ozarks culture.

October 15, 2014

So, before I get started here, I will give you a warning that there is a bit of bad language later on in this post. Be warned. Okay, on with the show.

The Ozarks, the American region that raised me, is an insular place. This part of America, southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, is very much like Saudi Arabia in that the people here are some of the friendliest in the world, while some of the most guarded at the same time. Thus, I have always had tremendous respect for people who come to the Ozarks and jump headfirst into life here, even when they stick out like a sore thumb. Especially when they stick out like a sore thumb.

In this closed rural area, outsiders are warmly welcomed, while often never entirely accepted. In a more urban area, people congregate from around the country and the world. You’re bound to find a group of friends which includes others like you, people who have chosen to build a life in a part of the country in which they were not born and/or raised. But the Ozarks is a place of entrenched generations. Everyone knows your parents, if not other details of your extended family tree. You’ll find yourself being stopped by random people at Walmart who ask probing questions that demonstrate their thorough knowledge of your life and lineage, and you’ll answer them because obviously, they know very well who you are, even if you can’t return the courtesy. You’ll absorb knowledge about rural life, little maxims that you don’t even realize you have stored in your brain until you find yourself educating a visitor about them when necessary, like, don’t walk directly behind a horse without patting him to let him know you’re there.

In the Ozarks, change comes slowly or not at all. The chances are high that when you go to sit down for a parent-teacher conference with your child’s first grade teacher, you won’t be nervous because she was your first grade teacher, too. My parents still don’t have high-speed internet; since they live out in the country, they use a satellite internet provider that offers them a limited amount of bandwidth at a speed somewhere between DSL and dial-up, and if they exceed that bandwidth limit, their internet slows to dial-up speeds. The local internet service provider still offers dial-up for customers who are unwilling to spring for satellite internet but live in places that can’t get high-speed internet yet.

It’s a place that regards visitors with only the most perfunctory curiosity, especially if said visitors come from a very different culture or place…that is, until they do something weird. I’ve been lucky enough to see my share of brave visitors come here and make their mark, including the guy I married. I like to think that it’s at least partly due to their influence that I’ve never been too severely hampered by the expectations of my home culture.

My grandpa was the original weird ethnic visitor whose arrival and acclimation to the Ozarks I observed with fascination. My grandpa, my mom’s father, lived in California. He was Mexican-American, a proud Army veteran whose daughter had married a guy from the Ozarks and moved there with him shortly after they got married. My dad never got along very well with most of my mom’s family, but he always liked my grandpa.

The truth is, it was really hard for anyone to not like my grandpa. He was brown, short, and spoke with a thick Spanish accent, which made him conspicuous enough in southern Missouri, but he was also hilarious. He was always joking or singing, and he had this laugh that sounded like a snake hissing (which, weirdly enough, my husband also does. Whenever he laughs like this, I am stopped in my tracks because he sounds so much like my grandpa). He had zero concern about what the Ozarkians thought of him. Which meant, of course, that he was incredibly fun.

One time when he and my grandma visited, he wanted to be able to drive around and get out and about while my parents were at work. Aside from my parents’ cars, the only reliably running vehicle on the place at that time was a Chinook camper truck, which my brother, my cousins, and I adored back then because we would sit in the back and play cards while our parents drove. We thought the Chinook was the coolest thing ever until junior high hit us all, when suddenly it became a source of humiliation to have parents that actually sometimes drove a Chinook camper truck around town.

My parents gave my grandpa the keys to the Chinook and told him to go wherever he wanted. And he did. We found that out when one of my mom’s coworkers at the bank where she worked, which was (well, is) located on the town square, came to my mom’s desk to inform her that my grandpa had been spotted driving the Chinook camper truck around and around the one-way square…in the wrong direction.

To be honest, I’m sure that the Summer of Grandpa in the Camper helped usher in the Chinook Embarrassment Era. Still, to this day, I giggle a little in my head at the thought of my grandpa completely unselfconsciously bopping around the square in the wrong direction in the Chinook. I miss him all the time, and I can’t help but think that he and Mr. Mostafa would have gotten along famously. He never let anyone make him feel like he didn’t belong, and I adored that about him.

