The road went ever on and led me here.
Considering the limited view I had of the South, it’s a wonder I moved to Georgia from Pennsylvania four years ago. Who could have guessed I would experience the most growth of my life in this place? As a visitor, I partied like a rock star. As a resident, I meditate like a monk. In the process, I became a proud, damn Yankee, although it took me a while to get here.
Three years after moving to the South, I learned the difference between a Yankee and a damn Yankee. They’re both from the North, but the damn Yankee makes a home here as I have done.
Before I was even a Yankee, I was a member of the first South Asian family to move to a small town outside of Philadelphia in the 70s. I grew up keenly aware of my brownness. Until the fourth grade, I was the only person of color in a classroom.
Being the only Muslims in a town of Christians and Jews added to the dubious distinction of otherness. I grew up with people around me struggling with the idea that Indians from India and Native Americans were two different groups.
When more of us moved into town, I had more to explain. When a random stranger asked me if my family owned a 7–11, I had to tell him not all of us were related.
Since I’m not a confrontational person, I learned to deal with the jolt in my stomach when people asked me questions like that or made other nonsensical statements that they wouldn’t make to someone who looked like them.
People don’t know what they don’t know.
How presumptions get started
People made presumptions about me because of their lack of familiarity with someone who isn’t Caucasian but isn’t African-American either. But once they wrapped their brains around me not being African-American or Native American, they settled in.
While they had their presumptions, without me being aware of it, I had mine.
Mine related to the South.
Before I was 20 years old, my experience with the South was what I saw on television or movies or what I studied in history, which mainly boils down to slavery and the Civil War. This minimal exposure caused me to dismiss this part of the country as racists who sounded like Yosemite Sam with the same intellect.
I grew up in the 80s. My two main visuals of the South were Dukes of Hazzard and Urban Cowboy. If anybody reading this is too young to remember either of those, the characters were stereotypical charming bumpkins who, of course, did not represent the entire South.
But my prepubescent self didn’t understand that at the time.
My first visual, Dukes of Hazzard, was a show about lovable brothers and moonshiners who drove a Dodge Charger with the Confederate flag on top of it. Their cousin, Daisy, walked around in either a bikini or booty shorts in nearly every episode. To complete the stereotype parade, she paired these minimalist outfits with high heels.
In the 90s, we called booty shorts, Daisy Dukes because of her.
The second one, Urban Cowboy, was an 80s movie that showed Southerners as beer-drinking, mechanical bull riding, woman hitters who only lived in trailer parks. However, that piece of cinema introduced me to the Charlie Daniels Band and the country classic, “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which I will forever be grateful for.
Then there was Yosemite Sam, the delightful dolt with the typical southern accent. He’s not the worst stereotype because most of Bugs Bunny’s foils were not bright, but he was part of that pantheon of buffoons with southern accents that were all over movie and television screens. You never saw a scientist with a southern accent, although they do exist, as I’ve come to find out.
Couple those images with other media that included depictions of racists blaring country music while shouting racial epithets or committing acts of random violence, and that was all I saw of the South for many years.
The uncomfortable part of southern history
My first real trip to this part of the country was when I visited South Carolina with my then-boyfriend to attend his family reunion. South Carolina was beautiful, but I ended up visiting a plantation that haunts me to this day.
I walked into what was intended to be a home for slaves but felt like a dungeon. A dark-gray shack, the size of a living room that housed an entire family. It reminded me of a burned-out house. As if Mordor came to life except humans lived there. The oppressive air of misery enveloped me within minutes, and I went back outside.
I stood there taking it all in, the perfectly manicured, bright green grass, the splendid white house where the owners lived, the stark slave cabin, and the American flag flying in the middle. It was the perfect metaphor for the South and the whole country: promise and darkness juxtaposed together.
Over the years, I heard so many casual allusions to slavery downplaying its brutality. Once a friend told me about a resort in Myrtle Beach, she went to, where the black employees dressed as slaves for tourists’ amusement.
