For most, Oklahoma is not a state but a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Blue skies, open spaces, thoroughbred horses and corn “as high as an elephant’s eye” are images that fill the television screen as a cowboy named Curley lightheartedly croons about how beautiful the day is. It is simply a romantic portrait of the easygoing life one leads in a state with neither A/C nor supporters of the Democratic Party.
Oklahoma is my home state. While Rogers and Hammerstein are unarguably moving composers, I have developed a sort of love-hate relationship with the duo. Why? Upon coming to Princeton in the fall of last year, I learned quickly to stay away from mentioning where I’m from. I grew tired of the handful of responses I would get: “Oh, that’s so cute,” “Where is that on the map again?”, or, my favorite, “Do you own a horse?” I would even get people who would break out into the musical’s title song: “Oooklahoma! Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain!”
I began to get a kick out of playing along. I would spout off stereotypical anecdotes about how difficult it was to find a way to fit all my cowgirl boots into one suitcase when packing for Princeton or how some of my friends would ride tractors to school in the morning. But the humor soon wore off, and I started to get frustrated. Oklahoma is far from Princeton geographically and has noticeably different social and political climates, but it is definitely not stuck in 1900 like the characters in the Broadway musical.
My classmates were surprised to learn that I lived in a city with several school choices and more than one stoplight. It was interesting to hear students of one of the most noteworthy colleges in the world making such backward judgments. While some of the statements were blatant jokes, others were tinged with true ignorance.
I began looking for other students from a similar situation in an attempt to get to the bottom of what I perceived as a lack of Midwestern understanding. It was slightly difficult to track down students from south of the Mason-Dixon, but I managed. Whenever I ran across someone from Texas or Kentucky, I jumped at the chance to chat with them about their experience. They all had encountered similar stereotypes about the places we call home. But instead of thinking of the ignorance as an annoyance, they saw it as a chance to defy expectations. It became more of a subtle advantage or an excuse to play a character. A male student from Kentucky liked to parade around campus in cowboy boots while one Texan girl admitted to hamming up her accent on the Street to attract male attention.
I never considered myself an Oklahoma girl before coming to Princeton. I don’t listen to country music, I’m not in a sorority, I don’t own a single pair of cowgirl boots, and I don’t speak with an accent. The energy of the Northeast always caught my eye instead; it was fast-paced, fashionable and intellectual. Before I revealed my Midwestern roots to my Princeton classmates, I often got pegged as a New Yorker. Perhaps it was my fashion obsession, my brisk walking pace or the fact that I’m on the next train to Penn Station any chance I get.
Upon entering the Orange Bubble, however, I realized a few things were missing. When I attended the first football game on campus, the sight of empty bleachers shocked me. Football is a social centerpiece in Oklahoma. I missed the hype. I also noticed that I preferred a little more volume in my curls than most. They say everything is bigger in Texas — especially in terms of hair volume — but Oklahoma puts up a darn good fight. Most of all, I missed the random conversations that would always occur after waving at a stranger on the street. There was a certain casual friendliness back home that I felt was absent in the community here.
All this exploration of my misunderstood Oklahoma identity made me hyper-aware of the value of individualized perspectives. So what if people around me think I am inherently good at the banjo or know how to milk a cow because of where I was born? Stereotypes can be debilitating, but they can also be an excuse to turn the expectations of others upside down. Coming to Princeton from Oklahoma also gave me a reason to reach out to others of a similar background. I have made an incredible group of friends as a result. And hey, the next time I get asked if there is a teepee in my backyard, at least I know who to vent to. And, for the record, my backyard is teepee-free.