Way back in 1996, fed up with Upstate NY winters, I packed my meager belongings into my ’89 Pontiac Grand Am and drove south to Cary, NC. I liked the idea of settling in a suburb of Raleigh, even if it meant commuting into the city. NC had frequently been a pit stop on the way to Florida to see my grandparents, and it seemed like someplace better than NY in the winter and less likely to incinerate me in the summer than parts further south. The Raleigh area was growing, and there were opportunities to be found.
There were enough transplanted Yankees in the Raleigh area to give me a taste of home, but finding a permanent job was a challenge. I knew a friend who had moved to NC a few months before, and I decided to give him a call. I hoped he might know some people who were hiring, and I hadn’t talked to him in some time.
He didn’t have much to offer me in the way of job prospects, but he and his wife let me stay in a spare bedroom while I looked for work. I moved there to Winston-Salem not long after our phone conversation, quitting my temp job and saying goodbye to the Motel 6 I’d called home for several weeks.
It took some getting used to. While everyone I met showed me kindness typical of southern hospitality, I could only understand their speech with great effort. It baffled me that conversations were in English and still so difficult to maintain. I was often grateful when people would give up trying to speak to me like and adult and switch to greatly exaggerated, monosyllabic speech with familiar hand gestures. Obviously they had at least a little trouble understanding me as well, but everybody was nice about it. Often conversations resulted in laughter, after patience had been exhausted.
Eventually I managed an understanding of perhaps 75 percent of the local dialect. It was easy for me to adopt “y’all”, but harder for me to allow other words and phrases to slip into my speech patterns. Some of the resistance was intentional. I refused to ever “mash” a button. That’s just the way it was. I also never believed that anybody “might could” do something for me, especially a person who told me that he didn’t want to “maybe” me. Didn’t “maybe” mean the same thing as “might could”?
I’ve become pretty adventurous in my gastronomic explorations, and there were many foods I adopted with gusto, as evidenced by my growing gut. Even my expanding waistline was viewed as “healthy” by my new friends and neighbors. Fried catfish, pulled pork barbecue and hush puppies seemed like things I should’ve been eating my entire life, but coleslaw I could not stand. I will never be a Southerner as long as I’m unable to stomach that slimy cabbage concoction, and people want me to eat it on everything: hot dogs, burgers, BBQ. They acted shocked when I asked them to substitute more hush puppies or an actual salad. It was like I had spit on their heritage when I refused to eat it atop a chili-dog. Please hold the collard greens, too. No offense, but anything that has to be seasoned by frying it in pork fat should no longer be considered a vegetable.
So here I’ve been for nearly 20 years, and I’m stuck at 90 percent assimilation completed. There I will likely remain as long as ‘slaw is part of the equation, even though I speak the lingo, married a native and sampled corn liquor.