By no stretch of the imagination am i what one would consider a quintessential Southerner. And yet, i feel as though everywhere i go my identity – so intricately interlaced with growing up in North Carolina – is up for debate. I recognize already that this is the ultimate of white-girl-first-world-teenage-angst problems (waaah! no one understands meeee!) but the lack of a connection to a homeplace is a much broader identity crises i’ve wrangled with for, well, my whole life. Oh, God. I just said i’m having an identity crises. It really doesn’t get more teenage-ery and whinier than that, does it?
But, since i am, after all, still a teenager (if only for another mere six-ish months) and this little blog has grown to be my soapbox for venting and processing, i want to unpack my thoughts here. I beg of your forgiveness and indulgence while i embark on this mad-as-a-box-of-cats typing session.
As i attend an intentionally incredibly diverse college, one of the most frequently asked questions when first making the acquaintance of people is to inquire as to where they’re from. This past week, being the first week of classes, meant another round of these in every seminar and lecture (benefits of my largest class being only thirty people). Answers tend to range in everything from Brooklyn to Seattle to Seoul to Sri Lanka, reminders of why Mount Holyoke is such a beautiful and wide and wonderful place to be.
Whenever the question comes to me, i panic a little. Not externally – well, i certainly hope it’s not externally obvious – but there’s always something of a fretting taste to my mouth before i declare myself to be “lizzie, sociologyandreligiondoublemajor, class of 2014, from North Carolina.”
This is always a stewing of worry in me for two reasons; the first being that i am not technically from North Carolina. In fact, i was technically born in Atlanta, Georgia; a lovely place, undoubtedly, but i only lived there for a few months (if that). From my birth onward, my family pilgrimaged far and wide across the United States.
By the time i was six-and-a-half years old, i had lived in seven states and had moved eight times.
Atlanta, therefore, is hardly where i would ultimately claim to be “from.” We lived a winter in Pennsylvania (a splendid season to move Northward), i can recall the lemon tree that gave fruit to our tiny hands in the backyard in California, there is a porch painted white in my memory that i’m told was part of the house in South Carolina, and i can still trace the carpet pattern of the first North Carolina house’s basement.
When compared to my friends who still live in the house their parents put a down payment on prior to their conceptions – people who have known neighbors and friends for their entire lives - i feel like such a liar. My “hometown” is not where i was born. It’s not where i took my first steps. It’s not where i learned to speak, or met my brothers for the first time, or learned to play hopscotch on the front driveway. Those all happened in different homes, different states, different parts of the country.
This motion, this mobility with which i was raised, is something i feel i am only now coming to terms with in a rip-roaring, open-wound kind of way. I hold no bitterness for my continent-spanning childhood; i like to think it made me stronger. More outgoing, more willing to make friends and more flexible in new situations. And most of my friends growing up where very like me in this regard – they were from all over, corporate brats and children of the dust. When i first began to get to know people at school, it baffled me that someone could have lived in the same house their whole life. It was just so different from what i knew, and in some ways, i’d never really realized how distinctive, then, my rearing had been.
I mean, i was born in Georgia, but i don’t particularly like peaches and i most definitely need a map to negotiate my way around the city of my origin. For this reason, i claimed North Carolina to be my home: i’m not a Tar Heel born, but i spent the better part of my life thus far living and breathing North Carolinian air and slurping down sweet tea by the gallon. Amidst the get-to-know-you-Bingo-games and those horrendously awkward first conversations, i was the peculiar southerner misplaced in New England.
And yet, when that question comes to me to answer, i still felt – and continue to feel – like a part of me is being completely inauthentic. A total fraud. In the same way i’m not born-and-raised from North Carolina, an inclination in my mind reminds me that the town in which i grew up in is by no means what the quintessential North Carolinian would consider to be truly, well, North Carolinian.
I’m from Chapel Hill, a college town home to the University of North Carolina; a town encasing the smaller hippie borough (turned town) that is the once-commune now-granola-tree-loving Carrboro. It’s not precisely what i would call a posh place, but it certainly reeks of the Old South harmonizing – often dissonantly – with the burgeoning, Berkenstocks-wearing counterculturals that inhabit the organic groceries that pepper its winding streets.
Chapel Hill and Carrboro, as a unit, make for a pretty unique place to have lived; the town is pretty old, by American standards, and rich in a history reflective of much of what is perceived to be the “Southern heritage.” There are monuments dedicated to men who died in the Civil War a mere mile from a bookstore that hosts bi-monthly letter-writing campaigns to encourage political prisoners and to chastise the governments holding them hostage. I’m a fan of frequenting the thrift stores and collecting homes for discarded shoulder-padded 80s nightmares, but there’s plenty of J. Crew wannabe boutiques in the plethora of strip malls dotted around town. In the summer, there are politically-driven puppet shows hewn with unimaginable artistry. Year-round you can find a play or musical or opera or performance art piece just about every weekend (and when that isn’t enough, there are more intimate concert venues in the city limits than i could count on two hands).
Yet there are also neighborhoods with nothing but white picket fence houses, children going to manners classes, and debutante invitations. Every restaurant offers sweet tea, you can find fried chicken on almost any menu (save the vegetarian-only places), and liquor stores are legally-bound to decree themselves as alcohol-seling venues with signs that say “ABC Store.”
