Wednesday, 12 March 2014

When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.

^ True story for grad school.

Every so often I get an email, Facebook message or Tweet from undergraduates or recent graduates who want information on coming to America to work or study. I understand that the process can be daunting, so I'm going to attempt to answer the most common questions. In addition, I'd like to encourage all my readers to think very seriously about the personal and financial implications of going to graduate school, especially abroad. My experience of graduate school, while not perfect, has ultimately been fulfilling, and I want that to be the case for as many people as possible.

I'm speaking with an American Studies background, so this is probably most relevant to Humanities students. Unfortunately I don't know much about other disciplines, but hopefully some of this information will still be useful. If I haven't answered your questions in this post, please leave a comment here and I will try to get back to you with my own knowledge or other resources. Also, if you have any questions about me/my life trajectory in general, please let me know as I am attempting to make a blog FAQ!

On to the questions...

The Application

 Why should I apply for graduate school in the US?
My number one reason for applying to graduate school in the US was that I believed an MA in Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi was perfect for me. I was in love. It was The One.

That's the most simple answer: because you really, really want to. But the other benefits that I will mention are the great funding opportunities, the length of the program (2 years as opposed to 1 year at home), and the fact that it's more chance to do relevant field work (in American Studies) and get a daily experience of a foreign culture. It's also excellent for making global connections and showing employers that you can achieve something truly impressive.

Where should I apply?
I'd recommend coming up with a list of possible schools to apply to. How many you actually apply to is up to you (and bear in mind that there are application fees for each); I know people that applied to just 1, 3 or as many as 10. Start with a good ol' Google search of MA programs and get a feel for what draws you in when it comes to program content, location and funding opportunities. I'll try to go into detail about each (see also Money Matters section below).

Think first about the program, the structure and expectations, the classes offered, and the research interests of faculty. Does that fit with the kind of work you wish to do? How much are you willing to learn new skills versus working in the same way that you did for your BA? Don't be afraid to reach out to potential departments to ask questions and get a feel for whether or not you'd fit there. I think that I asked my director for information on the demographics of the program, past theses topics and what jobs graduates had gone on to do.

Now consider the university itself. What do you need or expect from campus life? Think about size, facilities (library, fitness center), housing options, extracurricular opportunities, and anything else you would have thought about for applying for the BA and year abroad. Is that more or less important than the program itself? To be honest, on paper Ole Miss is not my ideal university. I don't identify with a lot of the undergraduate culture, which is heavily invested in sports and Greek organizations. It's not the easiest school to attend as a minority or international student. But I love my program and my department and ultimately I recognize that it was a brave choice for me. I knew it wouldn't be a cushiony experience but that it would make me grow a lot as a person.

On a related note, would you rather live in a college town or city? I consider myself to be more of a city person, but I keep ending up in the small-town South. That is mostly due to my research interests, but also due to cost. More on that later.

This is just my suggestion, but if you have already done a year abroad it might be worth thinking about going back to the same region. I've lived in the US for almost 3 years in total, but only the South. If you stuck me in Alaska or Michigan I would not know what was going on. Coming back to the South somewhat limited the culture shock the second time around.

How do I apply?
I applied for my MA through the British Association of American Studies. You can see where the available awards are listed here. (The application to go this year is closed, as the deadline was November 29.) BAAS has specific programs that they find candidates for, and the places are not necessarily repeated year to year. I would recommend applying for BAAS at the same time as doing traditional applications, unless there's only one place that interests you. My application to BAAS was similar to the traditional route, except I had an interview with a panel and was competing for one place.

For the traditional application, go on to the department's website to see what you need to do. Sometimes you will need to apply through the graduate school first, and it varies as to whether it is all online or by post. Please note that deadlines for the US are not like ours in the UK, meaning that they are usually from October to February and are not open up until the program starts. Some programs require you to submit other items to be considered for financial aid and/or a graduate assistantship, but others consider you automatically.

What do I need to do beforehand?
Most applications will require a personal statement of some kind, a transcript and 2-3 letters of recommendation. Many graduate schools also require a GRE score with your application. I've never been convinced that departments really pay much attention to the GRE, although I've heard it can be used as a way to decide funding. There are several centers in the UK where you can take the test.

Money Matters

What funding is available for me?
This depends so much on your school and department. Some departments provide funding for every student on the program. Others provide partial funding. The amount will vary between departments at the same school, too. This information is usually available on their websites but you can also email to clarify. You may get accepted into a few different graduate schools but not be offered funding everywhere.

There is more information on Graduate Assistantships below, which is how I've been funded. There are also external funding bodies available to international postgraduates, information for which is available on the Fulbright website here.

What are the other costs associated with graduate study?
These are some of the things I had to pay for. Open up your currency converter to see it in sterling!

F1 Student Visa and SEVIS: $160 and $200

Flights: Dependent on location and season (much cheaper from NYC than Memphis!). Anywhere between $500-1,200 is likely. Factor in how often you think you'll visit home or other places.

Fees: Oh American universities do love their fees! At Ole Miss, I pay $100 international student fee per semester, as well as a $50 capital gains fee. I also had costs to register, and more for graduation.

Healthcare: We all know this is important. Excuse the pun, but this may be a hard pill to swallow for British students. My school requires graduate students to enroll on their plan unless you have another one that is suitable (i.e. still on parents' plan). My healthcare plan, at around $1,500 a year, entitles me to doctor visits and prescriptions, but I have to pay $100 for emergency room visits and things like dental care, blood tests and referrals are not covered. It can be really aggravating to see your money disappearing rapidly and yet it doesn't cover much at all compared to what I grew up with. Some departments cover the cost of healthcare, as I understand it, so that's worth doing some research on.

Books/Equipment: Since I came to the US with no books or anything, I spent a lot of money. If I'm remembering correctly, my first semester was about $500, the second $300, the third $200, and the last more like $100 (thank you thesis). It depends on your program. I think the high cost came from the amount of new textbooks, as well as some documentary equipment I purchased. If you have a good library with lots of books available, or access to a credit card, you may be able to do a return system rather than buying them.

Living costs: I don't want to say, "Assume the worst!" but I do want to say that this can be surprising. As I live in Mississippi, people assume that I am enjoying the cheapest lifestyle in the world. Er, no. Rent is cheap, gas is cheap, restaurant food is comparatively cheaper than the UK. Supermarket food is extortionate (2-3x what I paid in Norwich), phone bill is certainly more and I've been hit by enormous bills during the cold weather period. In a city, it would likely be cheaper food and phone bills, but much higher rent. Bear in my that the US tends to have fewer options for furnished accommodation, so you may need to budget for furniture, kitchen items, etc.

Some graduate and/or international departments will provide a breakdown of expected costs, so it's worth checking those websites for more information.

Agh! Can I please get another job on the side?
Your student visa only entitles you to a certain number of hours on campus. It is not legal for you to work off campus. During the summer time, you can work extra hours on campus or off campus through OPT (more on that below).

