The Lost Voice
(or "I Think This Essay Belongs in This Book")
by Cindy Johanek
You've heard about the dumb farmer who won a million dollars in a sweepstakes, haven't you? When he was asked what he was going to do with the money, he said he'd farm until it was all gone. And did you hear about that farm kid who went to the U of M? Her first reaction on her first day of school was, "Wow! This place could hold a lotta hay!"
Years ago, no one could have told me that all of those "dumb farmer" jokes would seriously affect my confidence in my intelligence, abilities, and goals. I never knew what to think about those dumb farmer jokes at first because growing up around a whole bunch of farmers, I never met a dumb one. I just thought they must be somewhere else. When I transferred to St. Cloud State after one year at a small community college, however, I found out those dumb farmers were in my hometown . . . or at least that's what other people thought.
And, on the other side of the coin, no one could have ever made me believe that growing up hearing "dumb city slicker" jokes would instill in me a fear of becoming one . . . and make me reject those who already are . . . and hate myself for wanting to be one anyway . . . .
The difference between small farming communities and institutions of higher education probably wouldn't be considered a cultural difference. But as we slowly succeed in our attempt to put a clamp on racist, sexist, ethnocentric, and other such jokes, who is fighting the "dumb farmer" jokes and the "city slicker" jokes? Isn't there a voice fighting for a respect between these two groups as well? And if both groups think the other group is stupid, who is defining intelligence, anyway? And what happens when someone like me crosses the border and goes to the "other side?"
Do you think about people from remote rural areas when you think about cultural diversity on a college campus? Honestly, I never used to, either, so it's OK if you don't . . . because even though I was raised in a rural community, I never saw myself as "culturally diverse." After all, "cultural diversity," in its most frequently used definition, implies diversity among races, ethnic groups, nationalities, or language backgrounds. When we witness a student from an inner-city Chicago neighborhood or Vietnam or Saudi Arabia having difficulty adjusting to life at St. Cloud State, we are very quick to consider culture shock as the source of the struggle. And we are also very quick to do all we can to help them succeed through and cope with the culture shock they face.
We might be oversimplifying the definition of culture shock, however. Culture shock takes many forms and varies in degree, and nothing can be more frightening than to move into another culture, struggling to understand and adapt. But most students experiencing this shock can somehow understand its source, as frightening as the experience might be. It was just as frightening, however, for me to move into another part of my own culture and experience culture shock without knowing it was happening--and without ever dreaming of its possibility--because I thought I was already a member of this very culture.
Being an English-speaking, white American, I would have never thought that college for me--in a predominantly white, English-speaking, American university--meant a culture shock that nearly defeated my dreams and clamped, though temporarily, my desire to gain those dreams back.
In my first quarter at St. Cloud State, I lived in one of those awful houses on 5th Avenue with 13 other young women. Since I had graduated from high school with only 22 other people, I already knew that making new friends would be difficult. But two of my roommates simply hated "hicks" and rarely associated with me; two others worked hard on my hair and my make-up and my clothes so that I might look more like them; still one other used to be a "hick" but proudly announced that she wasn't anymore; and one other was Vietnamese, and she became my friend because they tried to change her, too.
Some of my roommates felt threatened when they brought boyfriends home. You know how easy those farm girls are. Sometimes their boyfriends would bring their friends, and I learned quickly that they thought I would "entertain" them. If I fought them off, I was certainly a tease (as farmer's daughters go, anyway), or if I chose to run away and stay overnight at a friend's house or my brother's house, my roommates were certain I was just entertaining someone else. What else do farmer's daughters do? You have heard those jokes, too, haven't you?
I learned soon enough that I shouldn't tell too many people that I raised pigs to earn money for college. (I forgot that some people would laugh.) Since I had to work on our farm back then, I really couldn't have a "real job." And since I had never had a real job, finding my first one in St. Cloud was yet another experience. I took the safest route I could and applied at Mills Fleet Farm since I thought farming was all I knew. (I forgot about all the other things I knew.) I got the job and soon learned that other farmers who needed tools or equipment didn't trust my judgment or my knowledge anyway. (I forgot about the woman thing, too.)
