First off, let me say: I’m not homesick. I am truly having an amazing experience here, and furthermore, I’ve technically been away from home for the past five years living in Knoxville. It’s not that I enjoy being away from my family and the lake, but I know I’ll always come home to it. My roots run deep there, and I am satisfied with looking forward to returning.
But instead of being homesick, I am finding a new sort of longing has settled in my heart: culture sick. In short, I miss Southern culture. While this is not the first time I’ve been away from home, it is the first time I’ve lived outside the South, and adapting to this reality has been more of a challenge that I expected.
Being from the South informs an integral part of my identity in ways that other regions don’t seem to for other people. Of course, my accent precedes me; I don’t have to bother telling people where I’m from here. But being raised in the South runs so much deeper than my “yall”s, “aint”s, and “fixin to”s. It influences my mannerisms, what I consider polite behavior, the degree of my patriotism and even my taste in decoration and clothing.
Being from the South was always a heritage that was deeply cherished and celebrated throughout college, especially in my sorority. A successful sorority function meant we all wore sundresses and drank sweet tea from mason jars. Bonus points if you wore a hair bow or a monogrammed accessory. A proper dish brought to any proper social function by any proper Southern lady either came from a Paula Deen cookbook—or your great-granny’s 100-year-old handwritten recipe book. Most of our chapter rules fell along the lines of “don’t do anything a proper lady wouldn’t.” We shared copies of Southern Living, watched the best Southern cooking shows, and while we respected all our Greek brothers and sisters, the only chapters we really cared about were located in—you guessed it—the South.
Being from the South impressed upon me a certain expectation for manners that I will never be able to shake. My friends here gape at me when I tell them that I was raised to say “ma’am” and “sir”, unable to comprehend why any situation would require that degree of formality. But the horrible thought of someone addressing any of my grandparents with anything less than a polite “yes sir” or “no ma’am” makes my skin crawl at the indecency. And you can bet your bootstraps I’ll be teaching my kids to say the same.
My propensity for social delicacy and extreme attention to manners has given me a small reputation here, which I am proud to uphold even a slight fraction of. Our first week of school, we had small-group debriefings in which we shared our logistical challenges and brainstormed solutions to be submitted to the Leadership Team. Now, for context, our copy machines are utterly useless and dysfunctional: they can’t run more than 2 paper copies without getting jammed—and that’s not an exaggeration. Thinking judiciously about how to express this idea without appearing like I was complaining, I gently offered up, “the copy machines will not sustain the future growth of our school.” My Deputy Head looked at me and laughed. “You are so polite!” he said in his thick New York accent. “Those machines are a piece of shit, ok?”
I thought cultureshock of the Albanian lifestyle would be a challenge, but I was completely wrong. The cultureshock of living outside of the South is much harder. Turns out, I’m used to international cultureshock. I’ve grown up traveling. I went to Asia at the formative age of 12, and few cultures are as distinctly polar opposite to Tennessee as Korea is. Oh, so you guys sit on the floor to eat, kick your shoes off at the door of every household, and think boiled cabbage is the best food on Earth? Ok, I can roll with that.
But suddenly, living outside of the South is challenging for me. You guys don’t care about Sunday church, don’t know who Tim McGraw is, and have never been to Cracker Barrel? …Y’all just aint right.
Similarly, moving out of the Bible Belt has also been interesting, Here my fellow Americans are religiously indifferent at best. This is a long stretch from my mom, sister, and Memaw all telling me what they talked about this week in Bible Study.
…and in church…
…and in Sunday School.
And on that note, of COURSE I call home enough to know what my mother, sister-in-law, and Memaw all talked about at Church that week! Why? Because in the South, the order of importance goes like this: 1. God, 2. Family, 3. Football. While all family connections are important, I think The South tends to honor the nuclear family bonds more than other areas. I’ve been known to complain to my friends here if I haven’t talked to my mom in a while, and they seem absolutely shocked to hear its been–*gasp*– three days. They laugh and say they call their parents maybe every couple of weeks or even months. Even more shocking is the number of my coworkers who don’t plan to spend the holidays home with their families because they’re “just really not that close.” What do you mean you aren’t close with your family? Yes, I know they’re annoying, mine is too–But thats what you do with family!!!
In addition to the big differences between manners and religion, there are also other more subtle differences. To give another example, this weekend I was talking to my friend about decorating his apartment. “I have a big space on my wall, what should I put there?” He asked me. “You could hang an American flag,” I suggested. After all, I don’t think I ever went into a bachelor’s apartment throughout college that didn’t have an American flag hanging somewhere.
He scoffed. “Who would seriously ever hang up an American flag?” he asked me.
Dead silence. Everyone I know… I thought.
This exchange did lead to a larger conversation about nationalism, patriotism, and the military…but ultimately we basically agreed to disagree. “Look,” I said, “I’ve got family members who are veterans, and I’ve got friends in our armed forces. The idea of me not supporting their service would be a huge slap in their face.” The South tends to be a region of America with higher levels of patriotism, but it never occurred to me that some people in America don’t bleed red, white and blue. In Tennessee, you could basically rock an American flag-motif outfit at ANY social event and fit right in. In college we held America-themed parties! Lots of them! And there was never a Fourth of July that didn’t pass without over-the-top fanfare and recognition.
I thought that was normal. We live in an amazing country, after all.
Here, they’ve never tasted chicken and dumplings, cornbread from a cast-iron skillet, or proper southern barbecue. They don’t know the difference between a redneck and a hillbilly, or that a proper breakfast should include grits and biscuits and gravy. They can’t relate when I talk about going out for Sunday lunch after church, fishing in Arkansas, or the correct usage of the phrase bless her heart. And I hardly know what they spend their time doing in Fall, since so few of them watch college football. (As if soccer or hockey could be half as interesting…psshh)
In short, I love the South. While I am sometimes quick to point out the shortcomings of the South, I still appreciate it and am thankful to have been born here.
I knew moving to Albania would feel strange and different. But I never thought that leaving the South would be even more so.
Originally Published on my Private Blog, October 2015