You Can Take the Girl out of Iowa You Can Take the Girl out of Iowa

You Can Take the Girl out of Iowa

by Nishant Choksi Ann Friedman

June 2, 2012

Among those of us who grew up where the tallest building tops out at three stories, there are the people who left and the people who stayed. For the moment, let’s not concern ourselves with the ones who stayed, though they are a fascinating lot. Let’s talk about those of us who decamp to the sparkle of the coasts, of the cities. Those of us who decide to seek our fortunes among other people who vote for Democrats and eat sushi and don’t want to get married until we’re juuuust about ready to start having kids.

Despite my individualistic streak, I realize, of course, that I am not a unique snowflake. Cities tend to draw exactly my kind: People who never quite fit in with their small-town peers and decided it was because everyone else had bad taste. This is why certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn can be so insufferable.
My dad’s prophecy proved false. I went to college in the middle of the country, venturing only as far as Missouri. But I decamped for New York mere weeks after graduation. Brooklyn, to be precise. (Wipe that smirk off your face.) The night before my coast-bound flight was to depart, I stuffed a selection of my wardrobe—including all the dresses that I’d sewn myself after finding Midwest mall options insufficiently fashionable—into a cardboard box that was balanced on a bathroom scale until the number read “48.8,” just under the 50-pound weight limit. The following day at the Cedar Rapids airport, the box officially clocked in at 52.3, but the friendly employee at the check-in counter let me get by without paying the extra fee.
When I landed at LaGuardia, my first decision as a city dweller was to succumb to an airport livery cab scheme. I paid nearly triple the yellow-cab rate because the driver was so friendly. Also, in the city everything costs triple what it should, right? So expensive.
I learned the hard way that here, everyone’s nice for a reason. Maybe my parents were right about cities.
On the first day of my internship, I gave my name to the guard at the security desk in the lobby. “Friedman,” I said, “F-R-I-E—”
“—I know how to spell it,” he interrupted, annoyed. It would take me another five or six security check-ins to realize that most people with my surname are not German Catholics from Iowa. It would take me another five or six weeks to realize that for the first time, I was the one at a cultural deficit. When my coworkers reminisced about a series of delightful French children’s books they’d grown up reading, I was silent. I seemed to mispronounce everything—a word nerd’s worst nightmare. At rush hour, I’d watch packed subway car after packed subway car arrive and depart, unable to muster the confidence to squeeze myself in.
I decided I hated New York. In fact, what I hated was that I didn’t immediately love it. The things I assumed I would have in common with people in the city—books and music and food and politics, and all the other stuff that online profiles are made of—didn’t matter much. All those people with great taste I had dreamed of living among? Turns out when you get them all together, they can be kind of snobby. Or, worse, boring.
I had expected to come to the city and have all the pieces of my life snap together like a Lego set. Even though I’d intuited as a child that I was missing out because I didn’t have parents with a certain cultural sensibility, I thought my own taste could make up the difference. None of the fools in my high school had ever heard the Velvet Underground, one of my favorite bands. No one in my extended family had ever eaten hummus, one of my favorite dips. Now here I was in what was supposedly the greatest city in the world, a city where Lou Reed eats hummus! And it was as disdainful of me as I was of everyone back home.
Culture, I realized, isn’t just the taste you cultivate for yourself. It’s the world you marinate in, all of the subtle influences that shape you. The city made one thing abundantly clear: I was Midwestern. Here, that was the thing that set me apart. In the cultural sense, I’d pulled myself up by my bootstraps. I embraced a new narrative: Some people are raised to be cool. Others work for it.
I also embraced my roots. When Shake Shack opened in Madison Square Park and New Yorkers queued up to try the frozen custard, I remarked to a fellow Midwest expat, “They’ve never eaten Wisconsin-style custard before? The poor dears!” When bartenders asked for ID, I felt a twinge of pride as I handed over my Iowa driver’s license. When I was invited to a potluck, I called up my grandma for the family cheese ball recipe. When people at parties turned up their noses upon hearing I’d grown up in flyover country and attended a state school, I turned on my heel and walked away. I didn’t long for the Midwest, but I did begin to own my Midwesternness.
My long-distance pride was fully awakened a few years later, when I was living in Washington, D.C., and went to see Iowa’s preeminent musical genius perform. No, not Slipknot, but Leslie Hall, a former art student and Ames resident who raps about party dip and crafting over synthy beats she makes on her MacBook. She’s found a modicum of internet fame for her YouTube music videos about bedazzled sweaters and partying in minivans. That night, sheathed from head to toe in gold lamé Spandex, she performed a song I hadn’t heard before.
“Not from the East, not from the West, it’s girls in the middle that rock the best,” she sang. “Girl must be a diva, Midwest diva.”
Not just a song. An anthem. Our anthem. Even though I’ve long since left the middle, I claim it as my own.
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You Can Take the Girl out of Iowa