I have spent my life being the least Southern person hailing from the South. Sorority girls and country music permeated my college experience while I shrunk away from the drawls and duck boots. Zero into now: I am now living my life as the most Southern person in my office up North. To my peers, I am Southern, but to myself, I am the farthest thing from it. This is because I am from Chapel Hill, which to many means nothing. So I will take time in this article to explain.
Being from Chapel Hill and being from North Carolina are two very different things. To the people of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is a bubble. A past legislator went as far as to call Chapel Hill “the zoo” of North Carolina because our residents are so different than the rest of the state. However, in the minds of anyone outside of North Carolina, there is absolutely no separation. So as a native of Chapel Hill, I constantly feel the need to explain the distinct differences between Chapel Hillians and the other residents of North Carolina.
In my co-workers eyes, North Carolina is a state of rolling cow fields, southern accents, and bible thumping conservatives. People jokingly (but are they?) ask how I am adjusting to the “civilization” of New York City. I’m sure moving to this place would be a huge culture shock… had I actually grown up on a farm as everybody suspected. While there are absolutely major differences between Chapel Hill and New York- diversity, country music preferences, and designer clothing are not among these differences.
So to start out with, there are no farms in Chapel Hill. You don’t drive down the road alongside tractors and tobacco-chewing men howling out of pick up trucks. People aren’t spending 5 hours every Sunday at their right-wing Baptist church, and a conservative is as common as a trailer park (you can hardly find one in the city grid).
I went to a high school that was funded by an extra tax levied by the town itself- making it so that there was actually not a single private high school in the town. 1/3 of my high school was Asian American, and this population far outweighed the population of students whose families were natives of elsewhere in the state.
I then graduated high school (quite literally) believing that conservatives were bad people. There were 4 students out of 1500 in our “Republican club.” In fact, many of our teachers made it very clear to us that Republicans were what was wrong with America. Gay and lesbian students would make out in the hallways- and that was simply considered young love like any straight high school couple locking lips publically. The Republican footprint of the South encircles our little bubble- without coming close to permeating it.
Then there is the whole southern accent thing. Southern accents were as few and far between during my upbringing as Jersey accents were. There were 3 kids in my 250 person graduating class who had a Southern twang. These students were as foreign sounding as the Brazilian exchange students. In fact, a majority of my friends’ parents growing up were not from the United States at all. Of my best friends, 2 were American, 1 was German, 1 was half French and half Japanese, 1 was Finnish, and 1 was Portuguese. This is a result of the Research Triangle Park, which is the largest research hub in the US. A lot of the town is employed by Cisco, GSK, and other pharmaceutical and tech companies with a home base in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Given that the triangle is the largest research hub in the U.S., there is obviously a certain level of affluence in the area as a result. Chapel Hill isn’t Silicon Valley, but it’s certainly the tech/research hub of the South. We might not be running around with Prada like the trust fund babies of the Upper East Side- but you wouldn’t be caught dead in our high school parking lot driving a minivan.
The most incredulous thing that has happened as a result of my Southern upbringing was at work last week. I wear a ring that used to belong to my great grandmother on the ring finger of my right hand. I figured that it was common knowledge that engagement rings are solely on the ring finger of a left hand. This was, at least, what my mother told me was “common knowledge.” The ring is not overly extravagant, but big enough for at least 5 of my coworkers to believe that I was engaged as a 22-year-old. When one of them finally got the courage to ask me about it- I was absolutely horrified. It was incredibly illogical in my head to assume that someone my age was engaged. When I pointed this out- the response was that, “well we didn’t know since you were from the South.”
This incident, among a few others, spurred me to write this article. I can now move forward in peace knowing that at least in the world of my online writing- I have shouted from the rooftops that yes, I hail from North Carolina, but no- I do not act like a square dancing Southerner from Hicksville. So while Chapel Hill is not New York or New Jersey, it certainly is not Baton Rouge.
Until next time.