I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point in my college career it dawned on me that I’m a pretty darn good tour guide.
Looking back, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise: I’ve always loved walking and talking and random facts about random things.
Throughout my four years at Harvard, it seems like I gave a tour to everyone I know: extended family, friends from home and friends from other Boston area schools. Once I even gave a tour entirely in Mandarin for a group of Chinese businesspeople.
Some of my best memories were when I gave tours to the Gainesville High School students who came up for the annual U.S. history trip to Boston three years in a row. Having gone on this trip my own 10th grade year, when I led these students around — many of whom were younger siblings of my own classmates — I felt the satisfaction of coming around full circle.
Yet my confidence reciting the dates and facts obscured a piece of truth: that school was not, could not and will never be home. My accent changed while I was up North, but I remained a foreigner.
I’m grateful for this: seeing Harvard, Boston and Massachusetts from this perspective provided unique insights that fundamentally changed the way I look at the world. But as I led folks from back home around Harvard, I hardly felt more a part of the culture up there than they did.
Since graduating college, I still give tours, but in a very different location: Northeast Georgia, home.
A string of friends — who I’ve long regaled with stories of swaying pine trees and bubbling creeks, rolling hills and soaring mountains, country cooking and Mexican food — have come one after the other to visit me from around the world.
A classmate of mine from South Africa working in Seattle got a crash course in Georgia culture when he came down for my sister’s wedding last May.
There was a single memory he said he will never forget from that trip. Rushing to my sister’s wedding rehearsal, I backed up my pickup truck too far in a ditch on a dirt road in Jackson County. With no cell service and without a person in sight, our stomachs sank when a 20-foot gravel truck came storming toward us from around a bend.
Thankfully, the driver agreed to tug us out of the rut when he realized our truck was keeping him from laying his gravel. When we drove away, my friend giddily informed me that he could not understand half the words the man said because of his thick Jackson County accent.
Later that night, after listening to live bluegrass, my friend and I went to get a late night breakfast at Waffle House. He beamed while wearing the free hat the waitress gave him.
Last month a friend of mine flew in from Shanghai to explore America’s East Coast, his first trip to America.
He only allotted 24 hours to visit me, so I had to make the most of it. We got up early to go to First Baptist, stopping to get a biscuit from Dairy Queen. This was his first time at a drive-through.
At church, when the chorus hit a high note in unison, I looked over at my friend and caught him wiping tears from his eyes. This was his first time at a religious service.
After that, we had lunch with other church members and listened for a while to our church’s Vietnamese service.
Later that day, on the way to my family home in Maysville, I introduced my friend to what is sure to be a lifelong addiction: Cajun boiled peanuts. In a fit of inspiration, he bought four cans of them to bring back home to his parents.
Even though he was only here for a day, and his itinerary included Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C, Atlanta and Nashville, when my friend got home he posted an essay online saying that his trip to Northeast Georgia was his favorite stop on his first trip to America.
These past two days I’ve hosted a classmate of mine who grew up outside D.C. and his Japanese girlfriend, who is from a suburb of Tokyo. We drove for hours on country roads listening to country music, hiked down Tallulah Gorge, ate way too much at Rabbit Town Cafe and walked in the woods on my family’s property outside Maysville.
At the end of our walk, the sun was setting over the muddy, overflowing water of the North Oconee, without a house or person in sight.
One of my friends said to me quietly, “Thank you for showing us all of this, Will. I finally get why you’re so proud of where you’re from.”
After years of living away from North Georgia, I’m glad to bring people to see it with fresh eyes. I’m even more thankful to finally have people from the outside understand why this is the only place I will proudly call home.
Will Morris IV is a graduate of Gainesville High School and recent graduate of Harvard University, where he studied history, East Asian studies and government.