Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Outside Perspective

As a southerner from Appalachia who has traveled across the United States, I have become accustomed to the odd looks I receive when I open my mouth and expose my easily identifiable accent. In looks or dress I can blend in as easily in Washington or Philadelphia (my current abode...) as I can in Knoxville, TN or Boone, NC. I can be asked for directions in New York City or the Smoky Mountains, and probably be able to tell you where to go. But the moment I speak to someone to give those directions, I am immediately identified as either an outsider or a 'local', depending on the region.

My accent began to soften when I began my studies at the Univ. of Tennessee, and even more so when I relocated to Philadelphia to start work on an MA at Villanova. But every time I say something to someone in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, they give me a look that is a combination of humor, fascination, and confusion. When they inevitably ask why I'm here, and I tell them I'm a graduate student in Political Science, eyebrows get raised. No one that speaks like that could be that educated, could they? I have yet to be offended by anyone, most are simply curious. The questions of how I ended up here, where I am from, where did I do my undergrad at, etc., all give me an opportunity to talk about home, which I will gladly do.

When I tell people that the city of Knoxville (and the state of Tennessee, for that matter) can be quite cosmopolitan, they look at me with a bit of disbelief. I explain that it is home to a talented symphony orchestra, an opera, a major ballet troupe, art museums and galleries, fine cuisine from around the world, dozens of historical buildings and locations, a center of commerce, business, and banking, not to mention a major university that is not much younger than most of the Ivy League schools, and older than a few. I tell of how the people of Appalachia are not necessarily uneducated xenophobes who are stuck in the 19th century, but rather a people that have helped shape the culture, politics, and history of the United States. So many of the people I talk to do not understand that the people of Appalachia maintained the frontier spirit of individuality and ingenuity while they developed and evolved their own unique cultural identity. I explain the origins of bluegrass music in traditional Scottish and English fiddle music, combined later with African influences. I tell of the rich oral story telling tradition that has been passed down for generations, and of how people hold a deep interest in maintaining their history, genealogy, and culture.

Hopefully, through my interactions with individuals who might have only known about Appalachia via popular culture, I have done my small part to help achieve one of the goals of what this blog was designed to do: show people that Appalachia is more than just a collection of humorously stereotypical mountain folk a la the Beverly Hillbillies.


Buffy said...

Would have really liked to had you in on a conversation yesterday.

A New York media type - asking if 'American Hillbillies' were an ethnic group.

You can imagine the responses.

Still. I found those who had actually spent time in Appalachia...were pretty fair.

I grew up in the coalfiends of WV. But I had a terrible stutter and really really bad speech problems when I was young - I spent years under the tutelage of a new england speech therapist. My accent's been confused ever since. Moving abroad didn't help.

Jane G. said...

Rock on.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience while visiting Idaho Falls, Idaho. We had stopped at a Pizza Hut because that is a restaurant we are familiar with (yes, we have those in Georgia). The waitress came over to our table to take our drink orders and I asked for sweet tea. She said, "Where are you from, Virginia?" I said, "No, I am from Georgia." She wanted to know if it is true that Southerners marry their first cousin's. I told her that we had moved into the
20th century and we now find our mates over the internet. We had a very interesting conversation each time she came to our table because I was as interested in her culture as she was mine. Southern and proud of it.

Rebecca said...

My sisters and I were born and raised in Southeastern WV, but my stepdad (from Philadelphia, as it happens) really didn't want us to develop "West Virginia accents." He would harass and correct us whenever we showed signs of it. So all three of us are now dialect chameleons. We have the accent only if we're speaking to someone who does. A good solution for a child, I suppose, but I regret having such a transient accent. I wish people could tell where I'm from every time I open my mouth!

ChristiS said...

I feel your pain. I once was told how country I talked by someone from Chilhowie, and I've lived in Kingsport, Weber City, VA; Big Stone Gap; and a small town outside of Chattanooga. And she's calling ME country?! I love my accent and wouldn't change it for the world!