Being from a foreign country and knowing little about Iowa or the Midwest, I thought of Grinnell as a little campus in the middle of the tall prairie grass. Indeed, I chose to come here not only because I wanted the isolation and oneness with nature that Grinnell seemed to offer, but also because I desired a retreat where I could nurse my tired body while nourishing my hungry mind. I had a fantasy image of Grinnell as the perfect retreat center, where all was quiet and serene.
Stepping off the plane, I was shocked to see that I was at a proper, if somewhat small, airport. Even so, Des Moines — the capital and one of the biggest cities in Iowa — paled in comparison to my hometown, Kuala Lumpur. I lived in the heart of KL, seven minutes from what were at the time the world’s tallest towers. I was also seven minutes from Malaysia’s very own Times Square, which houses thousands of shops including Asia’s largest indoor theme park, as well as the biggest Borders bookstore in the world. Des Moines simply could not compare.
While driving to the College, I spotted fields of corn and soybeans all around me. I could not recall ever having seen cornfields before. I tried to brace myself for what I expected would be an introduction to a remote, uninhabited prairie, but it never came. I spotted a Subway and a KFC. I saw Wells Fargo and Radio Shack, and even a Pizza Hut. This turned out to be the town of Grinnell. The phrase “in the middle of nowhere,” I discovered, was actually something of an overstatement.
I remember my first time gallivanting about town. I liked it immediately. I liked how personable it felt, how quiet and restful. I shall not deny that the absence of a Starbucks, or a 7 Eleven, or a restaurant that stayed open past 10 p.m., or a building taller than three stories, was not lost on me. Yet, these were not obvious disadvantages. In place of Starbucks, Grinnell offered me Saints Rest, which, while it did not serve my favorite green tea frappuccino, offered better music and wonderfully affable company. In place of late-night restaurants, there were cozy pubs. In place of chain stores, quirky, agreeable little shops tried to cater to my needs and wants.
I did not immediately like certain things about small-town Grinnell. I found the lack of streetlights rather disturbing at first, coming as I do from a metropolis where snatch-thieves and other dodgy characters abound in dimly lit areas. Now, I feel comfortable going for nightly jaunts by myself without feeling the need to look behind me every 10 seconds. I enjoy a clear vision of the sky and the stars. The town of Grinnell is not exactly diverse: many of the townies are white, Christian, and somewhat conservative. Having said that, these same townies are friendly — they will open doors for you, smile when passing you, exchange greetings on the street, and offer to help you with those heavy bags. Again, not something a city-dweller is used to.
The weather here is also very different. I come from a tropical country where the temperature never dips below 77 degrees and never rises above 95 degrees. The sun rises at 6:30 a.m. and sets at 6:30 p.m. every single day of the year. This is my third Midwestern winter, and I have yet to get used to it. Here, winters can be brutal; they can also be wildly unpredictable. I love how one can wake up in the middle of January to a warm and snowless day. Similarly, we can and do get a week of crazy cold weather in the middle of April or May.
As a child, I lived in several countries before moving to Malaysia. That early nomadic existence meant that while I felt comfortable moving around and could settle in easily enough, I never felt like any place was my place. I was always a traveler — every “home” was merely a temporary dwelling. From the moment I came here, I liked the College and the town. Obviously then, I was still in my honeymoon phase. Yet, two and a half years later, I am still in love with this place. A longer honeymoon phase, perhaps? It does not feel like it. It feels like I have finally found a place of my own.
Smita Elena Sharma '08 is a Philosophy major from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.