reflections displaced from the tar heel state
It has taken me the better part of my college career to decide whether or not I am from the South.
My hometown, Chapel Hill, I am sure of. I may not watch basketball, but I am a Tar Heel through and through. When I come home for spring break every other word in every other restaurant is “bracket.” Landing at Raleigh-Durham International Airport’s grungy old Terminal 1, its carpet stained and half its gates closed, feels like the world’s loveliest welcome. There are dogwood trees in front of my high school and an inch of pollen on the ground for a few weeks in April, and in the spring and early summer everything smells beautifully of honeysuckle. This is where I’m from; this is home.
This is below the Mason-Dixon line, this is loaded with history, this is not where my family is from. I don’t have an accent. I don’t like sweet tea or Cheerwine. My politics are not in line with my state’s, and despite seven years of marching band I still can’t follow a football game. My friends’ parents have moved here from New York or California or China to teach at the universities or do research. People perk up at mentions of the states they’ve moved from even as they wear their “Carolina Girls: Best in the World” shirts. My own parents have moved here too, when I was four. I walk across UNC’s campus with my father one day when I am in high school and he stops to reflect on just how strange it is that his daughter is from the South. I correct him—it’s where his daughter grew up.
I do not know, after all, whether I have a right to lay claim to this place. It’s not as though there is anywhere else that I have more of a claim to, not even the dual (or maybe absent) place-identity of “displaced Northerner,” not in any kind of logical way. After all, I haven’t lived in the Northeast since I was an infant. But I have grown up with parents that were figuring out a new identity as displaced Northerners, listened to them hedge their where-we’re-from answers when we met new people. I have gone to school with more people born outside the state than at UNC hospital. I know more people without accents than with them. I’m not sure if I can imitate an accent; the sounds feel uncomfortably artificial in my mouth. When I’m talking to someone with a strong one, though, I catch it appearing in my vowels.
I apply to seven schools in the Northeast, plus UNC for good measure.
I drive fourteen hours up the East Coast. My new roommate proudly hangs a giant Canadian flag on the wall and my new friends from the Philadelphia area won’t shut up about Wawa. The Band has a small but proud clique of Connecticuters and one person who knows more about the state of Delaware than I would have thought possible. After some thought, I offer in return Bojangles, hush puppies, Kitty Hawk (I think I visited it when I was five), the state song that I learned in elementary school music class. I mention that I never say y’all.
According to the brochure I picked up in Faunce one morning freshman year, 15% of students in the class of 2016 are international students. Thirteen percent are from the South. I meet another North Carolinian in the Blue Room and excitedly ask where they’re from. I roll my eyes at “35 Ways You Know You’re From The South” Buzzfeed listicles, but I smile at people on the street wearing UNC gear (and, in what I know probably constitutes some kind of betrayal, Duke gear too).
The summer after sophomore year in New York City, a friend reprimands me for being nice to too many strangers. “If they’re rude, be rude back,” she tells me as we walk away from the ticket booth. I feel conflicted. I’m still not sure what polite forms of address even exist as alternatives to “ma’am.” I commute through Grand Central Station daily on the way to my internship, and every other week or so there’s a bluegrass group playing at the subway stage. I know I should find it annoying, but I’ve always loved bluegrass, and today the banjo just sounds like home. I think about ordering Cheerwine, but decide it will always be gross.
When I come back to school, I tack a “Welcome to Chapel Hill” postcard onto my wall. I find myself humming a line from my favorite musical, nostalgic: “Say goodbye, folks, to Carolina.” I read Confederates in the Attic for a class and think about history. I smile at the accents in the airport on layovers on the way home. I remember my father playing James Taylor on the guitar when I was young—“Sweet Baby James,” but also “Carolina in my Mind.” Many years after he went to my elementary school, James Taylor penned the song while overseas, thinking fondly about home.
I don’t know if I’ll ever feel totally comfortable calling myself a Southerner, but I’m done with convincing myself that I’m not. I have lived in the South for 14 years, and though I will never have an accent, I have bluegrass and Bojangles and the smell of honeysuckle. I’m from the South. I know where home is.