My grandpa was the first diverse, if intrepid, visitor to the Ozarks that I ever encountered, but he certainly wasn’t the only one. When I was in high school, we got an exchange student for the very first time. This was extremely significant for us, because my high school was tiny. So tiny, in fact, that it was not really a high school at all, but actually a preschool through twelfth grade school. It remains that way to this day. There are separate buildings, of course (the first graders aren’t jolted from their reading circles by a bell ringing as the high schoolers spill out of classrooms and noisily slam locker doors on their way to their next classes), but it’s actually one big school. I had 29 kids in my graduating class, and this was a really large class (apparently, there was some sort of Ozarkian baby boom in 1983). People look at me like I’m making this up when I tell them this, especially people who identify as originating from a small town but actually had graduating classes well in the hundreds, like I’m just trying to outdo them with my rural cred.

City slickers.

Our exchange student, Rafael, was from Brazil. He, like my grandfather, was short, brown, and very funny. On the day he arrived in the Ozarks, his host family threw a barbecue and bonfire to welcome him. Everyone was there. We all couldn’t wait to meet the new Brazilian in our midst. I mean, a new kid from Michigan or Idaho was exotic enough to us. Brazil! We didn’t know what to do with ourselves.

At one point during the evening, after grilled hot dogs and chips had been consumed but before marshmallow roasting commenced, Rafael was standing in a circle of about fifteen of us kids, telling us about his journey from Brazil to the United States. He described how he had landed in New York and spent one night at a hotel in a skyscraper, in a room with an amazing view. A really amazing view, as it turns out.

“I look out the window,” he said, “And I see, in the pool on the roof of the building next to me, there are two people, and they are…” he lowered his voice, and then continued, “fucking. And I go away from the window, and then I come back, and they are still there”–again, he lowered his voice–“fucking. And I say to myself, ‘Ah, this is America.'”

It was at this point that I began to feel a bit sorry for Rafael, because out of all the genuinely cool places to be found in America, he ended up having to spend a year in the one place that was guaranteed to crush any lingering notions of sex in a high-rise rooftop swimming pool as a quintessentially American experience.

As Rafael concluded his story with a laugh, every single one of us in the circle of his new schoolmates gasped in horrified glee. This kid just said the f-word! And in front of adults, too! He was funny, and we considered him brave. It never occurred to us that maybe, just maybe, he might have been brave for traveling from Brazil to America at the age of 15 in order to spend an entire year with a family he had never met before, in a place he had never been, in a culture that he probably didn’t really get and which certainly didn’t really get him. No, he was brave because he said the f-word where any adult could have sauntered by and heard the whole scandalous story. Because we all knew that if he had been caught, he would have been in trouble. That is America, buddy.

Rafael was a great kid, and we really enjoyed having him in our school. Looking back, I’m kind of amazed at how well he integrated into Ozarks life over his year here.

And then, of course, we come to Mr. Mostafa. The number of little cultural scrapes and misunderstandings that he and I have navigated here over the years is practically endless, and I expect it will remain so. Like my grandpa and Rafael before him, he always does his best to handle them with a smile. Last week, we had lunch at Ruby Tuesday with a table full of my family members and their significant others, a few of whom had never met Saleh, and others who hadn’t seen him in a few years. The waitress asked us what we wanted to drink.

“Water, please,” Saleh asked. “Room temperature.”

I immediately realized that the kid had been in Riyadh too long. No one in the States–or, at least, no one in the Ozarks–will ever ask you what temperature you would prefer for your water, while in Riyadh, it’s standard restaurant practice to ask if you want your water chilled or at room temperature.

The waitress looked confused, and a bit irked. “No ice, please,” I clarified to her. The entire table was watching and listening. Then, feeling nervous lest everyone think that Mr. Mostafa was acting snobby, rude, and obnoxious, I made some sort of joke about the situation, which I now cannot recall. Everyone laughed, including Saleh. The tension was melted, and that was that.

But later on, when we got home, he was sulky. “You really hurt me with the water thing,” he said. “I felt like the whole table was laughing at me.”

I apologized to him, and I explained that at the time, I felt like my options were limited. I could have kept my mouth shut and let the waitress set him straight about American restaurants and room temperature water. I could have “corrected” him seriously. Or I could have made a little joke that framed the situation as a cultural misunderstanding (which is exactly what it was), so that everyone else at the table would see that he wasn’t being rude or demanding. Of course, now that I have the hindsight to sit and think the incident through, I’m sure there were other options, as well. But in that split second, I could only identify those three, and I chose the last one.