Between those first fall and winter quarters, something strange started happening to me, and I simply didn't go to school and wouldn't do my homework when winter quarter began. I was finding out (or so I thought) that I wasn't cut out to learn about computers in Computer Science 169 and that I had no business trying to learn a foreign language, French 131. Everything I had been hearing about those dumb farmers seemed to be coming true right in front of me, and I thought I was stupid. It was enough to make me crawl inside a shell, and I started to stay home from school day after day after day . . . .
It snowed on January 8 in my first winter quarter at St. Cloud State. By the time that snowy day rolled around, I had fallen so far behind in my classes that I was virtually failing all four of them. Disguised, then, in a cover of snow and a face full of false and misdirected confidence, I marched out into the freshly fallen snow not to go to my classes that day, but to withdraw from all of them and give up once and for all. Shortly after that snowy day, I got a full-time job at Fingerhut with good benefits and decent pay. I didn't dare ask for much more.
The only explanation I've since heard for this struggle is that we "farm kids" receive an inadequate education. We might be deprived of a variety of experiences because of the poor schools we probably attended or because much of our time was spent sweating away in a barn. How could we possibly know anything about computers or drama or business? How could we possibly compete against thousands of students who gained these experiences earlier?
If "farm kids" can't survive in the world of higher education, everyone knows what it means: after all, if we're white and we're American and we speak English, what else could be our problem at SCSU? Haven't you heard the jokes? In them rests the explanation I heard: the problem is in my brain, just like every other farmer.
The first problem with this explanation was that it was the only one I was given. The second problem was that I heard it from "both sides of the fence." The mother of a friend I had met in St. Cloud suggested that my educational background must be too poor and that I was at a serious disadvantage when compared to other students. Someone in my hometown suggested that I move back home since I tried the "outside world" and failed and since I obviously wasn't "cut out" for a higher degree.
But while I was a college drop-out, I somehow learned, somewhere, that I already had everything I needed to succeed in college. I watched other university and Vo-Tech students and non-students as well. They all had so much in common, and all of them could probably fulfill most or all of their dreams. They had so many different means of measuring success, and they taught me that I should follow the dreams I once had--no matter what anybody else said. So I learned that I could probably give it one more shot . . . and maybe I would even succeed this time. I returned to school a year and a half later, feeling much better about myself and just a little more confident.
But an even bigger force behind my decision to return to school was anger. I was angry that nobody at St. Cloud State tried to stop me when I quit school. Nobody asked me if I needed help. And I was angry that the general consensus back home was that I probably needed the security of my hometown. And I was angry at some of my teachers in high school who encouraged me to go to college but who also warned me about these very problems--never once telling me how to deal with them or what it would feel like. Where did I belong?
Even now, after four successful years in college following my return, I'm seen as "different" in some of my classes or as offering unique yet simple viewpoints. Fortunately, these viewpoints are accepted in most of my courses--as long as I lie about where I'm really from. And when I go home, I talk like one of them god-damn Ph.D. professors, a little too big for my britches. So where do I belong?
I know that some of my international friends have experienced the feeling of not belonging anywhere. They sometimes get told or feel that they're "too foreign" to belong here but "too American" to belong back home. And I know that some of my American minority friends feel the same. As one friend said, "When I go home, they say I talk white; when I'm in St. Cloud, they say I talk black." Where does she belong?
Like some of my international and minority friends--those in the spotlight of SCSU's cultural diversity initiative--I, too, have experienced an adjustment in moving from one world to another, fighting misunderstanding, fighting stereotypes, fighting jokes and laughter, and just plain fighting. Maybe you can't see it just by looking at me. You can only see it when this lost voice inside of me decides it's time to speak up.
It's easy to lose sight of the real meaning of culture and cultural differences. When someone quietly--though outwardly--fits into a predominantly white, English-speaking community, it's easy to lose sight of a person, too. Some of us quietly balance a dual existence: one side of us looking back on a valuable background rich in experiences that some city folks will never have, and one looking forward to an exciting future full of new challenges some of the hometown folks will never have. In many ways, ironically, we probably have the best of "both worlds," and we have every right to be proud of our backgrounds and our futures.
But we also know that there is yet one more misunderstanding to confront before we can celebrate complete cultural diversity. When I hear no more "dumb farmer" jokes or "dumb city slicker" jokes, I'll know that my voice, no longer lost, has been heard and understood.
This magazine is produced by the Write Place and is funded through a St. Cloud State University (St. Cloud, Minnesota) Cultural Diversity Committee allocation.
Contributors retain all rights to their work.