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On Southern Charm*

If you’d have asked me to describe the person that I hoped to spend the rest of my life with when I was sixteen, that person would look nothing like Sara. She, for starters, probably wouldn’t have been a she, she probably wouldn’t have curly, blonde hair, and she she probably wouldn’t have been an athlete either. But for all the things I didn’t expect and have come to love and respect quite deeply about her, one of the most eye-opening has been dating a Southern woman. Before I get much deeper into my story, a little background. I’m a Northerner. Completely and entirely. My grandparents on both sides were Clevelanders, relatively late-wave immigrants and the last time I heard a drawl when I wasn’t watching Fried Green Tomatoes or a terrible, 5 AM rerun of Designing Women was…well, probably never. Sara, on the other hand, is a Southerner through and through. She grew up in Kentucky and she has family history in other places in the South too. Now, lest you protest that “Kentucky isn’t the South,” let me tell you something: you’re wrong. I know that you’re wrong because I thought the same thing. Kentucky is next door for pity’s sake, but it is more like Charleston or Atlanta or New Orleans than Cleveland a thousand times over. And on top of all that, Sara’s family has been here forever so she identifies more with the South than she does with any Old World traditions anyway. So, here we are. A Northerner and a Southerner right there in the same house.

Now, I have a terrible habit of romanticizing the American South. Thanks to Gone with the Wind and promises of pretty Southern women and gallant Southern gentlemen, I pretty much thought that charm oozed from the pores of anyone born south of the Mason-Dixon line and that they all talked with that syrupy Georgia peach drawl. I suppose if I was going to have any preconceived notions, erring on the side of almost-entirely-fictional antebellum plantation life is marginally better than assuming that everyone in the South drives a rusted out pickup truck with a Confederate flag decal painted over the back window, but I still recognize the incredibly problematic views I have. I just didn’t realize quite how damaging my thoughts were until I met my girlfriend. It turns out—shocking no one, I’m sure—that neither of these stereotypes is completely true although there are grains of reality in there if you tease out what’s right and what isn’t.

Sara can make a fantastic blackberry cobbler and drinks good, Kentucky bourbon. Those things are true. She’s also extraordinarily polite, especially to people older than she is, and addresses people she doesn’t know well as “ma’am” and “sir,” a tradition we’ve long since lost in the curt, cold North.

Something else that’s true is that Sara took great pains to hide her mild accent when she moved north because people make all kinds of assumptions about the intelligence of people who speak that way. She still has a few holdovers in vocabulary but unless you’re listening very closely, you wouldn’t notice that she’s not originally from around here. It didn’t even occur to me that she might have an accent until I heard her mother speak and was surprised when I heard her streeeeetch out all her vowels. It makes me a little bit sad to think that Sara will likely be the last one in her family line to speak with an accent and that unfounded stereotypes are what drove her to drop it. I lament that my father let go of his Hungarian traditions as well; stereotypes are what drove him to assimilate too. I realize now that the thoughts that I still harbor about Southerners—even if those thoughts are largely that Sara can be incredibly charming when she wants to be—contribute to people like her and like my dad forgetting their customs and language and I’m trying harder to appreciate honestly what makes us different.

Sara’s still teaching me to cook with cast iron—I don’t think I’ve made anything in a skillet that I haven’t burned yet—I’ve picked up a habit of saying “all y’all,” or “you all” when referring to a group of people, and we still fight about whether it’s “crawdad” or “crayfish.” Every day I encounter her Southern habits and I’m thankful that she’s patient while I adjust my preconceived notions about what that means.

*and other stereotypes
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