“Which would you rather everyone at the table think?” I said to him. “You know the stereotypes that exist about Arabs. Would you rather them think you’re a mean, obnoxious Arab guy demanding room temperature water, or that you’re good guy who just had little a cultural misunderstanding?”

He was quiet for a second. Then he said, “Yeah, I see your point.”

Being in a bicultural relationship is tricky. This is obvious from the first time you take your significant other to meet your family, especially if your family is unaccustomed to interacting with people from other cultures. They think he’s odd. His preferences are strange. He talks about weird things. (He drives in different directions.)

And when your significant other is a Saudi, the differences are compounded because of the endlessly perpetuated stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. Mr. Mostafa may never have to deal with the outward discrimination that my grandpa and Rafael may have had to deal with, since he doesn’t immediately appear as though he doesn’t belong (translation–he’s white). He even dresses the part when he’s here–he has an affinity for workboots and flannel button-up shirts. But the minute he opens his mouth, it’s obvious he wasn’t born and raised in the Ozarks. And in truth, when we show up at a gathering, everyone knows that he’s my Saudi husband, the guy who moved me halfway around the world to live in the desert. So not only does feel like he has to prove that he can fit in here, he also has to do his best to shed the weight of stereotypes and preconceived notions. Whether he likes it or not, he’s permanently connected to this part of the world now, and he doesn’t want to be regarded as a walking stereotype when he’s here. I don’t want that for him, either. I wonder if Rafael ever felt that way. I wonder if my grandpa felt that way. And I can’t help but feel that it’s unfair that all of them are, were, or would have been subject to that pressure.

The good news is that because of our bicultural status, Mr. Mostafa and I have a head start on finding awkward situations through which to inflict monstrous embarrassment on our child. And we’ll even be able to save some money by not having to buy a Chinook camper truck. Mr. Mostafa’s an accountant, after all. He appreciates a good bargain.

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  • Hannah

    I love your posts and that pic of your husband and daughter is so precious mashallah. I have an American mother and a Saudi father so i can really relate to the awkward situations because of different cultures.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      thank you for your comment and your kind words, hannah! i always love hearing from other saudi-american kids like my daughter! <3

  • Expat girl

    I enjoyed this article as I am in a bi-cultural/bi-racial marriage too. My family always see some awkward things with my husband and I always see some awkward things with his family too. Both of our families are not used to “foreigners” and have had to accept our choice of a spouse.

    What I hate, however, when going to my husband’s place is the racist mentality that permeates the culture. My family and my surroundings are not racists, so my husband feel happy and comfortable in my country, but I do not feel welcome in his country or at his family’s house at all. There’s always that sense of ‘our culture’ is better than everyone’s else. Have you or your husband ever felt that way?

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      generally, neither my nor my husband’s family are openly, intentionally racist, so we haven’t had that problem–although racism is certainly an undercurrent that runs through both our cultures. neither, really, does anyone in either family openly express any sense of cultural superiority, and when people do, even if unintentionally, we’ve learned to be diplomatic about it while gently setting someone straight. but i think that if anyone in my marriage has had to deal with the “our culture is better than yours” mentality, it is probably my husband. in our general experience, americans (or at least, americans from my part of the country) tend to know a lot less about saudi arabia than saudis in riyadh know about america. most of the people in my saudi family are well-traveled and have visited the states at least a time or two. meanwhile, i can name several members of my american family who don’t have a passport and don’t really feel the need to ever get one. so i do worry that my husband sometimes feels the way you describe, even if others don’t particularly intend to make him feel that way.