Is it worth taking out more loans? How can I afford this?
Taking out loans is a decision only you can make. America has a much different attitude to debt than the UK, so I do know people that have loans they will never pay off and it doesn't bother them at all. I think that's a big reason why so much gets so ludicrously expensive on a college campus, as no one seems to talk about the fact that not everyone in school is financially comfortable. I was actually not completely informed of the financial implications of graduate school before I got out here (hence why I'm being so detailed now) so I was faced with that dilemma at a later date.

I think that you should do your best to get as much funding as possible, assess what personal savings and family contributions are available to you, then consider how much of a shortfall you have. If you think that you could reasonably pay that amount back once you're employed, and you think the experience would be really, really worth it, then that is something worth considering.

Daddy Free would also want me to say: remember to stick to your Excel spreadsheet budget.

Work and Study

What is a Graduate Assistantship?
A Graduate Assistantship usually entitles you to a full or partial tuition waiver, as well as a stipend (wage). I am on a 20 hour assistantship, which means I work for that many hours and it entitles me to a full tuition waiver. Observing the English and History departments, the work more often than not seems to involve teaching an entry level course. Southern Studies is unusual in that a lot of us are doing different jobs for the department (teaching assistance, documentary assistance, working with the Southern Foodways Alliance) and some of us get rotated each semester. In my time at Ole Miss I have worked as a research assistant for a professor and for the Mississippi Encyclopedia project, worked as a Teaching Assistant, worked at the University of Mississippi Museum and now at Rowan Oak, William Faulkner's house.

There are also other assistantships available outside of the department, for example I have friends who are funded by the international office.

What is the workload like?
Like American undergrad, the structure is a lot of different work - presentations, short papers - but it is much more difficult than what most people experience during their year abroad. At the end of each semester there are substantial final projects. I often whine that graduate school is the worst blend of the British and American system, but it's been good for me to have to learn to turn around short papers quickly and juggle between reading and working on a final project. I also loved that I got to take classes outside of the department, although they do have to be relevant.

Also, for undergraduates who are currently working on or have just finished a dissertation: I basically write 3 dissertations at the end of each semester. I'd like to say a lot was written by mid-semester, but that would be a lie... I have done too many all-nighters to count. But basically no writing assignment can make me nervous anymore!

I'm not sure if I want a career in academia. Should I still go to graduate school?
I'm of the opinion that if you are dead-set against a career in academia, you probably shouldn't do a Ph.D for the fun of it. (Is that even possible?) But a Master's is a different ball game, or at least it can be. Dr. Tom Smith, who was my dissertation supervisor at UEA, warned me that instead of just thinking about academia I should think about what aspects I was interested in (e.g. writing, teaching, publishing) and consider pursuing that instead.

So I went against his advice! But only because my program was non-traditional, with the opportunity to learn about documentary, foodways, music and have a truly interdisciplinary approach to cultural studies. I entered my program thinking there was a big chance I would want to get a Ph.D (except I would do it back in the UK, thanks for that advice Professor Bigsby!). Now that I'm at the end of it, I think it's more likely that I won't, but the program was absolutely not a waste to me. It gave me the confidence to decide what I really wanted to do, and gave me the skills to do it.

If you think you should go to graduate school because you're not sure what else to do, I want you to stop that train of thought immediately. I am passionate about my work, and most of the time I love what I do. But it's exhausting. It's so hard. There will be no one there to hold you hand if you start to lose motivation or confidence - you have to be able to push yourself. Where that drive comes from is individual - whether it's a PhD or a job or a personal desire to better yourself - but it needs to be something that is present in one way or another, rather than an absence of other goals.


What options do I have to work after studying?
After completing a degree in the US, you can apply for an Optional Practical Training year at a cost of $380, sometimes with an internal fee of around $100. The job must be relevant to your area of study. Two friends of mine have applied for OPT and are going to be working in international and student outreach departments at the university. You can apply for OPT during the summer if you want to get an off campus job, but you must deduct the time you spend working from the overall 12 months. More information on OPT is - where else?! - on Wikipedia.

But what if I don't want to study?
This is bad news for Humanities students. Unless you work in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) field, it's difficult to apply for a work visa. These types of visas are called petition-based, which mean that your employer sponsors you to come out or stay to work. Jobs that favor humanities candidates are generally not rolling in it so they often won't consider international candidates, especially those that do not have established careers. But I will say that I don't personally know tons about it, so I will try to find out more in time if there is anyone that still wants to consider that route.

However, there are some options still available to you right now. BUNAC offers both summer work visas (£495+) to recent graduates/current students, as well as internship opportunities available to everyone (£699+). Other organizations such as the Mountbatten Institute offer city-based internships alongside a business postgraduate qualification.

Life Abroad

What will my social life be like?
My experience has been that it is much harder to make friends in graduate school. I have a select few close friends who I speak to or see regularly, compared to a larger group of friends/acquaintances as an undergrad. Some people come to graduate school with a spouse/family, or they have a whole life back at home and they see the 2 years as just temporary. I was honestly surprised by how many people come to graduate school with no desire to make new friends. But I should also add that I'm not a social butterfly, and I'm sure the experience would vary enormously according to cohort, location, etc. I will have a lifelong bond with the friends I have made here, as we have gone through a lot of stressful times together, and many of us share similar career aspirations.

A quick word on dating... I can't tell anyone what to do, but whether you are single or taken, please think about how more time abroad will impact your personal life. When I got into graduate school I was already in a steady relationship, and we had many conversations to make sure that we were clear on each others' goals and the fact that time apart was necessary to achieve them. Long distance relationships can and do work, but it's another challenge that is not necessarily the best decision for everyone. If you are single, consider that meeting someone abroad can also be a difficult path to go down. I don't want to say anything simplistic about putting love before work or work before love, but there needs to be a happy balance that works for you.

How necessary is it for me to be able to drive?
It's not a deal breaker if you are in a big city where there is public transportation. If you are in a more rural area, life is going to be significantly more challenging without a car. During my year abroad in Chapel Hill, I paid more rent to live closer to campus, I went grocery shopping little and often so I could carry it home and walk (which Americans still thought was insane!), and there were bus links to surrounding areas like Durham and Raleigh. Although Oxford is making headway with longer bus hours and a new Megabus, when I first moved there it was extremely restrictive - no buses on weekends or past 6, changes in order to get to the grocery store, no public transport to Memphis/New Orleans. I think it's totally fine if you're an exchange student and have the time/patience to deal with it, but as a working Master's student it was extremely stressful for me to never know when I could grocery shop, to strain my back carrying a ton of library books and to have to deal with any and all weather conditions. I like to think it made me a stronger person (!) but looking back I wish I'd got the driving stuff figured out ahead of time.

Gas prices are significantly cheaper than the UK, but buying a used car is a lot more expensive. My insurance is a lot because I'm not on any kind of family plan or whatever. But for all the stress, I am in love with my car and so happy to finally have my license (as of a month ago!). The test was hilarious to me. I will write a post on that one day.

