Where did you get the $74,000 figure from? The US Census bureau website says it it $54,000 and Wikipeidia says $61,000.

      Regardless, I grew up in Effingham county, and while no community is perfect, Effingham is better than it was when I was growing up.

      My step brother lives in a neighboring county and is openly gay and my step-niece “came-out” while in high school. Both things where literally unheard of when I was growing up.

      On the other hand, I will say there are some residents of southern Illinois I would call ‘deliberately aggravating’ and they double down on this when they meet someone who is “liberal/open minded/from an urban area”. They can smell it from a distance and they know exactly what buttons to push.

  • StanFromSomewhere

    Wow, an intelligent, well-thought-out piece in the Daily Cal for a change. Nice work.