  • Risi

    To answer your question:
    The sub-text running through this post appears to be ” This is a predominantly white area extremely lacking in diversity. I fear people from other areas/ethnic groups will not be accepted and that will make them uncomfortable/unhappy/etc.”
    You said your grandfather had “zero concern” about what Ozarkians thought of him. Which indicates you,and he, had some knowledge or suspicion regarding ” what they thought of him”.
    So,yes, he obviously knew.
    Rafael likely did,too.
    Your grandfather had the sense not to give a rat’s nether region.
    Good for him.
    Some do not care what dominant cultures think.
    Some don’t care if they fit neatly into the “spaces created for them” by said dominant cultures.
    Some don’t even mind being seen as ” other”.
    Not wanting to be part of a certain group may be the healthiest thing for them.
    Some refuse to spend one moment of a precious life trying to please those who will never be pleased or trying to be that which they do not wish to be.
    Let the dominant cultures think what they will.
    Maybe when more people do what your grandpa seemed to do and be their authentic selves, the “majority culture” actually WILL start thinking… and learning.

    • http://mabsootah.wordpress.com Mabsootah

      Well said Risi!

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      i agree with you, risi! i’m glad you picked up on the subtext, lol. it’s true that i don’t want people from other areas/ethnic groups to be uncomfortable, but it’s not just that. i admit that in a selfish way, i also don’t want the ozarkians i love and otherwise respect, who may or may not be ready to make wayward judgments about people and groups based on stereotypes (even if they’re not aware of such an inclination), to make such judgments about my family, not only because it’s unjust and wrong, but also because it hurts me and makes me feel like i am even more separate from them than i already am. it’s kind of like, i get which direction the ozarks groupthink tends to swerve, and i want to do my part to help steer that truck in a better, more accepting direction, while avoiding getting hit by it, if possible. does that make any sense?

      • Risi

        It makes sense.
        It’s natural to want the place that you love to accept the outsider you love.
        But it may not be possible.
        As you pointed out,you’re not the only one steering the truck.
        And you have made life choices that give you a different “driving style” than the other operators.
        So,yes,you are somewhat separate and people tend to make decisions about you based on that.
        If it’s really the ” groupthink” you describe it’s hard to change ,in your case, absent an influx of hundreds or thousands of Arabs/Muslims/other people of color/etc.which will probably create massive stress and backlash but will eventually force at least many of them to come to terms with the new reality.
        Not everybody embraces differences as per JoanJ’s good advice.
        You might make a bit of difference in the direction things go.
        After all, your friends seem willing to accept your choice of husband enough to share time and space with your family. Which means they are open to possibilities.
        But they aren’t “everybody in the community”…so
        You may get tossed out and run over,too.
        Metaphorical hit-and-runs are painful, but, fortunately, rarely fatal. Lol!
        You’re free to try to get back on that same truck if you really want or need to.
        Or you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off, find a different truck ,and decide where to go if you think it’s not safe to stay in the middle of that particular road.
        Decision only you can make.
        Lavender will someday make her own decisions about all the damn trucks,too.

        Okay…(disclosure!)since I had some “brown folks ” near and dear to me shot at within the last few years in your neck of the woods ,although across the state line,so Missouri isn’t on the hook for that one, I DO have a couple of opinions here,even though I never lived out that way. Sorry in advance.

        You probably, in spite of your gentle rendering of the Ozarks, know from your own local history that you have some rational reason for concern.
        Like…why it is so darn Lily white?
        Racism exists everywhere and the USA hasn’t lagged in that regard,( black man in the White House notwithstanding).
        My own week has been a doooosey around here.
        But the Ozarks have never been regarded as a paradise of multi-cultural tolerance …for good reasons.
        Ferguson aside, Missouri was sometimes used in university courses as a case study in racism and ethnic cleansing.
        Especially the Ozarks.
        Kimberly Harper ( don’t remember if she is a fellow Missourian with you,but her family is from the Ozarks) kinda blew the top off some of it when she turned her research thesis into ” Whiteman’s Paradise”.
        That old Vermont prof James Loewen ,who wrote ” The Lies My Teacher Told Me” devoted quite a bit of print in his book ” Sundown Towns” to just your region. Part of a transcript of his interview I heard:

        “In Missouri, there are whole areas…for instance, the Ozarks…well you might say that the Ozarks have always been kind of white. Well, yes and no. It turns out that between 1860 and 1890 black folks went everywhere in the United States they went to all parts of Missouri. They even went to the upper peninsula in Michigan in every county in Montana, in every county in Indiana except one. But then, between 1890 and 1940 there comes this terrible period in American history that almost no one knows even the name of. It‘s called by historians…the nadir of race of relations…the low point of race relations, when the United States in its ideology actually went more racist than any other time…
        In this era, particularly between 1890 and 1910…county after county and town after town in the Ozarks, both in Missouri and in Arkansas, drove out their African Americans, sometimes at the point of a gun. As a result, the black population of the Ozarks went down to only about a third of what it had been and those people were concentrated in just a few counties. ”

        I bring up the past because it more often than not informs the present.

