• Karen Tran-Harding

Don't knock a state until you have tried it

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

Back when my husband Cameron and I were still in medical school, his parents invited us to visit their new home on higher ground after their old house had flooded too many times. They live in Eastern Kentucky, the Appalachian region of the state. I’m a Vietnamese American female, a very small percentage of the 1.8% Asian demographic in Pikeville, Kentucky, so I won’t lie – I was nervous about visiting their town for the first time.

One of their new neighbors ended up being my husband’s high school English teacher Janet, a very friendly woman in her mid 40’s. She knew we were coming in to visit that day so she stopped by the house to say hello. Janet took one look at me – and only me - and said, “Oh, you have to meet my daughter, you’ll just love her”.

I figured maybe she found out that I was planning on specializing in pediatrics and assumed she knew it meant I loved kids.

Later that afternoon, we walked two doors down to Janet’s house. She opened up her bright front door and said, “Let me go get Hailey!”. Next thing we know, Janet is walking back into the front hall hand in hand with her 8-year-old.

A daughter that she had just adopted. From Korea.

I still look back on that meeting many years ago fondly. And I thought back to it a few days after election day 2020 when my husband and I were listening to a popular radio host speak about pundit’s poor perceptions of the state. He spoke about how a prominent author who had never foot in the state even messaged him and insinuated that he, like other Kentuckians, are essentially stupid. It reminded me of the times my friends warned me that there was rampant racism before my move there.

Before I spent my medical training in the bluegrass state, I had lived in southern California my entire life. So I’m no J.D. Vance, brought up in the deep rooted values and the social problems of his hometown. I’m not even my husband, who himself was born and raised in Eastern Kentucky. I’m a total outsider looking in – so I don’t have the same deep connection to the region which could make me defensive when it comes to the state. But I can tell you even with my own background and experience, the disparaging comments belittling the people of the Kentucky even offend me now.

I actually spent a lot of time in many different rural towns in Kentucky and I was shown nothing but kindness and it’s where I found out that Southern Hospitality really exists. Yes, many of them have lived their way of life for years and a lot of their conservative opinions has been passed on for generations. But just because someone enjoys their own way of living and may have different political and life beliefs than someone else doesn’t mean they lack intelligence or that they won’t try to find common ground with you. And maybe some of them are actually horrible, racist people but unfortunately, that’s not something unique to the state.

And although some people may just pass off Kentucky as a deep red state that will never change their ways, keep in mind that the current governor is a Democrat and that the previous mayor of Lexington, KY was openly gay. So, the state does have diverse opinions and is open to embracing change. It’s too easy for all of us to judge a place and their people based on what you read about or watch on the news.

I know some people consider Janet a little bit misguided in thinking that I would automatically “love” her daughter because we were both of Asian descent. And frankly, Hailey and I could not even speak the same Asian language of our respective heritages. But Janet’s heart was definitely in a good place and I really appreciated what she did.

That she had sensed that I would feel unwelcome in her hometown and was doing whatever she could to prevent it. And that’s one of the many times I knew no one should belittle the state or people of Kentucky – or any state for that matter - until you have actually been there.

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