Aside from a little bit of international travel and a college study abroad trip to India, I’ve lived my whole life in the United States. I grew up in the Midwest (Minnesota and Wisconsin), lived for about two years in Hawaii, and most recently spent nine years in the Southwest (New Mexico and Arizona). But I had never lived in the American Southeast. That is, until I moved to Tennessee just over a year ago.
Stranger in a Strange Land
As with any country as large as the United States, regional variations make for such diversity in culture, language, landscape, climate, etc. that these regions are united more by political happenstance than anything else. Having lived in several regions, but never in the Southeast, I’ve found myself once again to be a stranger in a strange land.
Here are some things I’ve learned so far.
1. Southerners are generally chatty and laid back.
You can’t go anywhere without having a conversation. Whether you’re in line at a convenience store, checking out a book from the library, or having your ticket taken at the movie theater, be prepared to have a little conversation about how you’re doing, the weather, etc. In other parts of the country, coffee shops are primarily for sitting quietly and doing work with the occasional group of friends chatting, but in the South it’s exactly the opposite.
The tree sloth is my favorite animal, because I think they have the right idea about a laid back pace of life (just in case my cats read this, I have to include house cats on my list of animals with the right idea about life). Southerners definitely understand the benefits of the laid back life, too, which I love as long as I'm not in a hurry. But why should I be in a hurry, anyway?
2. Race is an issue (just like everywhere else).
The Southeast is generally more racially segregated than the Southwest, but I doubt cities in the Northeast or Midwest are any better. I do see the occasional Confederate flag (mostly on the backs of pickup trucks) and racism is certainly an issue, but if you think racism is only a problem in the South, read this article.
Still, the fact of living in a place that had legal segregation and Jim Crow up until the lifetimes of anyone over 50 years old is something I’m not sure I completely understand, especially as a newcomer and as a white person. I’m not sure I ever will.
3. Northern stereotypes are wrong.
There are rednecks in the South. You know, just like everywhere else.
Growing up in the Midwest, I was taught that basically everyone in the South is an inbred ignorant yokel who is still fighting the Civil War. As I got older, I realized this couldn’t possibly be true, just as a law of averages if anything else. People I meet in the South are on average more likely to be religious and conservative, but the South is more diverse than many Northerners would think. I know plenty of irreligious and/or liberal people here (although my sample may be skewed by my academic profession). My neighborhood has half a dozen Baptist churches, but also a synagogue and a mosque. My state representative is an African American woman and a Democrat.
4. Y’all need to start using “y’all.”
A lot of people do have Southern accents, although I’ve found that the strength of the accent is largely a function of age and urban-rural upbringing (younger people from urban areas tend to have a more “standard” American accent, which is also true in the Midwest -- yah, you betcha!). The accents still occasionally catch me off guard. I’ll be at the grocery store when I hear a drawl that genuinely surprises me: “Oh, yeah, I live in the South!”
My favorite aspect of Southeastern American English is the second person plural pronoun, “y’all.” How do other forms of English get along without such a pronoun? I like it better than the problematically gendered "you guys" that I grew up with.
I still haven’t mastered the use of “y’all” in an organic way. I sound like an awkward Midwesterner trying to use a foreign word, because that’s exactly what I am. But I’m working on it.
5. Tea is iced and sweet.
I like iced tea. I like sugar. But for some reason I don’t really like sweet tea. Around here, you have to order it “unsweet” if you don’t want four pounds of sugar per glass, but then I have the vague feeling that I’m violating the Southern social contract by ordering unsweet tea. A joke I heard awhile back: “Why do Southerners put sugar in their tea? Because they can’t deep fry it.” Which leads to my next point…
6. Southern food is delicious.
If you don’t live in the South, you may think you’ve tried grits, fried chicken, barbecue, biscuits and gravy, chicken and waffles, and such, but you haven’t. Seriously. As a lover of all things deep fried and unhealthy, I’m not sure living in the South is good for me, but damn, it’s tasty.
So far this has been an intriguing cultural experience!