        22 of the 30 Missouri white supremacist hate groups the Southern Poverty Law Center is tracking are based in the Ozarks. Many people have stated they moved there because of the ” lack of minorities”.

        It’s ridiculous to think that this describes lots of folks in the Ozarks. There are plenty of loving, tolerant,welcoming people everywhere as well. But it does point to a regional attitude,IMO.

        Lastly,this particular blog post struck me as odd.

        I was a little baffled by the ( to me)Un-Nicole-like behavior.
        I couldn’t understand the angst over an order of a glass of water,no matter what the temperature.
        There was a keen awareness of ” what people would think”, ” they have stereotypes”, ” my options” ( why not his options?)etc.
        Running throughout seemed to be a need to protect and rescue instead of feeling comfortable with letting the situation play out and letting Mr. Mostafa handle it in his own way ,as the good guy he actually is, as I think you ordinarily would have done in, say, New York.
        I got the feeling you must have been under more than a bit of psychological and sociological stress.

        Some folks have question your wisdom in raising your child in Saudi Arabia.
        I personally think it’s as valid to question having her too much in the Ozarks if you really feel something like a glass of water could cause serious perception problems. The elephants in the room are much bigger than that glass, of course.
        ( IMHO,unless she is the most accommodating kid in the world, she will likely let you know ,in no uncertain terms, if she doesn’t share your opinions of the place soon enough..lol!)
        In the end, both your homes may turn out to be wonderful.
        Or you all may wake up one day and say ” Screw all of this! Let’s go live in Bora Bora!”

        • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

          risi, if you don’t mind my asking, where exactly were your friends shot at? in arkansas? i ask because the missouri/arkansas state line is indeed my neck of the woods. aaaaand that’s why my parents don’t want me to wear hijab there. :(

          you’re absolutely right that racism is rampant in the ozarks, and i think i’ve addressed that in other posts. i’ve had teachers who regularly tossed around the n-word. when i was a kid, i once saw a recruiting flyer for the local kkk branch posted on the community bulletin board at walmart. people think i’m making that up, but nope, i remember it very clearly. racism is a very real problem in the ozarks, one that i have been pushing back against my entire life. (in high school, we were once assigned to write an essay for a local contest. the topic was why we love our hometown–i spent five pages ranting about racism in our community. my teacher asked if i really wanted to submit that for the contest–couldn’t i find something positive to say about our home? i said, “nope, that’s what i want to say.” i’m pretty sure she didn’t actually submit the essay to the contest judges, lol.)

          but if my rendering of the ozarks seems “gentle,” especially in this post, that’s because it’s where i’m from. it’s the place i knew as home for my entire life. it’s much the same way a saudi might write about his home country “gently,” even though there are serious issues that demand to be addressed here and ugly histories to be acknowledged, just as in any other place. i sometimes write about the ozarks “gently” because it’s my mom, who is one of the most gentle people i know, and it’s my dad, who, when the time comes (hopefully not for a long, long time), wants to be buried on our farm next to his favorite horse and his faithful labrador retriever who died this year. it’s jumping in cold creeks in the summertime. it’s looking up and seeing stars. it’s hearing crickets and bullfrogs at night. it’s the only childhood i know, and therefore, in many ways, it’s my comfort, despite the ugliness in both its history and its present. but at least i can see the ugliness alongside the beauty. i’m sad to say that many can’t. i hope that lavender will be the same way–able to acknowledge the ugliness alongside the beauty and warmth of the places that built her parents.