I guess what i’m trying to say is that my hometown defies any kind of regional label. When i say i’m from North Carolina i tend to get one of two reactions. The first; “But you don’t have an accent!” which i can’t help but feel is really meant to be “But you seem somewhat intelligent and not bigoted!” I know that’s an unfair assessment of what are assuredly occasional, perfectly innocent comments. Yet i often find myself defending “The South” in the same way i have to claim that having lived in Uganda for ten weeks does not make me an expert on the entire continent of Africa. No, not everyone is Republican (North Carolina has a Democrat for a governor! Who is a woman! And we voted blue in 2008!). No, i did not grow up on a farm. No, i’m not a Bible-thumping fundamentalist quoting Leviticus to justify homophobia while eating shellfish.
In response, i try to make light of the situation and the sometimes-subtext. I’ll make a joke about how my lack of an accent makes up for the amount of sweet tea i’ve consumed in my lifetime. When in a bad mood, though, i put it bluntly: “not everyone in the South sounds the same, you know. A Kentucky accent is about as far from a Piedmont-region North Carolina accent as a Cockney accent is from a Scottish one.” Or, better yet, i might go on a rampage, we’re all Heritage-Not-Haters with rebel flags and obesity problems. Those are rare, but i tend to feel pretty guilty for isolating people after said rampages.
However, herein enters the second reason why i feel inauthentic when i decree myself to be a North Carolinian. Yes, these stereotypes are broad generalizations that don’t account for everyone in the South. And yes, they’re frustrating when some of my closest friends in NC are from small towns in middle-of-nowhere country counties who deal with the “redneck” stigma in a real and incredibly classist way. I stick up for the South, because on some level it is where i’m from; my mom is a South Carolinian, born and bred. Again: sweet tea. Nectar of the deities.
But there’s a level of truth to the proverbial “But-you-don’t-have-an-accent!” comment. No, i really don’t. Only on certain words, and only when with other Carolinians.
This is because Chapel Hill/Carrboro is, by its own definition, not the “real” South. It’s a bedroom community for misplaced Michiganers commuting to Raleigh, it’s home to drifters and roamers and political activists in retirement – while simultaneously catering to the Chapel Hill elite who are Tar Heels born and bred. It’s a weird place, a place of dualities and convergences and ideas held in tension and tandem.
I don’t like BBQ, i couldn’t give a flying fizzing whizbee about football (but i heartily support the UNC Marching Band, for what’s it worth!), don’t spend my free time on ATVs, and i definitely would not be caught dead hunting. Stereotypes, yes, but every time i’m home at least once someone tells me i’m not really from North Carolina. But sometimes, the “redneck” label is one worn with pride – a celebration of identity with “North Carolina culture” (to appropriate). And Chapel Hill is, if anything, not a redneck-pride kind of place.
Sometimes i want to bite back, snap that just because i only use “ya’ll” with the most erratic infrequency and find pulled pork to be revolting doesn’t mean it’s not my home. By telling me i’m not from the real North Carolina, i feel like these people are claiming my childhood and adolescence were, by very nature of the surroundings they occurred in, unreal. Fake. Forever damning me to be suspended in between. Not Southern, not Yankee. I don’t sleep in the same room i was brought home from the hospital in, i don’t have any friend whom my parents knew from maternity classes, i haven’t been eating at the same restaurant for the whole of my life.
But i am from Chapel Hill/Carrboro. Elmo’s is the best restaurant on the face of this good green earth, i sport my Berks with pride, and i will never apologize for the people interpretive dancing on the green in front of Weaver street. I went to middle and high school in Chapel Hill, i made some of the best friends of my life at the playground in my neighborhood and at the summer spent at the North Carolina Governor’s School. There’s hardly a restaurant i haven’t tried or a block i don’t know. I learned to ride a bike, to drive a car on North Carolina roads. I left for Africa from a North Carolina airport, all three times.
And i am from North Carolina. I love bluegrass, i wear cowboy boots, i think the Avett Brothers are the best thing to have happened to folk music since Bob Dylan, and i say my “a”s like Scarlett O’Hara on occasion. Yeah, i’m having stereotypical growing pains in totally rejecting (and by rejecting, coming to accept as part of my own identity) the girls-in-pearls mentality so professed by so many in the white-picket-neighborhoods.
May i simply say, though, the title of this very website includes on key word: wandering. I have roots, they’re just spread far and wide across the country. I am from Anywhere, i am from nowhere, i am from North Carolina and i choose to be in New England and i love Uganda and have my sights set on Scotland for 2013. Where my childhood lacked in geographical consistency it flourished in curiosity and adventure. For that, i have no regrets at all. I learned to not let the dust settle, to pursue dreams, to be unhindered by location. I’m still learning. And learning is not always a clean and rant-free process independent of identity crises.
And yes, this has been a rant about identity crises. I know. I know. Here are some cats for your pains:
I just wanted to get that off my chest. Thanks for reading. Have some sweet tea or Maple View Ice Cream as a treat on me.
current jam: ‘hard to love’ old crow medicine show
best thing in my life right now: in a few weeks, wanderingwrites will be celebrating its one-year anniversary! PARTYLIKECRAZYANDSTUFF. as part of the revelry, there will be all kinds of fun things going on – including giveaways and a guest blogger. get pumped!