How do I know if going abroad is right for me?
In many ways, I wasn't exactly ready to go abroad again. I'd had a difficult time in Chapel Hill, and my last year at UEA was sometimes very lonely and confusing. I felt like I'd been moving around so much and that I had no home anymore. I almost didn't apply, but luckily the few people I mumbled to about the opportunity pushed me to do so. Once I'd done the application, I realized that I really, really wanted to go.

I will say that I think I couldn't have handled graduate school here if I hadn't already done a year abroad. I still had culture shock and homesickness and the whole shebang, but I did have more confidence in myself, more knowledge in the region, and friends/family who were a shorter distance away in North Carolina.

What have been your most positive experiences as an international student/ex-pat?
I have some silly things to say and some serious. First of all, it really gets old when people make fun of your accent after so many years, but I have to admit that even I get a kick out of how I sound. My two British ex-pat friends and I joke about our weird hybrid accents, none of which sound the same as each other. You never know when a forgotten British word is going to come flying out to the confusion of all around you, or if you're going to pass as American to someone who's not paying attention.

I enjoy the superficial aspects of my ex-pat identity, like my accent, my noticeable fashion choices (no shorts and T-shirt on this London girl) and how people always want to know my life story. But really what has changed most is on the inside. I have a better understanding of how culture functions, how your ideas, your tastes, your prejudices are so sharply shaped by where you grow up. I've had to confront so much about myself, what I want and what is holding me back. The hardest part of all has been to realize that I'm not nearly nice enough to myself every day, and that that will destroy me if I can't learn how. Being away from the comfort of home - my family, my friends, my culture - has forced me to look at myself more closely, too.

The most positive aspect of everything that I've done is undoubtedly the people I've met. I've had many wonderful teachers and mentors here, who helped me develop and pursue my ideas for my writing and future career. I've made friends that I survived a car crash with, that I've travelled with, that I've turned to when I felt like I was losing my mind. I met the love of my life in Chapel Hill, as well as my two bridesmaids. My life is now here in the South, as well as in England.


I truly hope that this helps many of you to think about your futures, whether in academia, abroad or otherwise. Please let me know if I can answer any more questions - or if there are any other topics you'd like covered on this blog! Graduation is looming, which means I will finally have more time to update regularly.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

It was just my imagination, running away with me

[Written January 24, edited February 27]

I recently experienced what many would consider to be the most symbolic end of childhood: my parents sold our house, which the five of us moved in to in early 1994. It was not a surprise, except that the looking, buying, selling and moving all happened while I was living abroad, so I never got to say a "proper goodbye". Less than three weeks after my parents moved to another part of St Albans, my boyfriend proposed and we began looking for a house of our own, albeit in another country. After a decent amount of drama and stress we found a suitable place for us to start married life, in a historic district in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I'm sitting in that house right now, but I won't be moving in until after I graduate in May.

My parents love me enough that they did not dispose of all my belongings, but they did request I sort through what could go, what could be boxed up, and what I wanted to take to my own house. I had wisely done a clear-out after I finished at UEA, disposing of old schoolbooks, an enormous collection of classroom notes (the question remains: how did I get in to university?), expired cosmetics, ill-fitting clothes and any ornaments that could be described as childish but not sentimental enough. But I admit I wasn't thorough, and I still found more to do this time around. The process of clearing out is one of remembering, of choosing what to remember and what to forget, and choosing what becomes part of the future, too.

Clothes are easy enough. If I live without them in America, how much can I possibly need them to remain here with my parents? I let go of a few bum-inflating pencil skirts and promised myself newer, more flattering ones; I salvaged a skirt that I may never wear again, but was part of the dark angel costume I had on the night I met my future husband. I kept a school shirt with writing on it from 2000. I kept an unforgiving dress I wore in 2007, which says a lot about my optimism.

Books are not so hard either. My method was to create my bookshelf exactly as I would want others to discover it (not just an imaginative exercise, as my fiance's parents will be staying in that room soon). The top shelf is for my collection of children's books, dominated by Harry Potter and The Princess Diaries series, with others such as Jeremy James, The Enchanted Horse, Heidi and Little Women. I boxed up far more, to keep for other children one day. My mother has truly excellent taste in children's books, and her love of them was passed down to me. I threw such things as Boy and Going Solo aside - Roald, you're coming to America with me. The second shelf was a collection of categories. Young Adult (welcome, Sarah Dessen and Ann Brashares), classic English literature (Thackeray, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, Austen), non-fiction (Bill Bryson and Michael Palin, Howard Zinn). The third is perhaps an homage to my degree, filled with American literature, mainly twentieth century (Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald). There is only one Faulkner novel, because the rest live with me in Oxford. My poetry collections and writing how-tos are bound for South Carolina, eventually.

Photographs are the main way that we all use to look at the past, and we're of course the generation that went from developments to digital and internet sharing. I'm lazy about physical photographs. They're all sitting in a drawer. I don't want to look at them, nor do I want to throw them away. One day, maybe? The most I did was sit with two secondary school friends, Anna and Robbo, and examine our yearbooks. We observed that for just about everyone you could pick, we know each person has grown more attractive. I guess that exercise will only be exciting when this ceases to be the case. (And thank you, Facebook, for giving us access to such information.) I don't recognize myself in the yearbook photos. I'm thinner now and my hair is longer and all that, but mainly it's that I smile differently. I hadn't even thought that could change. My dad told me I am so much happier now than I used to be, so maybe that explains the smiles.

The waters are murky when it gets to correspondence. There's probably no need to keep birthday and Christmas cards, unless there's a letter inside. I have singled out ones that I want to remember from friends, but I'm content to let them stay in St Albans; I only like to look at them every couple of years anyway. I keep what will make me laugh, and there are many from my teenagers years, practically written in a different language of slang and codewords for boys we fancied. Which brings me to my next question: what do you do with old love letters? It's madness, surely, to take them into your married house. But with a finished relationship, these old letters are not about reminiscing about the other person - they are for reflecting on how much I have changed. I'm not so keen to dispose of them, yet I'm mortified at the idea that anyone would keep mine.

Hey look, I got into UEA! I got into Chapel Hill! I got into Ole Miss! Let's throw out any and all rejection letters.

My writing, oh my writing. I was entranced by Anne Frank, so for 3 or so years in primary school I handwrote a named diary of my own. I kept a journal from around 2001 to 2010, after which I began to write less frequently (another symbolic marker of adulthood?), but this one is stored and password-protected online, meaning I don't have urgent decisions of what to do with it. For I don't wish to burn the girlhood diary, or handwritten entries of distress that I wrote as a teenager, but I don't want someone else to come along and read them either. I'm keeping the script and accompanying portfolio for the Beaumont School play, The Madness of George King, which I still have great memories of working on. I'm keeping the travel journals from 2008/09 in the USA and France (semi co-written with Katharine, as we liked to intrude on each others notebooks during the long train rides) and 2011, where Faye, Jess and I repeatedly get into trouble in American cities.

