Friday, September 08, 2017

No Hollywood script: What happens when a newly stronger liberal visits her rural hometown?

Connie Philips, Hannah Ross, Emily Phillips Reyes and Emily's husband Cristian Reyes talk at the county fair in Clark County, Missouri. (Washington Post photo by Matt McClain)
It's a Hollywood staple: Outsider goes to rural area, culture clash ensues, sometimes with hilarity. Or, person leaves small town, expands world view, comes home, causes drama. But how do such situations play out in real life? It's a topic that seems to fascinate The Washington Post's Stephanie McCrummen. In July she wrote a thoughtful piece about what life is like for a Muslim doctor who moved to small-town Minnesota, especially since President Trump's election. And this week the Post ran her story tracking 22-year-old Emily Phillips Reyes on a visit to her small home town of Kahoka, Mo. Reyes became far more liberal during and after college, and was nervous about what her family would think about her, how she should to talk to her family, and whether they would accept her Guatemalan-born husband, Cristian. Kahoka, population 2,007, is mostly white and Republican, and almost three of every four of its votes went to Donald Trump.

Kahoka, Missouri
(Sperling's Best Places map)
"All the way home, she had thought about how she was supposed to act in this place she loved but now felt so conflicted about. How was she going to talk to people when every conversation seemed to slip into arguments about the fate of America? How was she going to get along for three days at a county fair?" McCrummen writes. "At a moment when the phrase 'cold civil war' was being used to describe the nation’s seemingly irreconcilable differences, coming home was beginning to feel like crossing over to the other side."

Emily's relationships back home had become increasingly bumpy, as her personal convictions changed. But she had loved going to the Clark County Fair since she was a girl, and had promised to help her parents run their concession booth for three days. So she went, and McCrummen's story highlights the awkward, delicate navigation of her visit. Her husband Cristian pitched in, trying hard not to draw attention to himself as an immigrant. He had been raised in rural Missouri since he was eight, and showed up to meet Emily at the fair wearing a shirt with a huge American flag. He was, he told her, in "full PR mode."

But controversial topics kept coming up in conversations, parts of which McCrummen reports verbatim, and everyone involved had to choose whether to engage in arguments that would not likely change anyone's mind. "Maybe the best path forward was avoidance, Emily thought. Avoid Trump, avoid all related controversial subjects. Talk about biscuits and fries and the demolition derby and appreciate what Kahoka was, not what it wasn’t," McCrummen writes. That approach worked, for the most part. And after the controversial topics were stripped away, what was left were the everyday conversations between people who love each other, even if they don't understand each other's beliefs so well any more. The story is a good weekend read.

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