Letter from New York

by Carol Elk


My Oklahoma heritage has been garnering a lot of attention since Oklahomans voted to ban Sharia law. The attention has come in the form of posts to my facebook wall along the lines of “Hey Carol! couldn’t help thinking on how relieved you must be to hear that good old Oklahoma is free at last from the tyrannical yoke of Sharia law!” Pondering the results of the recent elections over coffee, my Uzbek friend, Kahramon, was quizzical; “But Sharia law is religious law. The US already has a separation of church and state, right? Isn’t it redundant to vote on something that’s already in the Constitution?” Who am I to argue with an Uzbek?

My foreign friends have no preconceived notions of Oklahoma, no stereotype to draw upon. In contrast, my American friends insist that I am “not a typical Oklahoman” which hints at prejudice below the surface. It depresses me that I take that as a compliment. Everybody is from somewhere, and I want to be able to speak about my home state with pride.

Not that I don’t have some lovely things to say about Oklahoma. It is quite beautiful. My uncle, also an Oklahoman who long ago decamped for the foggy environs of the San Francisco Bay, has traveled back many times over the years to photograph landscapes to sell to Oklahoma publications, calendars and travel books. He and I reminisced recently about how much we enjoy reconnecting with Oklahoma and Oklahomans who, as is characteristic of Southerners and Midwesterners, are fluent in small talk. It is very important to Oklahomans that mutual or disparate feelings about such things as the weather, the performance of local and state sports teams, and the price of something (gas, corn, anything at Wal-Mart) are established before the meat of the conversation is brought up. Mostly this small talk is charming, but the assumption of familiarity fostered by small talk is not always welcome, and has led to a few encounters that I can only describe as being culture-shock inducing. During a visit to Tulsa this spring, my mother introduced me to a colleague of hers who, having nothing of shared local interest about which to chit chat, decided instead to question me about my personal life.

“So, you’re married?”


Her voice went up a register. “Engaged?”

“Nope.” I don’t know where she got this idea. I wasn’t wearing a ring.

“Dating anybody seriously?” Higher still, with quizzical eyebrows.


She smiled compassionately. “Well, it’s just so difficult to find a man who’s truly walking with the Lord, isn’t it?” The women around us smiled and nodded in agreement.

Seeing as how my deeply religious mother was standing right next to me, I didn’t have the heart to tell this woman that, if I were to encounter such a man, I would run screaming from him posthaste. I regarded her social ineptitude with as much pity as she seemed to regard my single status. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage and laughs out of that story at dinner parties and in my Sociolinguistics class where I told it as an example of a culture-specific small talk “speech act” in linguistics jargon. The specific culture being one where it is assumed that most women are married with children by a certain age and moreover, that marriage and motherhood are their ultimate goal, and where talking about your religious beliefs is embraced by enough of the local population that it freely permeates many conversations about otherwise unrelated matters.

My parents still live in Oklahoma, along with a few people from high school with whom I still keep in touch. I assume that I will continue to visit periodically for the rest of my life. Each time as I prepare for the trip I look forward to revisiting old haunts and eating barbecue and dread all the driving and associated inconveniences of being in a place designed for the car-dependent. When my feet hit the energized streets of New York for the first time, I felt at peace and at home. I like to read on my commute, to walk across the street for coffee, milk and the Times, to be a stroll across the park from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a short subway ride away from Carnegie Hall, and to hear forty different languages as I go about doing all of this.

I’ve considered the lives of my contemporaries who never left Oklahoma whose routines include mowing lawns, designating drivers, and measuring time spent in a car by hours each week. I’m happy for them if they’re happy. I’d like to think that I could carve out a niche for myself anywhere and that I could live there again and experience the Oklahoma of my childhood memories as an adult. But when I read about Oklahoma in the news, I put the paper down, sigh with exasperation and feel relieved that I left.

Carol Elk is an alumnus of Union High School and a graduate student at Teachers College Columbia University.