Dear American South,
Let’s address the obvious: you are absolutely beautiful. With elegant green forests, dazzling blue skies, and white-sand beaches, it would be a lie to say otherwise.
And not just that – your cuisine is exquisite. Creamy, buttery grits. Baby back ribs slathered in tangy barbecue sauce. Soft biscuits soaked in gravy. Deliciously sweet pecan pie and juicy peach cobbler. Your food gives comfort that can’t be found anywhere else; I mean, “comfort food” is practically your middle name.
It’s strange to imagine what life would be like without you. In a year, I’ll head off to college who-knows-where studying who-knows-what. Maybe I’ll spend another four glorious years with you, or maybe I’ll fly to the other side of the world like Phileas Fogg. But the important thing is this: I will always be so, so grateful for you.
At first, our relationship was complicated. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it when I was younger, but I knew something was off. Then, in 4th grade, I realized that it wasn’t you, it was me – specifically, me being Asian.
I tried to change myself. To make you like me. Ridiculous as this sounds now, I even told my mom that I preferred cafeteria food (which was a complete and utter lie) so that kids wouldn’t stare at my lunch. I pretended I liked watching popular American shows (but never understood the hype behind Hannah Montana). I wished I had big, blue eyes and blonde waves like my classmates so we could have matching hairstyles.
For the longest time, I was unsure if I could really call you home when I clearly didn’t belong. But, like all couples, we took a break. I met new people: people who genuinely appreciated Korean food, forgave me for not keeping up with pop culture, and thought monolids were beautiful.
From our time apart, I realized the value of acceptance, of approaching everything with an open mind. This came in handy as my awareness of politics grew; in case you haven’t noticed, my liberal ideals are a little dissimilar from some of your conservative ones. Not going to lie: when I realized this, my first instinct was to dismiss your opinion completely and seek out people with similar perspectives. But then, I remembered how it feels to be ostracized for being different. So I paused and listened. And that was probably the best decision I’ve ever made.
By listening to what you had to say, I learned so much more than I would have by talking with like-minded people. In fact, the older I get, the more I realize the value of our contrasting personas. You love sultry summer afternoons, while I gravitate towards brisk winter mornings. You like your fish fried, while I prefer fresh sashimi. In autumn, you go temporarily insane for college football, while I stick to watching Sherlock and Stranger Things. And as strange as this sounds, these small differences are what I appreciate most about you.
If I’d grown up around people like me, I wouldn’t have learned how to survive 100-degree humidity, or peel steaming hot crawfish, or host a football tailgate. I wouldn’t have learned that humans are not defined by their political views, and that even in today’s polarized society, it is possible for diametric opposites to strike up an invaluable friendship. I wouldn’t have developed the same sense of cultural pride that can only come from being one of five Koreans at a 1,600-strong school.
I feel like I haven’t said this enough, so I’ll say it now: thank you for being you. You encourage me to be a better person every day, and you embrace everyone with Southern hospitality when the world seems a little down. We still have points of disagreement (Are “sir” and “ma’am” really necessary? Why are people so obsessed with church?), but we resolve them in a way that makes us stronger, more mature, and more understanding than before.
From you, I’ve learned that home doesn’t have to mean someplace where you’re in the majority. You don’t have to look like a part of the crowd. Home can be wherever you want it to be.
And for me, home means you.