Kansas isn’t just buffalo and rolling hills

By Zara Ali

When I tell people I lived in a small rural town in Kansas for most of my childhood, I get a lot of different reactions. Some people repeat my statement in the form of a question; some wonder if I’m joking. They ask if I lived on a farm, if there were any other Asians and if everyone there was the stereotypical hillbilly of their imagination. 

Essentially, they want me to confirm their views that Kansas is basically cowboy land — but I can’t. Because I know that it’s more than that.

Most people’s first question is why I was living in Kansas. A Pakistani girl with doctor, immigrant parents doesn’t seem to fit into their visions of the state. As part of my dad’s visa requirements, he had to practice in an underserved area. A hospital in Hays, Kansas, gave him the best offer. We moved there from New Jersey, just as I was entering Kindergarten. 

Many Whitman students would be aghast at the concept of moving to Kansas. But as a five-year-old, I didn’t have any preconceived notions about our new home; all I cared about was if our yard would be big enough for a sandbox (it was). My parents didn’t know what to expect either; they had only lived in America for a couple of years and had never heard of the state before.

When we arrived in Hays, we were welcomed instantly. Hays was similar to Bethesda or any other town, and it had a more tight-knit community than we ever could’ve imagined. Other immigrant families lived there for the same reason as us, and they were some of the kindest people we’ve ever met. Even though neighbors and classmates didn’t always share the same political views as us, they still invited us to potlucks and we carpooled together — like any other community.

I consistently played cricket with other families and explored the empty fields that extended miles behind my backyard. Our town even had a wide array of food, beyond just the barbecue and brisket we expected; I had the best Vietnamese noodles of my life in a small family-run shop in Hays. 

Even with these childhood experiences, I’m still sometimes guilty of stereotyping people based on their location. Because of preconceived notions alone, I was admittedly a bit hesitant to visit family friends in small-town Alabama last February. I’d heard in the news about an Alabama newspaper publishing a pro-KKK editorial. But when I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised by the openness of the community. My family friends are Pakistani as well, and they’ve lived in Alabama for 16 years. They’ve never felt different from the rest of their community; their biggest takeaway from Southern life was their newfound love for grits.

Of course, not everyone in Kansas or Alabama is as kind or welcoming as the people I know — but neither is everyone in Bethesda. My experiences in Kansas changed how I view communities as a whole. We shouldn’t define locations solely by our friends’ opinions or the stories we hear in the news. With an open mind, you might be surprised by the depth of culture and the warmth of community nearly any place has to offer.