It's amazing to me how much time I spent living in my own head. All the writing is proof of that. It is partly cultural, partly individual. My fiance had such a different experience of high school. He played baseball, he dated, he studied hard to get in to the University of North Carolina. He thought a lot about what people thought of him, but by his own admission didn't do much looking inwards. I was kind of a lone wolf in a lot of ways. I had a lot of friends, I had a lot of crushes, I spent time doing drama and ice skating and running wild (we are so lucky to have public transportation and to get to experience London) but I was thinking thinking overthinking all the time. I had friends and family say, you know I love you, but you have to stop thinking so much. There was a lot of mental torture that came with being introverted, but the gift was my writing, and I'm so happy for that. The tradeoff for being happier and healthier these days is that it's hard to be 100% immersed in my stories, the way that I witnessed my summer camp teens being. It's interesting trying to find a balance between my real life and the lives in my head. Either way, I think we should all remain at least a little bit childish as we age.

Speaking of writing, there were plenty of fictional pieces lying around. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I have 4 folders that are chock-full of stories. I found old stories/novel ideas and poetry, but my favorite was finding little scraps that I would later develop. I'd written a couple of paragraphs about a girl called Hayley who was apparently dating an older lawyer. I've no idea when I wrote that, but she eventually showed up in "We Can't Go On Like This", a story I wrote for Randall Kenan in Chapel Hill. I found a timeline of events for a summer love triangle between three graduates that years later morphed into "Gooseberry Pie", which I wrote last semester for Megan Abbott. It's funny to me that I physically stash the ideas somewhere and often forget I've done it, yet they float about in the back of my mind until I'm ready to organize them. I wonder if my husband-to-be will be driven mad by the unintelligible notes on the lives of made-up people.

I have two things to finish off with. Anna's family have moved house recently too - coincidentally to the same road as my parents! Our families just can't separate - so she's been engaged in a similar reckoning with the past. I found it hilarious that she came across two stories from when we were young teens, one by me and one by her; she is sure that she was just copying me. Hey, I've always liked to inspire others to write! I am sure that we made different choices in remembering and forgetting, just as we can recall different childhood memories (a hysterical activity regardless). So tell me: what do you choose to keep and throw away, both mentally and physically?

Lastly, I wanted to share a scrap of a story that I started in Chapel Hill. I must have been homesick because I set it in St Albans, which I'd resisted writing about before. It's about a rumor I heard many years ago, but I never found out whether or not it was true. I remembered it without deliberately trying to. I brought the scrap back to America with me, and for better or for worse I was going to type it up here - but now I have no idea where it is. It's probably hiding amidst Southern Studies notes. I wonder what will become of it? Maybe it will live in a drawer forever, or eventually be thrown out, or maybe it will inspire a fully-fledged story or novel.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

[Fun fact: Most of this was handwritten during a London to Norwich train journey. Which is looking finer than ever!]

This post is about making life choices during your twenties, respecting other people's choices, and the culture that surrounds the idea of "choice" in the first place. Normally I write about country-to-country culture, but as a twenty-something who is soon to leave education/academia for employment, and single life for marriage, I felt that this was an interesting time to reflect on the expectations of potentially the most transient stage of life. My intention is not to sound dogmatic or arrogant about my own particular path, but I am going to draw upon my own experience and how it relates to people's cultural expectations and responses.

So much has been made of Wander Onwards's "23 Things To Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You're 23" that I'm hesitant to respond to it at all. But it struck a nerve with me, both because I am only 24 myself and because I recently got engaged. In all honesty, I don't care for this post. It's not particularly because she is criticizing a choice I've actually made; I even think she has some valid points for waiting to get married and knowing yourself well first. But overall, I find her approach anti-feminist. Putting aside the jab that married women become "fat" (from pregnancy?), this author subscribes to the idea that women are either exciting single women with an abundance of adventures ahead of them, or they are boring, man-dependent wives. Neither this author nor the women gleefully re-posting it are convincing me that their life choices are superior to mine. Frankly, I'm confused about why they would want to.

Friends, family and acquaintances have responded to my engagement much more forcefully than any other life choice (and let's remember I moved from almost-London to Mississippi, hardly most people's idea of a reasonable decision). Perhaps there is something stiflingly universal about engagement, expected and elusive at the same time. It's as if the fact that I am engaged sends a message that I think all women should be engaged now too. I guess that means I think more people should be scholars of the South, too? Well... Anyway, the vast majority are congratulatory and sincere, but some - usually my age, usually female - look down at my ring and have an immediate impulse to express and/or defend their own life choices. I've heard variations of, "Well, I'm still single" followed by a chuckle or wince, "I don't think I'll ever get married" with a contented smile or sidelong glance, or, a little more biting, "But you've only been together 2 years?" and, "That's young to get married." With a headshake. I am not someone who wants to show off the ring all the time and tell everyone I meet - wedding planning is so beyond terrifying that I am happy to talk about the weather instead - so I can only imagine the replies to a more gregarious bride.

These responses imply that we think our choices are the result of nothing except our own desires, immune to timing and circumstance; indeed, it suggests we think that we can choose when and how life events take place. I don't believe in such complete control. Right now I'm at home in England and I've had the pleasure of catching up with old friends. Some are in long-term relationships and living together, some are engaged, some are single with various feelings about it. What are my single friends doing "wrong"? I'm inclined to say nothing. (For one, there is no problem at all with enjoying being alone, can we all try to remember this pleeease?) At university I didn't chase after relationships, I turned down what I wasn't sure of, I would not accept blind dates. My mind was focused on becoming a writer, traveler and academic. I got comments about my lack of "experience", unwillingness to "try" and even a suggestion that I might not be heterosexual. And yet one day I met my future husband, and I was only 21. Of course I committed to this relationship in particular, but no, there was nothing I "did" to "achieve" a proposal. I didn't sacrifice my love of travel and academia, either. It was really a combination of choices and circumstances.

When thinking about this post I was reminded of my favorite TED Talk, Meg Jay's "Why 30 is Not the New 20." Jay's argument is that we should not trivialize twenty-somethings and instead encourage thoughtful personal development. Vanessa of Wander Onwards obviously has her sense of fun down, and I admire someone who wants to travel by themselves, but I don't accept her conclusion that she has, "already experienced more of the world in the last 22 years than [her] married peers will ever experience in their life." If you can and want to, I also encourage travel - but let's be clear that it's not the only way to soul-search and develop as an individual. I believe that you can get to know yourself through travel or staying at home, in a relationship or single, in education or at work, as a parent or childless. I believe that conscious choices - made assertively, not due to fear - that are made wherever possible will take you on the path to happiness. It won't be perfect, and we all have things that hold us back, but that is at least a more honest way to live than following someone else's notion of what life should be, whether that means getting married before you are ready or going abroad because you think you should.

We are obsessed, even now, with whether women (and men) can "have it all." I think what "all" means is entirely up to you.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

It was always so hot, and everyone was so polite, and everything was all surface but underneath it was like a bomb waiting to go off.

Today I will attempt to answer the question: What is the South?

From Southern Studies 101 to Southern Studies 601, from Mississippi to North Carolina, I have talked to a lot of people about what "the South" really means. We draw lines between different countries, but defining a region is more complicated.

