Breaking the bubble: Revelations in Small Town, USA

hannah_travel3
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.

hannah_travel5

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. 

hannah2

“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?

hannah_travel4

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.

hannah_travel

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].