Your Unique Cultural Lens: A Guide To Cultural Competence

Layer 2: Expression – Example 1


I lived my first 22 years – through college – in Oklahoma, then moved to Washington, D.C., full time. For more than 10 years, I’ve also traveled at least a quarter of the time. “When are you going [or coming] home?” is a common question in my life, with often a confusing answer because that could mean any number of places.

Home, to my transient mind, can mean my hotel room or even office. I call D.C., where I really live, home; there’s a map of D.C. on my wall with a star that in fact says, “You are home.” And home is also Oklahoma, which is…home. It’s where I’m from, where I understand the most about what’s going on, and where I’ll end up, one way or the other, at the end of my life.

Growing up, I never exactly fit in there, though; mostly, I was too bookish. Yet I never really intended to leave, even though moving away was the popular thing to want to do all throughout my middle and high school years. Life happened such that I’m one of just a few of my friends who did leave for seemingly ever, and the only person on either side of my family who has permanently left the wider region of Oklahoma, north Texas and eastern Arkansas since our forefathers came over on the boat, except for one cousin who moved to her husband’s hometown in Alabama a few years ago. Still, the longer I live out of the state, the more I realize how deep my ties remain logistically (I go back an average of three times a year, every year); relationally (my family and many best friends are there there); and in how I interpret life.

Oklahoma has a very distinct culture that’s hard to describe if you haven’t lived it and then somewhere else in contrast to it.

When I think of Oklahoma, I think: family and church; droughts and tornadoes; an economy based in oil, farming and the widespread belief that all wealth comes from the land. We have red dirt and some of the prettiest hills and trees on planet Earth. We are the land of the white man – in the historic 2008 election, Oklahoma voted for McCain over Obama by the widest margin of any state – but were originally a new homeland for Native Americans and very nearly became a black state by constitution. Oklahomans like their guns, and Oklahomans like their beef. Occasionally, the good guy with a gun myth plays out in real-life Oklahoma establishments, and most of us think that knowing almost everyone is packing prevents a lot of problems.  The state motto is Labor Conquers All Things, which is the most accurate four-word version of how I was raised and how I see life.

I’ve asked friends what comes to mind when they think of Oklahoma. God – religion, manifest destiny, our way of describing home as God’s country – came up the most. Republicanism and resiliency, ironic since Democrats dominated well into the 1990s and elements of the state’s management are anything but prepared to bounce back. Sports teams. Rednecks and Okies, neither of which is an insult anymore. Cheap, conspicuous, paranoid and racist are adjectives given, as well as friendly, warm and compassionate.

Oklahoma is a place people came when they had nowhere else to go. While some did because they were forced to (the Trail of Tears) and others came for opportunity (the Land Run), the common denominator was trying to get out of somewhere else. I have a disproportionate number of friends carrying German family names who have ancestors with known criminal records in the home country. While I swam against that stream – leaving to make my own better life somewhere else – the impulse runs deep.

There are certain parts of my personally I know come from that culture: I own versus rent; I always prefer to drive my own car; I am inclined toward self-employment; I tend away from fancy food, dress or attitudes; my sense of gender roles is complex and stubborn. Being Oklahoman has vastly influenced my impression of what constitutes a high wind, a solid day of work, excessive weight and a complete meal. Contemplating the things that made those two lists, I’m clear that the Oklahoma in me is part of why I tend to be so sensory, even visceral, in my experiences.

We talk a lot about the weather. We spend a lot of time thinking about the weather. We also know a lot about the weather, which I thought was standard until I got to know people on the East Coast and realized how surprised they are by rain. I recently posted on Facebook what I thought was a funny picture mocking my own disaster preparedness; within a day, I got an email from an uncle with specific instructions for righting my course and a list from my cousin’s boyfriend of go-bag items to buy. I temporarily forgot where I am from and, no, it’s not funny when weather awareness is a matter of life and death on a daily basis.

A handful of times each year, someone will find out I’m from Oklahoma and say, “Oh! You don’t sound like you’re from Oklahoma.” I usually just say, “Well, I am.” But with a few notable exceptions – tour (toor), oil (oul) – I really don’t, and I don’t really know why as I never specifically tried to sound like anywhere or anything.

I know I have a fair number of “Oklahomaisms” in my normal speech that nicely sum up concepts where other phraseology is lacking. But I have a hard time pointing them out because, of course, to me, they are just how I talk. Like everything in the semi-conscious, they come out more when I am angry – “I wasn’t born in a cabbage patch” is a snappy retort to condescension that I’ve found myself using more than once. Hearing things like that, some people on the East Coast think I’m a bit of a hick. While that can hurt, I mostly think those people are snobs – so in my Oklahoma-influenced brain, we are even.

Where I’m from, things tend to get worked out among the parties involved. A common phrase is, “That’s right,” which can mean agreement, let’s move on, it’s taken care of, or I am judging you and find your values to be in order.

Most of the people I work with now are Midwesterners, which I can report is an entirely different culture. We have two Oklahomans on staff, though, and while I’d like to think I’m making it up – that culture is neutral – our small group does actually get along better than with other colleagues. It’s an enduring code that promotes understanding, agreement and ease with one another. None of us have lived in Oklahoma for 10 years or more, but it’s our home culture that runs deeper than any subsequent personality layer.

The thing about Oklahoma is that it’s not just one thing. The state sits in the middle of everything and is a meld of most of what we consider central to America itself. As a state, it also literally splits – different geographies, economies, ideas about things almost half down the middle, which means it probably should have been two states to begin with.

I came to D.C. for a job, a man and the pretty monuments that still manage to stoke my hope for humanity. Washington really isn’t too different than my home state on that account. The original Chocolate City, it is still the most reliably African-American place in the country even with millennials taking over to serve $15 avocado toast. America’s capital and political heart, as well as diplomatic center, it’s also a surprisingly robust educational and tech hub, where almost any gathering includes at least one lawyer. Some of the smartest people in the world live in D.C. – and some of the dead dumbest. There is incredible wealth, aching poverty, rapid change and things that will never be different. Sounds like home to me.

Both of the geographic locations where I have roots – and the many places I spend rootless days and nights – offer a little bit of everything if though different sets of lenses, different filters on the human experience. I am a product of them and also fit nicely into them because I, too, am filled with paradoxes.