In the UK, we pretty much understand where England ends and where Scotland and Wales begin. But I've found that people get more argumentative when it comes to placing counties within a region. For instance, when I was at UEA, I heard people argue that Norfolk was part of the North, the South, the Midlands, the East and the Southeast. (Can't we agree on "East Anglia?") Defining, say, the South of England, would be entirely subject to context and individual perspectives. It's exactly the same in the US, except they like to talk about it a lot more.

During my first semester at Ole Miss, someone asked if it was my first time in the US.

"No," I told him, "I lived in North Carolina for a year."

He replied, "Oh, so this is your first time in the South!"

What? Is North Carolina a Yankee state now? My North Carolinian fiance grinds his teeth at the very suggestion he is not a real southerner.

There are some states that most people willingly agree are part of the American South (such as Alabama and Mississippi), and others that are more up for debate (such as Texas or Kentucky). For some people, the Deep South is somehow "more southern" than the culture found in the Carolinas. So who's in, and who's out? Who is at the center and who is on the fringe? How do you define a region, and what does it all mean in the end?

Here are some different definitions of what some consider to be "the South":

Geographical Definition

"The relationship between the Mason and Dixon needs some fixin'." 
- LL Cool J. 

(Who could do with enrolling in Southern Studies 101. Brad Paisley should come too.)

As you can see from the map on the right, the US Census defines the South as encompassing the following states: Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.

What a big party! And it really does screw with you when you're trying to use statistics to back up a point about rural culture and big cities such as Dallas and Tallahassee keep getting in the way. Moving on...

Historical Definition

"Advance the flag of Dixie! Hurrah! Hurrah!
In Dixie's land we take our stand, and live or die for Dixie!" 
- Confederate States of America War Song. Also Kevin Spacey, briefly.

The South is still defined today by its role in the 19th century: secession from the Union (on the part of - in order - South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee), support of slavery, formation of the Confederacy and subsequently the Civil War. To tell the whole truth, despite the fact that I am a Southern Studies student, I am no Civil War buff. Eventually I will sit down and watch the entire Ken Burns TV series.

But for now I will just say that I was honestly surprised by how much the Civil War still has a ghostly presence within the South. Also known as "the war between the states" and "the war of Northern aggression", it did after all end as long ago as 1865. Yet it is referenced far, far more than I can recall World War II being brought up during all my years in Britain, and that was only my grandparents' generation. I can remember being a young girl and hearing soldier stories from my grandfather, evacuee stories from my grandmother - but I never digested it as a source of personal pride or personal history. The Confederacy still is a part of southern "tradition" for some families and individuals, which manifests in a number of ways: joining a group like the Daughters of the Confederacy, celebrating Robert E. Lee Day, flying the Confederate Flag, etc.

 Cultural Definition

 "The old game, I suspect, is beginning to play out in the Bible Belt." - H.L. Mencken. 


It occurs to me that "the South" is not always a recognizable term to those who do not call the United States home. Which leads to a somewhat awkward situation when I try to explain what I'm getting a Master's in. Southern America... You mean like Brazil? No, just no. At least you'll be close to you boyfriend in California, right? Hmm... How near is it to New York/Washington D.C./Chicago/Los Angeles? It's not. I can sort of work with you if you know where Florida is though.

You get the idea.

But what people DO know is that some parts of America are very, very religious. Occasionally someone will ask, "Is Mississippi in the Bible Belt?" Yes, yes, YES. Now we are getting somewhere! The Bible Belt refers to the southeastern (and sometimes southcentral, and occasionally midwestern) states of the US, and points to the proportion of evangelical Protestants, as well as the importance of religious/church culture in general. Sometimes you hear the phrase "the Buckle of the Bible Belt", as in most extreme, but it is apparently a multi-buckling belt as many places have been labeled this, based on the presence mega-churches, percentage of Baptists, or perhaps Pat Robertson appreciation.

My department at the University of Mississippi is called the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. It's exactly what it says on the tin: we study culture. What is culture, aside from religion? In academic gobbledeegook, we are an interdisciplinary bunch who study topics such as literature and literary theory, history, sociology, anthropology, documentary, ethnography, communications, globalization, politics and economics. Each discipline gives us a small idea of southern identity, even as it may obscure other ideas. Culture is not always clear-cut and harmonious. It is complicated, in flux, evading conclusions.

I can give you southern tropes with which to communicate ideas about the South, but as I've said, these are mere dots of the puzzle. Southern people say "y'all." Faulkner, Welty and O'Connor wrote southern literature. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men documents southern life. Charlotte, North Carolina, is the headquarters of Bank of America and is part of the global South. The South is so vast, so varied, so complex, that even after years of study - and for some, a lifetime of experience - there is always more to learn.

 Personal Definition

“I quickly realized there is no such thing as the South; there are just hundreds of souths." - Wiley Cash.

If I had to pin down the main reason why I love to study culture, I would say its fluidity.

Most people know I am far from a black-and-white person. I believe in moral relativism, I am agnostic, I see the world in terms of multiplicity. I am also not an ambivalent person. I find our world contradictory, unjust sometimes, unfathomable and yet meaningful - never boring, never not worth thinking about. I get lost in the details of life, people and places. I know I can never fully answer a question like, "What is the South?" and yet I will try for the rest of my life.

To end this post, I have a challenge for you.

Whether you have lived in the South all your life, moved there for college or a job, married a southerner, taken a trip to Atlanta, watched Gone With The Wind one time, or never heard of it until this post, I want you to take a moment to think about this.

Set a timer for 1-2 minutes. Without stopping, write down everything that comes to mind about the South.

I'll end here with what I came up with, and I hope some of you will share your thoughts too.

The South is...
Sweet tea, long porches, slow talking and soft accents, nice manners, racism, women who want to get married young, excellent universities, storytelling, conflict, sweet potato mash with marshmallows, humidity, buzzing cicadas at night, football and basketball, blue skies, mountains, banjos, MLK, honey, peaches, patriotism, guns and cars, rednecks, cotton and mills, grits, Elvis Presley.

Monday, 12 August 2013

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

What did I do THIS time?
I left you with a kind of cliffhanger in my last entry.

You may be wondering what is going on with my patched up feet. Well, I'll get to that. It's part of my story of the first ten days of living in Oxford. I'm writing this in part to remember it and tell a good yarn, but also as a comfort to anyone who has just started out abroad and is having a tough time.

My first few days were exactly as you would expect. I moved into my apartment, bought items at the local Walmart, collected a package of tea and goodies I had sent myself, and attended several orientations. And I do mean several.

The first was a day-long international student orientation, in which I met students from many countries including Canada, China, Ethiopia and Mexico. The orientation leaders went through the alphabet and had people shout out their countries as we got to each letter. There was some confusion about how to represent us. United Kingdom, Britain, Great Britain, England? I grew up thinking of myself as English and being from England, but American vernacular has seeped in and now I refer to myself as British and from the UK. Whatever. We talked about classes, culture, healthcare, food, politics and, rather importantly, immigration matters. This is why I don't get the movie Like Crazy. Did her school not provide her with an orientation? Why would she just overstay her visa like that?! Everybody knows you don't overstay your visa!

