As someone in an intercultural marriage, I spend a lot of time thinking about how our culture shapes us. It’s often through the foil of my partner that I’m able to see my own culture through clearer eyes—its predictability, its surprises, its insanity, and its joys. Our cultures are never as simple as stereotypes: my WASP family is infinitely more boisterous and loud than David’s Jewish one. But there are ways that our cultures are often inescapable (even as we try to modify them). It comes out in how I worded my feminist wedding invitations, and in the moment where I fed our kid his first solid food out of family baby Wedgwood. (Yes, that is china specifically for babies. I have two sets.) Here, Lucy explores the for-better-or-for-worse influence of culture on our relationships. How does your culture come out in unexpected ways in the context of your own marriage? —Meg
Thousands of Northerners and foreigners have migrated to it… but Southerners they will not become. For this is still a place where you must have either been born or have “people” there, to feel it is your native ground. Natives will tell you this… It is a loyalty to a place where habits are strong and memories are long. If those memories could speak, they would tell stories of a region powerfully shaped by its history and determined to pass it on to future generations. –Tim Jacobson, Heritage of the South
I remember the first time I hid my accent. It was in the seventh grade, as I was headed to class in the trailers that sat behind the school. My backpack was nearly my size at the time, so when two girls stepped onto the path in front of me I stopped so short the weight of it almost sent me flying to the pavement.
“Can you say yellow?”
Well, obviously. Most seventh graders understand how to say yellow. But they wanted to hear me say it. The person who they apparently knew from hearing in the halls could produce that telltale vowel slur. I concentrated very hard on emphasizing my consonants. A fit of laughter was my reward.
“And girl! Say girl!”
I said girl as flat as I knew how, but still they laughed. I pushed past, left them to their laughter, but the moment stuck with me. Now, when folks meet me for the first time, they’re disappointed. “I thought you would have more of an accent,” they sigh. I can understand the disappointment. It’s expected, as a part of what people believe it means to be Southern. Which is not at all what it means.
Being Southern does not equal the personality type associated with the gun-toting redneck, the Southern belle, the Honey Boo-Boo. If there’s anything that the academic world can tell us about being Southern, it’s that no one can agree about how to define Southern identity. It is a mashup of disparate cultures, a paradox held together by the inseparable burden of history—slavery, civil war, segregation, and even more violence that cannot be categorized. Thinking about it makes your brain want to wander off in two different directions most of the time.
It’s believed that because I identify as Southern, it’s easy to know the rules and traditions that I have been raised on and come to live by: I must value manners and my elders above all else. I cannot, under any circumstances, give away something that has been passed down to me, because my grandparents’ china is sentimentally worth more than all the gold in Fort Knox. The same goes for giving away family recipes, unless they’re being added to the local church cookbook for a charity drive. Don’t even think of dressing down for church, no matter how casual the members are. Cotillion and Junior League are required activities. The drink of choice is always sweet tea, and a love of pork jowl and collard greens is never optional.
Though a person’s public identifiers don’t equal what the whole of their life looks like, it’s certainly shaped my relationship. Bryan came to Georgia by way of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Florida. While he’s been here since grade school, he’s not from here. Our regional differences, like so many others, change how we navigate the traditions within our life together. Sometimes it’s silly things, like how much sugar is appropriate for one gallon of sweet tea or whether or not making pomanders can be described as a fun family activity for the holidays. Other issues require more serious discussion: whether I should change my last name and whether I should change my middle name to my maiden name (a Southern custom that’s also rarely thought of or brought up in the name change debate). In these discussions, our family backgrounds and traditions must serve as the context that we base our decisions on; as much as being Southern can act as a way of life, it is not a rulebook that I can follow any more than feminism is.
By seeing people’s backgrounds as the context of their lives, and not necessarily their rulebook, we can begin understanding more about how they choose to shape their future. Stereotypes might give us the shorthand account of a person’s identity, but it doesn’t always predict their choices.
Photo from Lucy’s wedding by Angelina of Asterisk Photography