I’d like to think that I exude a friendly air. I am, however, a reluctant conversationalist. Not that I’m not an easy speaker, but I’m certainly not fond of striking up desultory chats with people I don’t know.
Sweeping dust bunnies from under the bed into a dustpan comes to me far more effortlessly than unzipping my mouth in front of nodding acquaintances and strangers. Given the choice between listening to a prolix academic lecture and participating in a classroom debate, I’d pick the stodgy over the lively.
Yet, the Dakotas is one of those rare topics that pries open my reticence in a get-together, and makes me unleash a volubility, which, quite honestly, surprises, even me. I may not enjoy talking for the sake of talking, but I do, for the sake of this cold, arid, silent region of the U.S. I can’t, in fact, hold back my tongue, when it comes to it.
How do I explain that I—an Indian-born, of South-Asian descent—have come to see myself as an unpaid cheerleader for the Sioux Empire, with as much zeal as a member of its indigenous Lakota tribe?
Perhaps I see in it, an opportunity to enlighten folks who’re unfamiliar with the geography of their own nation. Pointing a gloved index finger at my South Dakota driver’s license, a T.S.A. worker at J.F.K., had once asked me, bemusedly, “So, is that where Mount Rushmore is?”
The less benighted, know where the Dakotas are, of course, but they know North and South Dakota to be a lonesome and depressing geographical couple, populated by coverall-wearing yokels who jump off bandwagons.
I object. That’s wildly untrue. I should know.
I may not be a born and bred South Dakotan, but as someone who’s gone to school, lived, and worked in a part of the U.S., not on the list of vacation destinations of most Americans, makes me inordinately more knowledgeable than an Oregonian or a New Yorker. I have the benefit of an eyewitness report of its topography, its climate, its people.
But what’s closer to the truth, still, is that I see in it, an avenue to good-naturedly brag to immigrants piled on either coast that I’ve lived in the heartland. “Yes, unlike you, I’ve lived in ‘America’,” I jab at them mentally.
My attitude seems to echo the message in this cheeky advertisement, one of a series, which popularized a New York-based self-storage company, Manhattan Mini Storage: “Remember, if you leave the city, you’ll have to live in America.”
The only difference between those who wrote it and me is that they did it to get attention, and I believe it to be true. The line of another goes this way: “Nobody becomes famous in Des Moines.”
This is the standard indictment of a small town by someone living in a city the size of New York. By this logic, everyone in Los Angeles should be famous, then?
I protest. Fame is hardly a function of location. If anything, statistically, an individual has a far slimmer chance of getting “famous” in a city of eight million people than in one with 200,000, which is about the population of Des Moines, Iowa.
The circles that one can break into, in a metropolis, are potentially more influential. But the bigger the city, the stiffer is the competition, and the higher is the risk of getting lost in its cavernous belly and becoming one among its faceless herd. “Fame? Forget about it,” as a Brooklynite would put it.
Which is yet another reason why I rush to the passionate defense of neglected outposts, such as the Dakotas when it’s attacked in casual conversations. But all said, I’m a happy New Yorker.