On The Light Side: California transplant realizes Southern roots run shallow

February 02, 2004|JIM LOGAN

Like most Americans, I've longed to be an ancestral hyphenate. I've dreamed of the swollen pride I'd feel by calling myself an Irish-American or maybe an Alsatian-American. Anything, really, that says I'm more than just a plain-wrap American. I wanted to be Camembert, not Velveeta.

Not that I don't have immense pride in being a red-blooded member of the United States of Wal-Mart. When it comes to the war on the terror of high prices, we're No. 1.

Alas, my heritage is a mystery-meat sausage of nationalities and mixed metaphors, a gene pool muddied by the forgotten lusts of immigrants from a dozen countries.

Put a gun to my head (or, to make it easy on both of us, a beer in my hand) and I'd say I'm an Anglo-Irish-Austro-German-Norwegian-Scots-one-sixty-fourth-Cherokee-possibly-Swedish-maybe-Dutch-American.


So, long ago, I seized on the only geographical constant in my family tree: I would be a Southerner.

Yes, I was kid in suburban Southern California, but I felt I had the bonafides to make it stick. My mother's family is from the mountains of southwest Virginia; my father's kin, although dispersed like a dropped ripe tomato, is concentrated in northwest Alabama. Both my grandmothers sounded like Confederate widows.

As a kid surrounded by palm trees and lemon orchards, this qualified as exotic.

And to top it off, I was a product of the South, even if I was born in the Golden State. Conceived in Alabama, I'd've entered the world in Lake Charles if my father hadn't declared, when my mother was nearly eight months pregnant, "No child of mine is gonna be born in Louisiana."

Dad's disdain for the Bayou State aside, I felt the secret pride that only a lover of black-eyed peas and Flannery O'Connor could know.

There were little things that I couldn't relate to, like Jesse Helms and NASCAR, but I chalked it up to the distance from my ancestral single-wide. Dixie, or at least its post-Civil Rights incarnation, was a part of me. My Southern self was just waiting to express itself, like a recessive gene.

And then I moved to Danville - and discovered that I am as Southern as a guacamole.

I could, I suppose, list all the ways in which I fail miserably to live up to my assumed heritage, but let's take it easy on each other, shall we? Let's just say the distance from wanna-be to not-even-close-to-being can be measured in light years.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It won't send me screaming back to the Left Coast, no matter how much I might feel like I've fallen through Alice's looking-glass.

But it does speak to the need to accessorize our backgrounds with countries and places with which our connections are little more than fantasies and stereotypes.

I suspect the urge is stronger in places like California, where history is consumed in great chunks to make way for McMansions and Spanish-themed strip malls. In a place where five years of residency makes you a virtual native, hyphenating yourself as a Bulgarian-American can make you feel rooted no matter how shallow your pot.

As for me, I may not have a hyphen, but I have found a home, dude.

Jim Logan, who recently moved to Kentucky from Santa Barbara, Calif., is a staff writer covering Garrard County.

Central Kentucky News Articles