Living in the United States of America I tend to focus on the “United” rather than the “States” more often than not. Yet it’s fascinating how each state has its own ethos. When you cross the Mason Dixon line from Maryland to Pennsylvania, the landscape, the signage, the people, even the accent are different. It’s difficult to articulate, but they simply are.
I’ve just spent a week with my niece and her family in Tennessee, and that is like another world altogether. She and her husband have been experimenting (and it’s now become a way of life) with living off the land on an idyllic property near Knoxville.
Although you can see the Smoky Mountains from their house, and I have visited them there and elsewhere in TN often, this was the first time I had actually visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park…
…and had the chance to horse-ride at her parents in law’s property.
Southern hospitality is, of course, legendary, whether it is saddling up a horse and taking her for a brisk canter to get some of the edge off her friskiness, preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for upwards of fifty people, or simply observing some of the niceties of social interaction in a restaurant or grocery store. That alone sets it apart from the “kiss my foot” attitude one sometimes has to deal with up North.
Then there’s the way of speaking. When I first visited the States and I needed to get directions over the phone in Washington DC, I eventually had to hang up and ask DB to call back because I couldn’t make heads or tails of what the woman at the other end of the line was saying. And, when I immigrated and was staying in Alexandria, VA, the voices I heard in the street around me sounded like a foreign language. Now, though, American is so familiar that I forget that I am the one with an accent, assuming that we all sound the same, and it is when I go back to Africa that I notice a different pronunciation. Having said that, though, I am reminded of that early, bewildering telephone conversation when I go down South and hear that lilting – dare one say “drawling” – accent. In the news reports of the dreadful oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico one hears the locals referring to “oil” with a pronunciation that sounds something like “ahl” to my ears, and I have to concentrate quite specifically to understand the broad strokes of friends and family of my niece.
There’s a strange ambivalence to my visits to her, though. As otherworldly as the South may seem to this North-Easterner-cum-African, she is the only blood relative I have in America and so, when I am in her home, there is a familial bond and connection with her and, through her, with her children, that is transparent, comforting and irreplaceable. The singular characteristic that one has as an immigrant is one’s being set apart, being different, being other. When I am with my niece that falls away; we can speak Afrikaans with familiarity even though it’s not our mother tongue, we can use points of reference that Americans wouldn’t know about, there is a flow of emotionality that doesn’t need to be voiced.
And so, in a way, every individual is its own pebble in the concentric circles of the ripples in a pool: we are family, we are friends, we are Northerners and Southerners, we are American, we are African, we are simply human – and somewhere on that spectrum, we find our place.