Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Diary from Dixie

I’ve spent most of my life in the North and the rest of it in California. Both are places with just about nothing in common with the South. Even to a Yankee who’s never lived there, it’s obvious that the South is pretty much its own country. How is this possible? Well, over time the South developed a distinct identity and culture that from its--lets' say-- unique regional history. Of course, every state and region of the U.S. is different in lots of ways and everyone is very proud of this as they should be. But no one’s been around longer than Jamestown, and I can’t recall anyone else seceding from the Union or fighting for independence in a Civil War. That sort of stuff has a way of bringing people together.

Southerners take great pride in keeping the heritage and tradition of the South alive and passing it on to future generations. This isn’t a tradition of being belligerent to non-Southerners or celebrating the institution of slavery. Most of the time it’s about preserving the social habits of aristocratic families from the Old South, who were all about good manners, social graces and yes, Southern hospitality-- not Confederate flags or the 2nd Amendment.

All of this is unmistakable when I go to the South. Everyone is more polite, they have excellent manners and they're just generally more...genteel. People let you into traffic, they always make extra sure you’ve had enough to eat, even fast food servers smile and speak in complete sentences. Well, at least most of the time. Social interactions feel easier, so much that you realize how much more there is to deal with when you’re not in the South.

Let me introduce SEE Level pundit Spicey G., who is not only my source for everything south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but is one of the wisest, most intelligent people I know. According to her, Southerners act this way because they have an unspoken set of social rules that help them get along and maintain a firm sense of belonging and community. The sad thing is, before I first visited I wasn’t even aware that the South had its own set of social rules. There’s something wrong with that. I, we, should know about this--after all, Southern culture is one of the few things truly “Born in the USA”.

Anyways, the basic rule is that you interact with people in a way that will make them feel comfortable. Sounds simple enough, right? Most people don’t try to make others uncomfortable. But the big difference is that Southerners go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. That’s why they engage you in conversation so much, they don’t want you to feel ignored or think they’re not glad you’re around. You try to give people anything they ask for, especially if they’re at your house. When you talk with someone, you bring up topics relevant to their life, like kids if they have children with them, or decorating if you know they’ve been doing work on their home. You avoid questions that people likely don’t want to answer and pay close attention for any indications of displeasure. This sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? But is it just a waste of time and energy?

The flip side is that these social rules have to be followed by both people. If two people are going out of their way to be accommodating, then the interaction is balanced. Otherwise, you have one person doing all the work, a dynamic that never lasts very long. There is an understanding between Southerners that if people do you favors or show concern for you and your life, that you must do the same in return-- a sort of a culturally mandated reciprocity. In this society, it is your obligation to not take advantage of other people. To me, this sounds kind of like a “social contract,” a term you probably don’t associate with your everyday life unless you sit around reading John Locke all day. In the South, it seems that you’re held to a contract that says people need to care about each other, even strangers, or at least act like it in public. What a novel concept.

My cynical side asks how can anyone genuinely care about complete strangers or acquaintances? How much of this is fake? At least in L.A., you never have to wonder where you stand-- people make it quite clear they don’t give a crap. But then again, does it really matter if this stuff is real? At least someone’s making the effort to care about your feelings, so what if it really means something? Plus, let’s be honest here. Who doesn’t want people being nice to them? Exactly.

Another thing is I’m convinced Southerners are far more likely to strike up a conversation with me than the entire city of Los Angeles. People just start talking to you there and you get the strangest feeling that they don’t want anything. Guys aren’t hitting on you and women aren’t getting in your business. And people really talk, too. I swear, if I took a counter around to measure the number of words strangers said to me between there and L.A. the comparison would be astounding. Southerners will tell you all about their life, their opinions, what they think about this and that and then ask you what you think. And you’re expected to answer, at length. Otherwise, you feel awkward--like you’re not returning a high-five. This was new for me because, you see, where I’m from its completely okay to go on your daily business without talking to people beyond necessity. That’s not how things work down there—it’s not acceptable to isolate yourself.

