By Kalan Leaks
[3 minute read]
As I write this, I am realizing that this semester will be my final one as an undergraduate attending the University of Southern California. It’s been quite a journey from being a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman to being a nonplussed engineer with bags under his eyes. Living in Los Angeles has taught me so much about the world as well as myself. Its many charms have won me over despite some of its flaws. However, as the time until graduation slips ever closer, my mind wanders towards my first home in the Southern part of the United States.
I was born in Blytheville, Arkansas, at 11:37 pm on October 28th. Blytheville is on the northeastern side of Arkansas, so if you wanted to take a quick vacation, Tennessee and Missouri are only minutes away. Arkansas itself has a few interesting, noteworthy quirks. The state gem is a diamond due to the fact that Arkansas is the only state that produces diamonds, and it produces more rice than any other state. Also, for some reason, our state beverage is milk.
Blytheville only has a population of around 15,000 people-that’s smaller than USC’s current undergraduate population and almost 3 times smaller than USC’s total student population! If that astonishes you, then you would be surprised to know that the neighboring town of Dell, Arkansas, has a population of only 250 people. Blytheville is a town that takes pride in agriculture and small town charm. You only have to drive a few minutes outside of town before riding along cotton or wheat fields at your side just waiting to be harvested. A benefit of living in a small town is that you get to know everyone in your community. It reminds me of an old television show that would air late at night called Cheers. The theme song would say, “…where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” To me, that’s Blytheville.
However, the downside to living in a small town is, ironically, that everyone in the community knows you and your family. If you happen to get into trouble at school, your family will probably hear the story from five different people by the time you get home. So, you have plenty of incentive to be on your best behavior.
Despite having some fond memories of home, there are plenty of memories of upsetting aspects of the culture in Blytheville that sometimes override them. Unlike Los Angeles, where racism and homophobia are more covert and institutional, Arkansas has plenty of “old school” prejudices on display. One of the most vivid memories of my teenage years was visiting one of my relatives in the hospital that was a victim of police brutality. He had multiple broken ribs as well as bruises covering his entire body. The doctor that treated him said the police found my relative after he “fell” on some railroad tracks. The crime happened before the age in which social media was used to let the world know of these tragedies, and it wasn’t mentioned in the local paper.
Thinking back upon the first 18 years of my life, it’s interesting to realize that although Los Angeles and Blytheville are vastly different, they are in a few ways quite similar. LA has far more diversity than I could have ever dreamed of in my hometown (which had an even black and white demographic with barely any other ethnicities represented). But at the end of the day, despite the different vernacular, accents, customs, and food, there are many common emotions and motivations between the two places. Both cities are made of people just trying to make it through the day. Both cities are still plagued by the same issues of classism, racism, and other social justice issues, although each city has its own collective reactions to these issues. When I first came to Los Angeles, I thought I was entering another world. Now, after living here for 5 years, I realize that I am merely living in a different part of the same world.
Kalan Leaks is a former ALI One-on-One Conversation Partner and a recent USC graduate.