I expected better from you, Ethel Hallow.

The next day we had a very long Graduate School orientation, which unfortunately covered a lot of the same matters... On the one hand, I applaud US universities for making such an effort to inform students right away. On the other hand, I kind of like the British approach which is to mumble awkwardly for 30 minutes then hand you a bunch of paperwork that you will inevitably stash away and forget about. Anyway, we were let out of the auditorium for the glorious sunshine, plus free lunch and a T-shirt. Here I met a few people from my program, who I would see again the next day at the Southern Studies orientation. We sat in the conference room of Barnard Observatory, where I would have many classes, and shared our interests and where we were from. We were introduced to members of the department, including a few second years. Then we had a picture of the 13 of us outside on the steps of Barnard to mark the occasion. "Dear God," I thought, getting in to the spirit of Mississippi life, "Please let me graduate." Then one last orientation for those of us with assistantships.

I'll talk more about my assistantship and classes in another entry, but for now I'll give you the basic details. In the Fall semester, my assistantship consisted of a Teaching Assistant position for a Southern Studies 101 class, and a Research Assistant position for a professor in the department. In the Spring semester, I continued to be a TA while assisting with research for the Mississippi Encyclopedia. As for classes, in the Fall I took a compulsory Southern Studies graduate seminar, a Southern Foodways class affiliated with the Southern Foodways Alliance, and Documentary Studies. In the Spring, I continued with the graduate seminar, plus a class on Faulkner and an internship with Living Blues magazine. I spent most of my undergraduate years attempting to give all my projects a southern leaning, and now I don't even have to try! It's such a great program and I feel very lucky to be part of it.

My new home, Barnard Observatory.

On top of the orientations, there were several social events organized by the department. As you can imagine, the summer evenings in Mississippi are very nice; once the sun goes down it is less unforgivably stifling and a much more pleasant temperature. So many events are held in the garden/yard. Now, given my disaster with mosquito bites during my first week at Chapel Hill, I came to Oxford with many insect repellant supplies: cream, spray, and even a special type of sunscreen with some mixed in. I say that it my own defense, because every time I am bitten someone scolds me for not putting any bug spray on. I DO use it, it just isn't 100% effective and those damn things seem to just LOVE my blood. Actually, I believe they love pasty white English skin, as other internationals have been bitten badly too. Anyway, can you guess what I'm leading up to? I was bitten all over my feet and legs.

It was worse than the time in Chapel Hill. I repeat, IT WAS WORSE THAN THE TIME IN CHAPEL HILL.

Always the overachiever, when I visited the doctor he pronounced my hivey feet as, "the worst case of insect bites he had ever seen." I was then prescribed antibiotics, a large dose of steroids, and rest. So I sat in my new apartment with my boyfriend, who had now missed his planned departure date in order to wait on me, change my dressings, and carry me from the couch to the bed. Here's another important detail to this story: I was already considering moving out. I can't go into the full details, but suffice to say, there was a safety issue with the apartment that I considered to be a dealbreaker. As I was trying to get my head around moving somewhere else already and thinking of all the legal/logistical things I had to do before the semester got underway, I got much sicker.

There is some debate as to what actually happened, as different doctors suggested the following: a) They were not actually mosquito bites, b) They were mosquito bites, and were also carrying West Nile disease, c) I had an allergic reaction to the antibiotics, steroids, or both, d) I was prescribed too high a dosage of steroids. Personally, I think I am just more allergic to bites than anyone most doctors come across (I get hives and dizziness), and the enormous amount of steroids didn't help. Anyway, I ended up in the emergency room, crying about my new ridiculous life in Mississippi and the fact that no one understood my accent, requesting to see my parents, and having to email my department at 4am to say I would be missing the first day. Not a good omen for the rest of the semester.

In the end, it all turned out okay. I moved out of my apartment and into a house with two North Carolinians (plus a cat and a dog), gathered furniture for my new room, said goodbye to my boyfriend, and hung my ER bracelet up on my bulletin board. I kept it as a reminder that, no matter what happens here, it could not be worse than the first week.

But that was before I had experienced finals week.

I'm kidding. I know how much it sucks to have your very first week in a new place be filled with uncertainty, sadness and sickness. In Chapel Hill, I missed a few of the early social events and felt like I was late to the game with making friends. Being sick for my first weekend brought on an unexpected wave of homesickness. I let that homesickness define me. I let it pull me right down into a depression that took months to get out of. In Oxford, I am proud to say that I did not repeat those mistakes. I did experience homesickness again, and I did have some stressful days that made me cry and wish I'd stayed home. But for the most part, I got on with my life. I reached out to people, made new friends, worked hard for my classes and job, and before I knew it the end of the semester was near and Oxford was my new home.

It's hard to have stability in a new place, especially if you've only got a few months or a year to experience it. I remember that before I left the UK, I was told about the stages of culture shock. Theoretically, I was supposed to looove the new place in the beginning and feel some culture shock a few months in. Maybe this is dependent on personality, as some people don't seem to experience culture shock at all. For me, every time I have moved, whether to Norwich, Chapel Hill, Oxford or home at any time, the first month was the hardest. I guess what I want to say is, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of reactions to moving abroad, remember to reach out to other people. Reach out if you need help, but also if you're doing great and could cheer someone else up. (This applies to those at home as well as abroad.) I'm also happy to help anyone who wants some TLC via email or Skype. Really, no one needs to go through what I did the first time around. This is what I realized in Oxford, and I'm much happier for it.

For anyone who's struggling, remember that those of us with the scary experiences have the best stories to tell! Not convinced? When I got back to UEA, I mostly had classes with others who had returned from a year abroad. Sometimes I would start telling a story to the person next to me, and it was often so outrageous it would make everyone turn around to listen. I can promise you that was not the case before.

So how about y'all? If you've lived abroad before, how was the first week? If you're going abroad soon, what are you excited and/or nervous about?

Monday, 5 August 2013

Now let us drink the stars, it's time to steal away. Let's go get lost right here in the USA.

I hope my lack of blog entries can be a testament to how busy my first year at Ole Miss was. Luckily, I’ve been keeping notes, so while I still have a few study-free days left, I’m going to write several entries. I hope you enjoy them!

[Written September 2, 2012] Hello, finally, from Oxford, where it truly is a dark and stormy night. Outside it is a cacophony of rain fall, thunderclaps, wind and rustling branches. Inside, I’ve had several cups of tea to calm myself down as the dog roams around barking (the kitten is completely unafraid and smug). I have five (!) books still to finish in time for this week’s classes. I have an essay about a truck contest to write. But I have been in America almost a month and, apart from a few scribbled notes, have not had a chance to write about it yet. I figure I will never be any less busy, so now is as good a time as any.

Of course I want to write about Oxford. I’ve been dreaming of the Faulknerland since I was nineteen; it’s amazing that I’m actually living here. It is a wonderful place for so many reasons, but best of all it already feels like home. The thing is, I have the next two years to bore you all with Oxford-related gushing. And it just so happens that I have other stories to bore you with first. I flew to San Francisco on August 8, and drove* for five days to get to Mississippi. So first of all I want to take you through some musings related to that. Please, no hatred from any Brits about putting the month before the date, I need to get in the habit!