          you’re right that i was under psychological and sociological stress, lol! and you’re also right that i often feel the need to protect mr. mostafa when we’re at home in missouri, irrational as that may be. he can hold his own wherever he is, and he is indeed a good guy, and that should play out on its own. if others can’t see it, it’s not my problem. on some level, i know this, and i have to keep reminding myself that i do, lol. but at the same time, i know all too well (from previous experiences, which i won’t get into here) that the silliest things can get warped and turned into ridiculous stories that others are all too willing to pass along, continuing to warp them as they pass from person to person. mr. mostafa deserves better than that when he comes home with me. it’s much the same way mr. mostafa and his immediate family try to gently guide me when i make a cultural misstep in riyadh, or the way they insist that i receive the same sort of accepting treatment from the extended family (in terms of gifts, acknowledgement, etc.) that a saudi wife would get. they want to protect me, too, even though i think they know (or at least, mr. mostafa knows) that my life will not be too greatly affected if i don’t spend a lot of time with extended family members. but family is important, and they want me to be a part of it. the same way my family is important to me, and i want mr. mostafa to be a part of it.

          i so wish i had reacted differently about the water. it was such a silly thing, and making mr. mostafa feel small was the last thing that i intended to do. but as folks know by now, i tend to not let anyone at home think they have any sort of reason to mock or denigrate my husband, even though fox news may be simultaneously attempting to convince them otherwise. i’ll defend him and clarify his cultural quirks all day long if that’s what it takes, the same way he does for me in saudi arabia when necessary…because we both love our cultures, despite their major problems, and we each want the other to feel at home in them.

          i don’t know about bora bora, but i admit that while in missouri, i did say to mr. mostafa, “why don’t we just buy an old farmhouse in the french countryside and go live there? you can be an accountant there. i can be a teacher. lavender can go to a french school. let’s go someplace where neither of us understands the culture and we’ll be clueless together.” lol…

          • Risi

            Yeah, it was Arkansas.
            I really hope those judges saw your essay.
            I ended up writing quite a bit on that region and then deleted most of it because I told myself:
            ” She’s a flippin’ Ph.D candidate…she knows her states history,dufus!”
            Then I forgot to delete the rest…lol!
            Old brain.
            It’s true Mr. Mostafa deserves far better than being the victim of stereotyping and gossip ( not sure who in your circle would do this since it obviously isn’t your family and I can’t imagine you hanging out with folks who would do that).
            If you are talking about the community as a whole,I would tend to agree with Kate that it’s on them and it isn’t mr. Mostafa’s job to go about ” educating everyone”.
            However,I am a teacher,too,and am familiar with the desire to “explain things”….perhaps if folks in your community give it a chance and really get to know him, good things can happen.

  • joanj

    You don’t have to be from another country to have a small cultural shock. We’re from the east coast USA and spent two weeks in Missouri last year. Many a time we looked at each other with a look of bewilderment. We went to several events where things were done and said that never would be in our neck of the woods.
    Granted the differences are larger for your husband and you, but once you leave the area you live differences are there.
    I think all you can do is embrace the difference.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      i agree! my parents grew up in california and every time i visited my california relatives as a child, i was struck by how different the two places were.

  • http://gravatar.com/roamingwild Kate

    Europe also has room temperature or ice water. That is standard practice. When I’m in the US (I live half here and half in Europe), I’ve been known to ask for room temperature, and then realize that I need to add “no ice”. You uncivilized Americans. 😉 I can say that because I’m American too. I personally could care less what the waitress or anyone else thinks of it. I am often amused by the stereotypes Europeans have of Americans and Americans of Europeans. Because I’m in between both cultures, I get to hear both sides and I’ve sort of learned to not care one iota what stereotypes I gather. I’m also of mixed race, so … with that, you learn pretty early on to just fly your freak flag high, forget about everyone else. If I’m around people who are closed minded, I’m afraid that I often enjoy playing into their ignorant stereotypes of what I am simply because it amuses me (and keeps my anger at bay). I know I’m supposed to be more open, maybe educate people or whatever. But, that’s not my job frankly. Also, I hate that, in order to educate the more ignorant, I have to pander to their sensibilities. I’m not the one who should be embarrassed. It’s the job of the dominant party to educate themselves. It irritates me that most people are just too lazy or indifferent to do so. Er, anyway, got off on a rant there! Point is, your husband should never be embarrassed by his differences. And if he’s made to feel that way, then that is on the other party – not him. He should take that room temperature water, and stare them down as he drinks is in an alpha type of way. 😉 That’s what I do at any rate.