From the Big City to Rural South Dakota

An ode to all the Misfits

Although I was born and raised in California, after living in the central Midwest- Missouri, specifically- for five years, I figured I would transition well if I moved to any other Midwestern state. A move for a job in rural South Dakota quickly disabused me of that notion.

Of course, my intent is not to critique all of South Dakota. My opinions are just that, and also only based on my experiences. Also, I am lucky to have found a job at all during the peak of COVID. Here, I hope to provide some solace and humor to all those who have had a drastic fish out of water experience. All us square pegs in round holes have to stick together.

If I had a dollar for every time I have been asked in South Dakota where my husband is, I would no longer need to live here. It started on my very first day in town. I visited the property management company to pick up my keys for my apartment, and the (male) owner asked when my husband was joining me. When I replied that he wasn’t because he didn’t exist, the owner looked shocked; how on earth could a young woman make this move by herself?

This interaction repeated itself countless times over the next few weeks. As soon as I introduced myself to a new person and told them I just moved here, they would inquire about my husband. Often, they would ask about Mr. Right before asking where I was from or why I moved here. Unlike my other experiences in the Midwest, I found that in South Dakota, people instantly wanted to know my marital status. I’ve thought a great deal about why this is the case. Is it because they naturally assume that a woman in her mid-20s would be married? Do they tend to define women through their relationships with men? Was it their way of trying to find out if I had children? Although I find it strange, I am not offended by the question. Rather, I wished people could see beyond that question. Normally, when I answer that I’m not married, the conversation ends. The introduction is over; people do not want to seem to know anything else about me. With this move, I was determined to get to know people and make friends, but it seems as though my inability to check “married” on my taxes is some kind of obstacle to forming connections.

This block, this unwillingness to get to know new people has colored most of my interactions with people here. No one is overtly rude or mean, but people are closed off. I try to engage people to ask about their lives or the town, and usually get a quick answer and a brush-off. Maybe I truly am just so weird and strange that no one wants to talk to me. However, I learned from talking with my other coworkers who aren’t natives that they have had similar experiences. The vibe I get from people is just so unlike any other place I have ever lived. It lacks the chill, laid back attitude of California, the hospitable, friendly approach of the South, or the “it takes ten minutes to say goodbye because no one will stop talking” nature of Missouri. I had imagined that moving to a small town would be like Stars Hollow; it’s tiny, so everyone is close with each other! Yet, instead of the warmth of Stars Hollow, I am perpetually living in the distant, austere atmosphere of Emily Gilmore’s house.

My other favorite South Dakotan quirk is the aversion to certain apparel. At the gym one today, I wore a by all standards quite appropriate tie-dye crop top. With high waisted leggings, barely any skin was showing, but oh boy the looks I received were ghastly! I got the evil eye from anyone and everyone: old and young, male and female. I can only imagine the scandal I would have caused had my belly button been exposed! To go from a college gym where people tend to barely wear the legally required minimum of clothing to this environment, where anything less than full coverage is taboo, was shocking. After years spent in gyms, it takes a big push to knock me off my balance, and yet, in that moment, I felt so unsteady. After managing to finish the workout that day, I thought about whether I should change my clothes in the future. Then, I remembered that wild tie-dye prints make me smile and I have done nothing wrong. And you can bet that I went online and bought another tie-dye crop.

When I was about to move to South Dakota, my brother, who lived for a few years in North Dakota, warned me that I would experience quite the culture shock. Although I ignored him at the time, I realize now just how right he was (and how I hate to admit when my brother is right). South Dakota is the state with the fifth-smallest population, and I wonder how much this more close-minded cultural attitude contributes to keeping this population low. And I am a white, straight women: how much more unwelcoming would this place be if I wasn’t? At least in the rural parts of the state, there seems to be a pervasive unwillingness to expand or change, whether that be social circles or perceptions of women’s roles. How many people come to and then leave these towns, departing for more diverse or welcoming ones elsewhere? How would the atmosphere change if people were just a bit more friendly? How much more enjoyable would life be with more conversation and more tie-dye?

Historian, writer, and enthusiastic home-cook