*And when I say “drove”, I mean sitting in the passenger seat eating Rainbow cookies, worrying aloud about Ole Miss and taking pictures of billboards and cornfields whilst my boyfriend sat behind the wheel the whole time.

08/08: London, UK to San Francisco, CA
During my ten hour flight, I came to a conclusion: airplanes bring out the worst in people. Cramped, tired and always enduring the screams of children, airline passengers must be the worst customers ever. Everyone is so demanding and unfriendly in a way that I feel sure they would not be in any other setting. Fellow passengers were especially demanding and unfriendly due to a malfunction with the entertainment sets, which meant no TV or music for the first two hours of the flight. I, of course, came prepared. I sat reading Bill Bryson and tried not to laugh out loud. I’m sure I must have been quite a sight, grinning widely in a crowd of frowns and pursed lips. If I am ever even a fraction as good as Bill Bryson I will die happy. Also, I’m not entirely convinced he and my dad are separate people.

I was more cheerful on this flight than usual – as it happens I’m afraid of flying. A lot of my positivity has to do with Virgin Atlantic. They truly are the best airline I’ve ever experienced; the staff is helpful, the entertainment selection is usually great (when working!) and I actually really like the food. And they were very nice to me that time I fainted in the middle of the aisle back in January [2012]. Now, if they would pay me for endorsing them publicly I would like them even better. Graduate school is expensive!

My cheeriness was waning by the end of the flight, however. Someone had rapped on the bathroom door in a most demanding and unfriendly manner as I washed my face and brushed my teeth. I am as courteous as possible on a plane, and this, I felt, gave me the right to take the tiniest bit longer in the bathroom. But apparently not. I harrumphed back to my seat and was then slumped on by the people next to me for the remainder of the flight. It is very odd to constantly have a child’s feet or head in your lap when you do not know them. I vowed to never let my own future children loll about like that on a plane, and squirmed Britishly for the last hour.

After queuing for another hour and a half, I somehow still had the adrenaline to ignore my coccyx injury and haul my own at-the-weight-limit suitcases off the conveyor belt. I was thankfully still awake enough to recognize my boyfriend at the gate rather than absentmindedly trying to board a plane to Canada or something (“Must. Be. In. Commonwealth.”). We got in the car, drove through San Francisco, and for some reason covered the topics of drugs, drunk driving and guns within the first hour. I shifted in my seat and fought the urge to run, on foot, back to the airport to go home. I stayed awake through the evening, which I spent with Chip, his roommate Marie, and Tar Heel friends Katie, David and Amanda. We ordered Chinese, which was a huge amount of food for a small amount of money. Ah yes, I’m back in the USA.

08/09: San Francisco, CA to Elko, NV
Chip and I set out in the car the next morning, circling back five minutes later to collect the coolbox. (But not, as it turns out, my Topshop sandals, which still reside on his bedroom floor.) Then, since we had delayed ourselves already, we decided to go grocery shopping. I was very pleased about this, as my greatest hang up about doing a road trip (or being in America generally!) is not having adequate access to fruit. Since we were running late already I didn’t get a chance to dance around the grocery store exclaiming over every item. Don’t worry, that blog entry will come.

I was sad to leave San Francisco so soon. It’s one of my favorite cities where I have made such great memories, and I still dream of living there one day. However, we drove over the Bay Bridge, northeast to Sacramento, Lake Tahoe and Reno. We listened to only a little bit of Rush Limbaugh. And what can I tell you about Nevada? We left the greenery and rivers of California for dusty, open space. We drove for hours without seeing much of anything. We had no radio or cell phone coverage. We passed gas stations, each one looking the same, except sometimes with the addition of a casino. I was surprised by how many bits of tyres (or tires!) there were on the road. Then, just as I was starting to get bored, actual tumbleweeds rolled in front of us on the highway.

We reached Elko in the evening, passing a small roadside community on the way in. The little part of Elko we saw had chain restaurants, an RV park and some surprisingly high-priced hotels. Interestingly, Elko has a “boom and bust” economy based on the price of gold; a large amount of Nevada’s gold is mined there and the town has many abandoned mining camps. As Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his short story, Fear and Loathing in Elko, “The federal government owns 90% of this land, and most of it is useless for anything except weapons testing and poison-gas experiments.” But clearly there is more to it than this. Elko hosts the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering every January, and has done for almost 30 years. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a good time to me.

The hotel we stayed in was much the same as many I’ve experienced in the US. I always wonder how they came to decide on the exact same breakfast:  a waffle iron with batter next to it, cold hard-boiled eggs, cheap muffins/donuts, white bread with peanut butter or jam in plastic pots, yoghurt, questionable-looking fruit, cereal in dispensers and some juice, tea and coffee. I’ve seen the same selection as far-flung as Georgia, Texas and Colorado. You could see the same America in any given hotel. I don’t know whether that’s comforting or creepy.

08/10: Elko, NV to Laramie, WY
Back on the road, Nevada continued to be flat, dry and empty. We were cheered up, however, by a lady waving at us from a neighboring car; we understood as they passed us and we saw their South Carolina license plate. Southerners unite! We eventually crossed into the mountains of Utah, and I became engrossed in the selection of billboards at the side of the road. The billboards gave me a number to call if I was in debt, informed me that evolution was an evil myth, praised the immigrant population and encouraged me to “hail to the beef” at a local restaurant.

But what you really want to know about is Salt Lake City. We drove around it for a bit out of curiosity. It is a big place: spacious, beautiful, and more than a little bit freaky. It’s impossible to be in Salt Lake City without constantly thinking, “Is that person over there a Mormon? Do they know that I’m not a Mormon?! Oh, there’s the North Carolina license plate. They probably do know I’m not a Mormon. Maybe they don’t mind. Are they looking at me?” I’m not really speaking to Mormonism or Mormon people. It is not something I’m particularly educated about, unless you count Angels in America and Mitt Romney. But sometimes the reputation of something gets under your skin all the same, and that’s how I felt there. Not a mature or informed approach of course, but a truthful one if nothing else.

We exchanged the close-range mountains of Utah for the endlessly wide feel of Wyoming. The spaciousness and high altitude made me nervous. You absolutely cannot get that same feeling in the UK, that you are in the middle of nowhere. It was like being on another planet. I was relieved when we finally arrived at our hotel in Laramie, with lots of buildings and people surrounding us. I know that plenty of people were shocked that I chose to move voluntarily to a place as different as Mississippi, but I will take humidity and DFE (Deep Fried Everything) over high altitude, headaches and nosebleeds any day. No offense, Wyoming – you’re just out of my league and I know it.

