Whenever I have to identify my ethnic group on a survey, I mark “Caucasian” because I’m of European descent. The uselessness of that label notwithstanding, I’ve never truly belonged in the Anglo/white demographic. Although I was born and raised in Atlanta, I’m half Texan and half New Yorker. For those uninitiated with Texans, their state is not in the South. It’s barely in the US. My father’s family, originally from various countries in western Europe, has lived in the US for several generations. Yet he married a first-generation Italian, and the collision of their cultures with the South has shaped me profoundly. Natch, my hometown of transplants is not typical of the South. Although most Southerners consider Atlanta non-Southern, it contrasts starkly to urban areas outside the South.
Early in my lifetime, my mother’s Italian feistiness proved genetic. Both adults and children wrung their hands at my inability to behave in the polite, reserved manner so prized in Southern culture. Noise and exuberance were my currency and expression. Censoring opinions for the sake of manners was such an alien concept I couldn’t understand why it was valued. People from all places have always pegged me as a non-Southerner. In the words of a classmate from New England, I “reek New York.”
Yet despite no family roots in the Deep South, I readily label myself as southern. Note the small first letter.
This non-mainstream identity has continued in other circumstances. In a small liberal arts college in North Carolina, a place of no openly gay students, I was recognized as a feminist vegan more often than by my name. During those years I also logged plenty of time and passport stamps abroad, from being a privileged marine researcher in the exceedingly poor British West Indies to a scruffy Yank in erudite Cambridge. My first job after college was a gaijin sensei (foreign teacher) in Japan, where I lived for two years as, at best, an accepted outsider in a formal and reserved culture. That experience echoed my childhood of living in friction with cultural mores.
After returning to the US, by age 25 I had all the things after which “Sex and the City” characters so ferociously chased: steady job, great place to live, a boyfriend who wanted to get married. [Important disclaimer: no judgment on those who want these things. Some of the happiest people I know are those who married before 30 and had children. I’m truly happy for them. Equally important, however, is to recognize that those choices are not right for everyone.] My strongest intentions at that time, however involved saving money in order to use my passport again. I flailed under self-criticism because I wanted to quit my life—sacrifice those elements that society deemed most meaningful—and travel without an itinerary. My quarterlife crisis was not lack of knowing what I wanted; rather I feared the clarity of my desires.
Ultimately I transcended the criticism, from both myself and others, and lived in India for several months, one of the few places I’ve felt normal. With the abundance of free time, I researched new cities and new jobs, plotting the next chapter of my life. Yet to my surprise, my hometown revealed its potential as a place of contentment, though not always ease. Living now in Atlanta, the city I always planned to abandon, I remain unnormal. Vegetarian, anticommuter, yogini. I don’t own a home. Most days I get up before sunrise. I cook (from raw ingredients) nearly everything I eat. I’ve never owned a TV.
I feel completely southern, in a small s sort of way.
Welcome to life outside the mainstream, my musings on spirit and place.
SK © 2010