I read the words “Hillbilly Diaspora*” a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to shake it since. It hit me deep, y’all.
* Now, I’ll tell you- I had never heard of this word “diaspora” before I went to university. It can be a complicated concept, and it’s too political and complex to get into here. But I’m using it in its simplest terms- when people of a certain group leave their homeland and live in different parts of the world.
Perhaps it’s because I’m really struggling with migrant life right now. Perhaps it’s because I am still coming to terms with my own Southernness in a place where most Americans I meet are from Colorado (why?- oh, right- rich folx). Probably has something to do with my shortage of grits and Texas Pete. The most likely reason is that I know that I know I am an exception to the rule and that sits real uncomfortable with me.
A number of people here have said to me that they haven’t met many Southerners in Australia. “Yeah- we don’t get out much,” is my joking (not joking) response. See, it’s true. Hillbillies don’t go far from home. And there are a lot of reasons for this.
One is education. In Western cultures, it is higher education that drives migration, and most poor folx in the South/Appalachia (cause we all know Ohio ain’t the South) don’t have the same educational opportunities. Our schools are underfunded, understaffed and under-attended. Many don’t see the point of finishing high school, much less going on to college. If you can get a job paying anything slightly over minimum wage- why bother? It’s expensive and will probably take you away from home (I’ll talk about that soon). Heck- go to trade school. It’s cheaper and close. And, honestly, without the crippling debt of university loans- you’re probably better off in the long run, so long as you don’t have any travel aspirations. I sometimes regret not having gone to trade school- but that’s another story.
I tell you what- I HATE academia. I do. Office-dwelling theorists who hide behind their research and steal from their grad students first-hand reports piss me off more than just about anybody*. But I must acknowledge that the only reason I am where I am today is because of opportunities that started opening for me in undergrad. I met professors that helped guide me to things I never thought possible. I was invited to conferences and “networking events,” met people who knew people, and got those all-important letters of recommendation. I took an internship that inspired me and completely changed my career path. I got that string of letters behind my name that affords me legitimacy in “polite society.” Academia, for all the insufferable bores rattling around in it, gave me the chance to move up and move forward with my life. I don’t take that for granted.
* I just want to note here that I have met a great many lovely academics who do their own work and are awesome people. But y’all, if you’re reading this, come on- you know it’s true. Look down the hallway. I bet you can identify at least one jerk in your department that has built a career on siting other people’s research (or acting as “first author” on a student’s work) instead of going out and creating their own.
Another reason hillbillies don’t go is because of money. Some people say that education leads to employment and financial gain. Those people were probably born into rich families. I could not get a decent job straight out of undergrad. I worked a series of crappy little jobs and when I landed a “big deal” gig (for me, anyway) at Duke University, I had to buy into their insurance and made so little per hour that my take home pay every two weeks was less than $200. But, hey, at least I had dental and vision- right? Pretty awesome when you can’t afford food or electricity. My savings account stood at $25 for nearly five years. There was no money to travel or move. When I took this fellowship that initially brought us to Australia, we landed here with exactly $1000 to our names, no jobs and nowhere to live. It was a damn leap. That kind of adventure is not for the faint hearted. Lucky for us, we’d been poor for so long that it just felt natural to be piss-broke. A ramen noodle dinner feels pretty fancy when it’s a brand you’ve never had before.
Okay. Let’s talk about social ties. You ever been hugged by someone so tight that you are awash with so much love that you can’t breathe? But also, you really can’t breathe because they are literally crushing you to death? Yeah- that’s the love we get in the South. The kind that wants you so close it would rather you die than break the embrace.
The kind that continually asks when you’re coming “home,” even though you’ve made it clear that your home is the place you’re living now. The kind that points out your accomplishments with pride tinged with distain and mockery- because look who’s too big for their britches. The kind that says things like “y’all soun’ diff’rent- must be pickin’ up an ax-scent.” The kind that makes your friends cry out for help from you, even though you are literally on the other side of the globe and there’s nothing you can do but love love love them with that crushing hug from afar. The kind that reminds you not to forget where you came from- as though you could.
I have a cousin* that was awarded a substantial scholarship- but the university was further away from home than their parents were comfortable with. Two hours. A two-hour drive, straight shot. The family could not bear the thought of their baby moving away to “the big city” (read: they didn’t want an 18yo adult to move to a moderately-sized university town a few hours away). Their friends were all starting to work at the local Dollar Tree and have babies- they wouldn’t be able to visit much. No one ever said straight-out that they should, but this young person ended up turning down a FREE RIDE to college because they didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. They turned out just fine and are doing very well now in their industry, but I use this story to make the point of just how strong the strands of the social web are. Nobody told them not to take the scholarship, but they knew damn well what the expectation was. Stay home or else we might lose you forever. Even though most on the Hillbilly Highway end up right back where we started, there are a few who don’t. And the South doesn’t know how to manage the ones who don’t want to return. And what if – godforbid, they accidentally up and turn into a Yankee?