You’d think all this talk would be extremely irritating, especially to a Yankee like me. It was at first, a little, but then it was just nice. This brings me back to my original question: who doesn’t like others being nice to them? It’s pretty clear to me that people like it when others are considerate, ask their opinions, include them in conversation. Why? Well, we are a social species-- we all want to be included, to belong. But yet there are all these common expressions to describe isolation as a good thing like “being left alone,” “let me be,” or “having your space” as if taking someone out of their seclusion is intrusive and obnoxious. A person telling you their life story, that’s annoying too, right? I started thinking about how isolation has become the norm for how most of us in deal with each other, especially in the big cities. If you don’t know someone, you don’t talk to them because you have no reason for it, they probably don’t want to be bothered and you certainly don’t. So now we mostly live in a society with lots of different people, yet we ignore each other because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Wealth has allowed for people to each have a big house, their own car, even their own personal television—and this has given us the space we supposedly desire. But do we all need or even want all the anonymity we have? I’ve heard that L.A. is one of the loneliest cities in the world. All these people move here but don’t know anyone and in trying to give others their space, it stays that way. Maybe us Yankees should spend a little time with our shields down and, while we’re there, try the pecan pie.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

North Meets South

SEE Level’s in Virginia this week, on the southeast corner in the part near Williamsburg and Virginia Beach, known as Hampton Roads. I am not from the South, but I come here several times a year for the good food and great people. Despite my Yankee-ness, over time I’ve gotten to know this place pretty well and found out there’s a lot more to it than fried chicken and playin’ the git-tar.

Right off the bat, Hampton Roads can be summarized by four things:

1. Water:
In order to go anywhere, you must go under or over these rivers that are massive and empty out into the Chesapeake Bay. Whenever you have water like that you have serious marshes, swamps and crabs. Locals will probably tell you Virginia actually invented the crab cake, not Maryland. You disagree? Them’s some fightin' words.

That picture's the James River and a Crab Shack. 'Nuff said.

I doubt the credit goes to a public official, but the water here looks surprisingly clean and untouched considering that people have been around since Britain haphazardly gave Jamestown a whirl in 1607. This means Virginia had its 400th anniversary last year. That’s pretty good... nothing like California’s history-- we’ve got fault lines. Those count many ways.

2. History

When I first visited, I thought there’d be more Williamsburg down here—you know, those colonial Yamaka-doilies, “my worthy opponent,” stuff like that. Despite how big and important it was during the colonial period, Williamsburg is now just a small city amid dozens along the coast. By now, the area’s much more Southern than colonial, but you can still tell that Virginia was a British colony. It's pretty hard to miss with Elizabeth City, Crittenden Road and Isle of Wight County. But then there’s Chuckatuck, the painfully rural-sounding next town over that reminds us, “wait ya’ll, this is the South. "

3. The Military

Hampton Roads is the favorite watering hole for the US Navy and all of their ships and shipbuilding bases. Northrup Grumman is doing quite well here, so much that they proclaim their dominance from a huge sign that’s clearly visible on every inch of the five-mile long James River Bridge. It’s a bit ridiculous (see below). The rest of the military have crashed the Navy’s party too. So, you can count on seeing random armored vehicles in jungle camouflage casually driving down the street and bands of nice, Southern sailors wandering the airport in their crisp whites. That’s what I call frequent flyer benefits.

Newport News Shipbuilding

4. Southerners :


You notice the accent first, with people asking “How’re y’all?” and saying ”NAH-fuk” instead of Norfolk with an L . You stop by a gas station, and they’re selling framed pictures of wolves with American flags in the background. You see some Confederate flags and everyone seems to be driving a truck. You’ve watched a little Jeff Foxworthy--Southerners must just be a bunch of friendly, slightly bigoted but patriotic country bumpkins!

But then you meet a few who don’t own a gun rack and you realize there’s more than one type of Southerner. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely rednecks propagating the South but they’re not everywhere. What do you think happened to the relatives of the Old Southern aristocrats?

It hits you that people don’t act the same down here. Strangers smile and wave as you pass by, you have extended conversations with waitresses, twenty-something guys your own age call you ma’am. Everyone’s just..nicer. People just start talking to you for no reason. They don’t want anything, they’re just making conversation. You feel a little bad because you’re thrown off by it. What does that say about where you live?

On top of this, all the food you’ve had has been really good. I mean really good, and it’s everywhere you go. Soon you start having standards for good ham, barbecue, and real biscuits—none of that Pillsbury Doughboy nonsense. Ain’t no way he was Southern. Dessert also seems to be a big deal around here, as does eating in general.

You feel you could get used to this. There must be more to Southern culture that you thought.

Stay tuned. In the meantime here are some telling photos from my time down South.