Laramie is home to the University of Wyoming, the only university in the state. It is also home to Kirsty Callaghan, fellow UEA American Studies graduate and the recipient of the BAAS award in 2011. Since we knew we would be passing through Wyoming anyway, Kirsty and I arranged to meet at a microbrewery called, fittingly, Altitude. We talked cowboys, attitudes to land and the upcoming election. Kirsty had been volunteering for the local Democrats (apparently a caller once complained about her English accent and the fact that they were clearly outsourcing) despite the fact that Wyoming is typically a Republican state. I’ll get into this another time, but the Republicanism in Wyoming seems to be based more on living far from Washington DC and wanting freedom to do what they wish in their huuuuuge open spaces, compared to those in the South who think much more about social hierarchy and staying true to tradition. It is interesting to think of how in a country of this size, political parties have to appeal to people of so many different cultures.

08/11: Laramie, WY to Kansas City, MO

We left Laramie in the morning, looking out for the golden Abraham Lincoln head that Kirsty had told us about. Despite its size, I wasn't able to get a picture of it in time, so here is a link if you're curious (and I know that you are).

[Continued Jan 17, 2013] After this, there really didn’t seem like anything better to do so I fell asleep and when I woke up we were in Nebraska. Go back to sleep, right? Absolutely not! You see, one of my favorite books is Willa Cather’s My Antonia. I even have an audio book in which the narrator sounds suspiciously like Reverend Lovejoy.

[Continued Aug 5, 2013] Okay, so admittedly I don’t have much more to say than that. We drove through Lincoln, which is the capital city of Nebraska and the second most populous after Omaha. I know that not everyone understands these whims, but I absolutely want to return to Nebraska and learn more. I am intrigued by its small population amongst the plains and prairies, and its historical and current race relations between Native Americans, African American migrants and European immigrants. It is also the home of both Warren Buffett and Kool-Aid, so there you go.

I have always been curious about these places that people turn away from, or tell me, “There’s no point in going there – there’s nothing to see.” It is said about many, many US states. If I feel strongly enough about a place, I will ignore the warnings and go anyway. Often I have been rewarded with some amazing discoveries of landscapes, buildings and people. I think you can tell how much I took Michael Palin’s work to heart, especially his view that there is more that brings us together than divides us. I still believe in looking for stories in unlikely places.

We went through Lincoln without pulling over at all. As we waited for a light to change on the outskirts of the city, I rolled down my window, closed my eyes, and listened to the hum of locusts in the grass.

08/12: Kansas City, MO to West Memphis, AK
Two important things to mention about Missouri:

One. I damaged my camera in a town called St Joseph. I was busy puzzling over a billboard (yes, again) about a blood drive boasting about its “FREE AIR CONDITIONING.” I’ll let that one sit with you.

Two. Half of Kansas City is actually in Missouri, half is in Kansas.

Okay, so I know that second one wasn’t really a surprise to most people but I totally didn’t know. I also didn’t know much about Kansas City other than a refrain from a Stray Cats song, but I am always curious and Chip is a barbecue fanatic so we took some time to explore.

I’m going to take a moment to teach some BBQ 101. Settle down, settle down, I know there are disagreements about this. In England, “barbecue” has several definitions. It is first of all an event, reserved for any day that there is the slightest hint of sunshine (“Darling, the Manfredjinsinjins at number 43 are having a barbecue, do we have any Pimm’s?”), a piece of outdoor cooking equipment that you swear at when it refuses to light properly, and an action describing how you cook your beef burgers, sausages, chicken, salmon, corn-on-the-cob or bananas.

In America, barbecue is the food itself, and the culture that surrounds it. Americans do not have a neighborhood barbecue, they have a cook out. They also do not barbecue their food – they grill it. What we call grilling is called broiling here. Stay with me! Anyway, more interesting is the discrepancies between different regions of the US. (I apologize if I butcher several of the details in this explanation.) In North Carolina, barbecue is pork, and the sauce changes by location: vinegar in the east, tomato in the west, a blend in the middle. The pork is shredded (or pulled as we might say) and often served in a bun topped with coleslaw. In Texas, barbecue is beef, and there are many regional differences of technique and sauce within the state. In Kansas City, barbecue can be pork, beef or chicken. That’s about as much as I can condense the topic of southern barbecue without doing a full essay, so please try it if you visit the South or its fringe states. I have sometimes considered becoming a vegetarian, but the thought of barbecue prevents me.

Despite these differences, there is one thing that Americans and Britons have in common when it comes to barbecue: both insist that their definition is the correct one.

08/13: West Memphis, AK to Oxford, MS
We should have learned from Missouri/Kansas that just because a city seems like it’s probably in a certain state doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. We wanted a cheap hotel in Memphis, to check out the closest city to Oxford and have some time to relax before moving me in to my new place, so we didn’t book one right in the center. We booked one in West Memphis, and then became thoroughly confused that our GPS (British: SatNav) couldn’t find it at all. Well, that is because West Memphis is not in Tennessee, like Memphis is. It’s in Arkansas. Go figure.

A question I get asked a lot at home is, “Why is it pronounced Arkansaw?” You lazy people, don’t you know how to use Google? It’s okay, I did it for you. The root of the name is Native American, a Quapaw/Sioux word akakaze meaning “land of downriver people” or “people of the south wind” respectively. The pronunciation is French. Apparently, the pronunciation was a matter of such debate that it was made official in state legislation in 1881. But unfortunately that did not solve all of the problems in Arkansas. It took until 2007 for the state to pass a resolution that the possessive form of the name should be Arkansas’s. Scandal! Scandal!

I didn’t have a chance to see much of Arkansas, but as a neighboring state to Mississippi I hope to do so in the future. When I think of Arkansas, my mind goes to Bill Clinton, the violent desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, an amazing MFA program at the University of Arkansas, the arming of teachers at Clarksville High School and the headquarters of Walmart. On our drive through Arkansas, we stopped at the most antiquated gas station we had encountered so far. We also drove behind two horse-drawn buggies. I had never connected Amish culture to Arkansas, but later research revealed that there is in fact one community in Sturkie, which we must have been near.

But back to the journey. We left Arkansas, and West Memphis, for Memphis Proper in Tennessee. I always think that southern cities are somewhat of an oxymoron, which was made apparent as we waited f-o-r-e-v-e-r for pedestrians to cross the street. No one is in a hurry (unless they’re on a highway). Chip, a native of North Carolina who had been in California for a year, sighed and said, “I have missed the South so much.” Our last meal of the roadtrip was in IHOP (International House of Pancakes, which I always want to stylize as iHOP) where we were served over and over again with more coffee and more Dr Pepper. IHOP is one of those restaurants that is pleasantly unprofessional, with consistent food and harried-looking waiting staff. I still have ambitions to visit IHOP on Cox in North Carolina, where, I am told, they receive more prank phone calls than legitimate ones.

I was extremely anxious on the drive from Memphis to Oxford, feeling my stomach flip as we passed the Welcome to Mississippi sign. Now, I have passed that sign and done the 85-mile drive several times. I have many stories of my first year of Oxford, but for now, as pretentious as it is to quote myself, I will leave you with a Tweet from the first day that I arrived:

My hair is huge, my skin is bitten, my belly is full of fried catfish and hushpuppies. It feels so good to be back in the South. #olemiss

And this is a whole 'nother story.