* I hope this cousin doesn’t mind me using them as an example- it’s just that most of my other cousins are in jail, on parole, have been or should be. No shame in it- and it makes for great stories- just not the one I’m trying to tell today.
Even though there are SO many more reasons, I have to end this soon. So I’ll wrap up with this: being in the Hillbilly Diaspora hurts. And it’s scary. And it is hard.
Leaving the South is performing open heart surgery on yourself. For all the reasons I mentioned above, but also because no matter where you land- you’re likely to be alone. If you’re abroad, the chances of there being another immigrant from the US South is even slimmer. We don’t get out much, you see.
People are like “oh! have you met so-and-so, they’re from Colorado” and that’s basically asking a person from Turkey if they know someone in the Netherlands (a bit of hyperbole here, I know, but roughly the same distance between the places). The food is different, the people are different, the climate is different. And unlike our counterparts from Colorado, who ship their trust fund babies out all over the place*, Hillbillies are alone out here.
And we are often misunderstood.
*No hate on Colorado, it’s just my experience that the vast majority of rich transplants I’ve met are from there. Probably also seeking to escape, but I can’t speak on that.
“What’s ‘grits’,” the woman at customs sneered at the suitcase full of food I had brought back after my last trip to the US. Try to explain grits to people who don’t even use corn meal for anything. They don’t even sell it here- I have to go to a special import shop to buy masa, for crying out loud!
Try convincing someone to play cornhole and see what their faces do: “did you just say… corn HOLE?”
Tell a story about shooting cans off a fence when you were ten— no, not with a bb gun.
Go ahead and ask for hot sauce or iced tea at a restaurant. See what happens.
Wear cowboy boots and short shorts and see how many people ask if you’re from Texas- WE ARE NOT ALL FROM TEXAS… and that’s a different South, anyway. Like Florida’s a different South. No, I can’t explain it- you just know when you know.
And…. I gotta take a deep breath on this one….. Biscuits. You’ll have to forgive me if I close my eyes to collect myself anytime someone says “oh- you mean scones.” No. I do NOT mean scones… I am breathing through the urge to throw this whole damn fry pan of hushpuppies against the wall. Scones are hard tasteless things Yankees eat. Biscuits are biscuits. Now get out of my kitchen.
And that’s all the external stuff. What about that heart clenching squeeze that comes when you hear about big things happening. Weddings, birthdays, illnesses, deaths, holidays, new babies, new jobs, and new love interests. You’re far away, missing it all. And even when nobody else is guilting you about it- you feel it.
When you wake up to the sweet-heavy scent of mock orange and, just for a second, it smells like honeysuckle mixed with wisteria and you want to cry from how much you miss those vines.
When you feel your inner mean-ass self dripping the honey-venom that is “Bless her heart” and someone hears you and doesn’t at all understand what that means and then you’re stuck.
When your child accidentally drinks the fry oil out of the jar in the window sill, thinking it’s sun tea, and you laugh and laugh and nobody around you understands what any of those things are or why there’d be confusion.
When you finally find out that there’s a restaurant called “Carolina Soul Food Kitchen” near you, owned and operated by a family actually from NC (!!!) and you get your hopes up, just to see that they closed down a few months ago. I didn’t cry (that’s a lie- I cried).
At the moment, I can’t explain publicly what all is going on with our immigration stuff. This is entirely because we don’t quite know ourselves. But I can say that we are waiting on some things to fall into place that are not 100% certain to happen. We do have a Plan B, but even that is up in the air. We have no Plan C at the moment, but I’m working on it- but it is not moving back to NC (don’t even “why not” me- if y’all knew, you’d know).
But, for now, for today, we’re here. The kids are happy, B & I are happy, we love our friends and neighbors, schoolmates and co-workers (most of the time).
We’ve convinced our neighbors that cornhole is cool and found another Southern boy for B to play trucks and such with.
We grill out (and I will die on the hill that it is NOT bbq- despite whatever Aussies say) a lot and put our feet in the ocean sometimes- but not the river, because there’s sharks in there.
We take the dogs for walks and eat terrific Thai and Indian food and continue our search for a decent Mexican restaurant.
We get introduced to people from Colorado and shop at the market where you can hear families bickering in at least six different languages.
We buy produce we don’t recognize, google how to prepare it, and then either love it or feel deep regret about our choices.
Hard choices may need to be made soon. And we’re readying ourselves to make them. But either way- we are officially part of the Hillbilly Diaspora- and even though it’s lonely sometimes, I don’t regret it. I just wish there was more of y’all out here with me.