Friday, January 11, 2008

Southern Is As Southern Does

by Annabelle Robertson

I saw a wonderful movie this week.

If you're anything like me, you'll understand the rarity of that statement. Moreover, not only did this film move me, but it also made me think of my own Southern culture -- and especially, what it means to be a Southerner living outside the South.

The movie was "The Namesake," by director Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding"), and it is based on the bestselling book of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri, published in 2003.

"The Namesake" deals with the inevitable culture clash that a Bengali couple face after moving from Calcutta to Queens, in a way that is both poignant and convicting. As newlyweds of a pre-arranged marriage, Ashima (played by the Bollywood actress, Tabu) and her new husband Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) can't help but be overwhelmed by all things American. But soon, they meet other Bengali families and learn how to straddle their two cultures.

Their son, Gogol (Kal Penn), however, will have no part of this. He's American, and he wants everyone to know it. Even a trip to India does little to help him embrace his ancestral roots. After some surley teenage years, Gogol (who was named after the Russian novelist, Nikolai Gogol) changes his name to Nic, heads off to Yale to study architecture and falls in love with a blonde heiress (Jacinda Barrett). When tragedy strikes, however, Gogol suddenly discovers that everything he has taken for granted not only has meaning, but defines him.

It's a rare film that deals with cultural issues in such a sensitive way. Yet it's Nair's depiction of family that is the most striking. She deftly handles the conflict between young and old, foreign and friendly. And by taking us back in time the allowing the story to unfold over a 40-year span, she imparts the message that the generational superiority we all tend to fall prey to has little to do with reality.

As I watched "The Namesake," I couldn't help but ponder my own circumstances: living in California, far from the South that I adore and write about on a daily basis. Much like the Ganguli family, I have begun to realize how hard it is to preserve my culture. Lord knows, that was hard enough to do even while living in the South.

It's one of the reasons I wrote my book, The Southern Girl's Guide, in which I include a lengthy chapter about what is -- and what is not -- Southern. I wanted to put it down in writing, so that my daughters and anyone who ever had a doubt about that might point and say, "There! That's Southern! You see?"

Of course, until recent years, we didn't need to think about what it meant to be Southern. We simply were. But with the phalanx of non-Southerners converging on our region -- and the ever-encroaching influence of the media, which has no culture to speak of (save one of "Me, Myself and I" ) -- we are slowly losing our accents, our history, our heritage.
And that's those who still live there. For those who do not, like myself, the task is even more challenging.

"But I don't want people to laugh at me," whined my daughter, when asked why she was substituting the heinous "you guys" for "y'all." We've had the same conversation about "Yes, m'am" and "Yes, sir," which I strictly enforce, but which has been utterly abandonned by most people -- even in the South -- save the military.

Is it me, or is something seriously wrong with the world when a 3-year-old is instructed by his parents to call adults by their first name?
As if that's not enough, she's also fallen prey to the temptations of the California lifestyle. When offered a trip McDonald's, where she loves to play on the floor-to-ceiling spaceship perched high atop their indoor playground, she replied, "No, way! I'm not eating dead cow."
Yikes. Just two years, we've been here, and already she's a Granola Head.

Needless to say, the little darling received a lecture on The Importance of Being Different, which has everything to do with accomplishing something brilliant in life, I explained, vs. working at WalMart. Not that there is anything wrong with working at WalMart, as my mother would say.
So at least now, when asked, "And what is different?" she responds on cue. "Different is good," she says. "Different is people who change the world."
Amen, darlin'.
But even I know that is inevitably short-lived. After all, five-year-olds think their parents hang the moon. And bless her little heart, everying I say is still gospel truth. What happens when the kids rebels against my Southern culture lessons (everything from why we use [and oh-so-carefully preserve] our cast-iron frying pan to why pink and green do match, no matter what anyone says) for surfer's gear and belly piercings?
I shudder at the thought of it.
Already, despite regular trips back home where I engage in surreptitious diction lessons, her accent barely hints of our roots. Of course, though I'm loathe to admit it, mine has started to slip as well.

Oh, I sympathize with the Ganguli family and their anguish for a heritage that is so precious, yet slipping away before their very eyes. Not only that, but like them, I'm no longer sure that coming back home -- should the Air Force one day grant us that priviledge -- might even solve this problem. Last time I checked, Atlanta was a frightfully brave new world, filled with people who refuse to yield to oncoming traffic, much less send thank-you notes. And that's the least of it.
Is there a solution? A way back? A plan that we might all embrace to recapture everything that was, and is, so wonderful about Southern ways -- while shedding that which rightly makes us so ashamed?
I'm not sure I have the answer, but one thing is for sure. I'll not be like Scarlett and think about these things tomorrow.

Annabelle Robertson is an award-winning journalist and the author of The Southern Girl's Guide to Surviving the Newlywed Years: How to Stay Sane Once You've Caught Your Man. She lives in Southern California with her husband, a U.S. Air Force chaplain.


Anonymous said...

If you liked the movie, you will LOVE the book! I thought the movie was just ok, but that's probably because the book was so wonderful. (This coming from a 35-year-old woman who has never lived outside the Carolinas.)

MadAnne said...

I'm constantly amazed at the anti-Southern bias found here in the South. If I hear one more time, "These people don't know how to________. Or, "In New Jersey we did it this way".

By the way, you should get your child home as soon as possible.

Anonymous said...

My daughter BEGS me to bring her home - not to Atlanta but to Charlotte, where my entire family (save one sis in Durham and another in New Zealand) are living. In fact, she begs me OFTEN. We spent two months based in Charlotte last year while I was on book tour, and it got her totally addicted to having aunts & uncles and cousins.

It breaks my heart to be raising her so far from them. The sad thing is, I don't see any way of getting back in the near future. However, I am hoping to someday become rich and famous enough to buy a vacation home near there (Asheville area? Black Mountain?)and be able to fly back and forth enough to keep us all connected.

Here's hoping...and praying...for that miracle. :-/


sid said...

very heartfelt enjoyment hearing you in kw these last few days.
so, since it is a southern blog : why not "A Good 'Ol Blog is Hard to Find" ?
Good luck and I hope you come back real soon, ya hear?
sid goldman
key west