These harsh realities, along with the many discussions I’ve heard about the antebellum South that only focused on gentility and Southern hospitality, made me wonder:
Are y’all proud of slavery?
I was confused. Either slavery wasn’t acknowledged, or there seemed to be pride over it. My northern bias blossomed fully. Racism does exist in the North, but it’s more subtle.
In retrospect, I’d rather know who doesn’t like me upfront. In the South, you know who likes you and who doesn’t.
Moving beyond my limited perceptions
My limited perceptions started to change when I made my first visit to Atlanta in 2008, and I had a blast. My subsequent trips comprised of non-stop fun and meeting new people from all walks of life. Atlanta became my Las Vegas. Whatever happened here stayed here.
No moonshiners or mechanical bulls in sight. No plantation visits.
Just people of all backgrounds hanging out together living their lives.
I saw Korean, Ethiopian, and Brazilian restaurants around the corner from each other. I mention those three, specifically, because I hardly ever saw those in Philadelphia. I can get Indian groceries here with more ease than in Philadelphia. Who would have thought that?
Over time, I discovered a more spiritual way of living and being in the South. I’ve come across more yoga and meditation events in Atlanta than in Philadelphia, which shocked me because, after all, the South is the Bible Belt. It doesn’t escape me that Atlanta is different than a lot of Georgia, but the diversity I saw here was unexpected.
I’ve had more exposure to other religions in Atlanta than I did in Philadelphia. I never met a Wiccan in my life until I came here. I never saw diversity in the Muslim community in Philadelphia the way I have seen it here.
I’ve always felt the Muslim community I was surrounded by clamored to show their piousness and judged others’ piousness. I didn’t experience that here. People here have their religious practice levels, but, they don’t enforce it on others for the most part.
When I decided to move here four years ago, I did it knowing that I already loved being here, and it would work out. But something happened when I became a permanent resident. I started to branch out of my immediate friend circle and formed new relationships with like-minded people, spiritualists and blazing liberals like myself.
I’ve connected with more of them here than I did up North.
I have become a part of the writing community here and have met similar tellers of truth, which is what writers are whether we write fiction or not.
I have felt more connected to my art here than anywhere else.
The connection I have to nature started in Pennsylvania but only grew when I started traveling around Georgia and places like North Carolina and Tennessee. I’ve made memories with the mountains and lakes, and they always have something to teach me.
I’ve started to connect with Southern fiction because it strikes a familial chord within me when a story talks about the natural wonders here. Somewhere along the line, these places became a part of me.
When I took my first solo Southern road trip, the fact that I was a brown woman traveling alone in the South lurked in the back of my mind. But I’ve always felt welcome and taken care of wherever I go. I don’t go to wild places to begin with, so I probably won’t find myself in an untenable situation anywhere.
I go to the mountains to hike, and I don’t feel unsafe because nature has a calming effect on everyone. I have never even felt like an outsider on these excursions. I always have my dog with me, and if I go into a building and can’t take him, most people will volunteer to look after him while I’m doing whatever I’m doing.
That Southern hospitality comes into play, brown skin or not.
The true nature of the South
People offer their help if they like you, I find. They might not even be that close to you, but if you are connected to someone who is, then they’ll extend their hand to you. Once you have a Southerner’s loyalty, you have it.
The most striking example of this I’ve seen is my friend from a small town who converted to Islam. Her community members don’t understand a thing about her choice or Islam, but they told her to let them know if anybody bothers her. They had a previous connection to her, and that remained no matter where life led her.
Now, I’m not naïve. Racist, ignorant people live here, but they live everywhere. And I don’t interact with those people.
What I know now
I only know what I know. And what I know is the connection I have to the South is genuine. Since I’ve lived here, I’ve started to feel like the true nature of the South is connection and loyalty.
The growth I’ve achieved here is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ve created connection and community here. I don’t know if it’s the soil or the people or just the time in my life. For that reason, this little nook of the world will always have a place in my heart, unlike any other. I’ll always be a Yankee, but I’ll be a damn Yankee who loves the South.