Southern Girl Academy: Foreigners

As the Yankee-in-Residence here at the Southern Girl Academy, my goal is to help bridge the gap between the graceful belles fortunate to have been born below the Mason-Dixon Line and those ChapStick wearers up North.

Now, before you choke on your sweet tea, I feel compelled to tell you that I am actually only three-quarters Yankee. My maternal grandmother, and one of my greatest influences in life, was born and raised in Arkansas. Though she relocated and married a Northerner, her home was never lacking in fried potatoes and visiting friends with unmistakable drawls. And, when I expressed interest in attending a university in the South, she drove me to the campus and co-signed the loans.

Still, despite her best efforts or the fact that I had made countless trips to the South to visit aunts, cousins, and the like, I was woefully unprepared for the ensuing culture shock. I’ve compiled a few key items I wished I had known as I clumsily attempted to transition into Southern society. If you are new to the ranks of the South, this lesson is aimed at aiding you in your journey. If you’re a veteran belle, maybe this will help you help the poor girl who just confused the waitress by ordering “pop”.

  • Yankees: For the first several months of my new Southern life, people kept calling me “Yankee”. Puzzled, I replied “No. I’m a Cubs fan.” For reasons that eluded me, the conversations often ended there. Finally, a kind soul explained to me that a Yankee was someone of Northern birth. And that this generally wasn’t said as a compliment. A brief synopsis of the War of Northern Aggression followed. I listened carefully, all the while thinking, “Boy, that war sounds a lot like the Civil War.” Eventually, I came to understand that my Yankee education on the matter (“Slavery, bad. North, good.”) lacked a few salient details. The cuts ran deeper here, even a century and a half later.

Eventually, my Yankeeness became more of a novelty than an insult. One day I asked a friend of the family how long I would be a full-fledged Yankee. He replied “7 to 10 years… or until you lose the accent.” When I married a Southern boy, the friend decided to waive the rest of my sentence. His father, however, disagreed and noted that “just ’cause a cat has kittens in the oven, that don’t make ’em biscuits.”

  • Dry counties: Also in my first few months as a stranger in this strange land, I was quite confused by the weather patterns. And by how interested other students on campus seemed to be by them. Was there an underground meteorological cult I didn’t know about? Why else would college boys care so much about dry counties? Most alarming to me was that the county I lived in was apparently experiencing quite a drought. Yet, the next county over was declared “wet”. So it rained all the time just 20 miles away, but not here? That’s odd! A kind soul, probably the same one who informed me I was a Yankee, let me know that a “dry county” did not sell alcohol. Should you desire libations, you had to travel to the nearest “wet county” to make your purchases. I grew up in a place where the Beer Garden was the primary fundraising tool for my high school. My parochialhigh school. Even as a non-drinker myself, it took some time for me to get used to the fact that Wal-Mart here had two whole rows of extra sheets and towels where the beer and wine was supposed to be.

    In Illinois, being attacked by a masked assailant doesn't even alarm the neighbors. My sister (in the mask) and me, circa 1985

  • Snow days: I nearly passed out the first time I heard of a Southern school closing because snow was forecast. Forecast. Not a single flake had fallen.  In the North, snow days are just, well, days. Unless there is a true multi-day blizzard, very little changes. People wear ski masks for reasons other than robbing banks. The snowplows barrel down the street at 4AM and wake you up. Then, just as you fall back to sleep, a neighbor fires up the snow blower to clear the walkway. (Maybe this is why Northerners are often perceived as both loud and grouchy. Or maybe it’s because their car is covered in salty grime for months on end.) Up North, life is essentially the same when it snows, just colder. Here, not so much. Everything closes. Not until the snowplow comes by. Until the snow melts. Upon further consideration, yes, it makes perfect sense. Why would the South invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in snow removal equipment when the temperature 2 days later will be 75 degrees? Just go home and enjoy some peace and quiet. Nevertheless, should you encounter a Yankee experiencing her first Southern snow day, kindly suggest a few books she might read or other ways to pass the time. And when she insists she’s been driving in “this mess” all her life and sees no point in sitting at the house, arguing will be pointless. Staying off the roads and out of her way is a better option.
  • Friends: In addition to the ones I’ve shared here, I’ve learned many more lessons about Southern life. For example, I’ve learned that Maker’s Mark is a much-revered kind of bourbon and should not be confused with Member’s Mark, which is the store-brand at Sam’s Club. I’ve learned that Southern gals sympathize with one another should a Southern beau insist upon hanging something taxidermied on the wall. I’ve learned that kindness is the best way to deal with one’s enemies. I’ve learned that sweating is optional but hard work is not. You’re probably assuming that I’ve learned all these things from my Southern friends. But you’re wrong. Because the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that Southern girls don’t have friends. Before you give yourself over to the vapors, let me explain. Southern girls don’t have friends. They have family. Even if you were born in the blustery North. Even if you have never seen Steel Magnolias. Even if you live here for years and still talk funny. No matter what. Once you leave the realm of “acquaintance” and Southern girl takes you under her wing, she takes you into her heart. You’re there for life. You are her sister. It’s non-negotiable. Because, after all, arguing with a Southern girl is futile.

Audreya Cole Parks was born and raised in Illinois but got here as soon as she could. She lives in rural Arkansas with her husband, two lovable but neurotic fur babies, and a 9 point deer carcass. She watches an inordinate amount of TV, constantly bumps into door jambs, and has a geeky day job you don’t want to hear about. She also loves cheese. A lot.