By Will Morris
Growing up, long car rides defined my life. Every day after I was done with school and my parents were done with work in Gainesville, we would exit the city out of Jessie Jewell Parkway, drive through Rabbittown, wind through the hills of East Hall, through the sleepy town of Gillsville, past the vast fields of Craven’s Ranch in Jackson County, slow down through the quaint main road of Maysville, until, finally, we drove down a side road to our family farm, right where the paved road becomes dirt.
The rolling hills, the cow pastures, the bright blue skies and verdant farmland in the valley bottoms, the waving rabbit statue in Rabbit Town, this ride is, in my mind at least, the most beautiful drive in the world.
But it also served as a wedge in my experience. Though I went to Gainesville schools K-12 and had no neighbors within a half-mile in any direction or any friends my age in Maysville, my concept of home frequently centered itself upon our family farm right outside of this town of around 1,000 people.
My situation changed largely as a result of my father’s accident right before my eighth-grade graduation in May. My father, in critical condition, was sent to recuperate in Grady Hospital in Atlanta, and my mother spent most of her time with him to help his recovery process. I lived with family friends in Gainesville until November, when my parents decided to convert my dad’s old law office on Riverside into a house because it had wheelchair accessibility.
I lived in Gainesville all four years of high school, hardly returning at all to Maysville during that time. Yet I still felt torn between these two worlds. My worldview is distinctly rural, crafted by my days spent playing in the woods and pastures as well as the never-ending outdoor work that defined my and my siblings’ childhoods. Perhaps the best way to articulate this was that while my community became Gainesville, as it remains today, my home, my history, and my heritage is and always will be in Maysville.
When I started undergraduate at Harvard, I was once again split between two worlds. This time, however, instead of just being torn between towns in neighboring counties in Northeast Georgia, I became divided by the concept of the “North” and the “South.
At an institution like Harvard, especially these days, you have to choose your words very carefully to get any point across in any debate or conversation. As I found out, this is especially true if your voice carries a Southern accent.
While growing up I never thought I had a particularly strong accent, the way I pronounced my words and formed sentences was what people immediately latched onto when I first came here, even if they couldn’t place it. I was asked far more times than I would have ever expected if I was from the United Kingdom, Australia or Ireland. While the confusion about the origin of my accent never bothered me, some of the questions that followed did, once they realized where I was from.
There’s no way for me to write all of the ignorant things I’ve heard over the years, but some key quotes include when the son of a Silicon Valley billionaire asked me what side of the Civil War I would fight on if it happened today, when a white Californian fraternity member asked me, when I was rushing a fraternity, how many slaves my family owned when I was growing up, when a black female classmate asked my black roommate, in front of me, “How can you live with a white, Southern, male oppressor,” to the nearly universal visceral reaction against any and all forms of country music and anything else that is explicitly “Southern.”
The most raw moments came, though, when people heard my Southern accent and used that as justification to assume that I am stupid. Once a classmate told my friend, who is also from the South but with a much less pronounced accent, “It’s hard to believe Will is at Harvard, his accent makes him sound like he’s retarded.” Especially at a place like Harvard, where intelligence is capital, and especially when I was 19 and didn’t have the self-confidence to let those comments wash off, statements like this felt particularly damaging.
But what I found most damaging was that all of these comments, frequently made quite casually, did not seek to just attack the dark aspects of our history and current society. Instead, by defining the South in these terms, they effectively erased the vast amount of achievements emerging from the South and from Southerners themselves.
Slavery, Jim Crow, continued racial discrimination and economic disparities certainly play a pivotal role in Southern history. And to be sure they provided me, as a white man from a relatively well off economic background, with a huge leg up in our society.
But these factors are not the entirety of the South. The North Georgia I knew — my home, my culture, hayrides, water balloon fights, Mule Camp festivals, brisk fall Friday nights watching Deshuan Watson and Blake Sims and AJ Johnson and TJ Jones and so many others play football — was the way our entire community comes together in times of unimaginable tragedy. And it was hardworking teachers who devoted their lives to teaching us the mistakes of the past and the present so we may avoid them in the future.
Nevertheless, my classmates’ comments sparked a wide range of active adjustments in my life. For a while, I tried defiantly exaggerating my accent to sound as Southern as possible when in class just to prove that Southerners can be smart and then, after a while, I self-consciously hid my accent.
Finally, I succumbed to what is known in linguistics as code-switching, where I began to speak with more of a Southern accent with people from back home and speak with a more neutral accent, slightly inflected but without a noticeable accent, with people in the Northeast. This became the easiest way to navigate both cultures as naturally as possible.
This summer, once again, my world became split in a new way. I interned in Shanghai with an NGO called Junior Achievement. During this time, as would be expected, I once again felt torn between two identities, but instead of being split between Maysville and Gainesville, or the North and the South, I was now split between my American identity and my love and appreciation of Chinese history and culture.
I speak fluent Mandarin, so I have no problems getting around China. In fact, beyond mere communication, I discovered that I also had far fewer problems in terms of political conversations or forming positive relationships than I would have expected in the midst of a rapidly escalating trade war between our two nations. Still, my experience of being an American living in China was defined at least in part by an inescapable feeling of being conspicuously foreign.
Every moment that I was in China, I was aware that I was an outsider. China is an extremely homogenous country, even in Shanghai, its most international city. As a six foot tall white man with dirty blonde or red tinged (depending on the day) hair and blue eyes, everywhere I went, particularly when I strayed from the touristy areas or went to different cities, I always, always, always stood out. While these experiences ranged from the endless stares to the little kids running up to me to practice English or take a selfie with me to the one time that a drunk middle-aged Chinese man tried to pick a fight with me in a family restaurant, there was never a time I felt “a part” of China.
Strangely, though, while in absolute terms I am more of an outsider in China than I am at Harvard, I found that I actually have to sacrifice more of my own identity going to school at Harvard than I ever did in Shanghai.
I found that in China, few people had any concept of the differences between the North and the South. Really, excluding the many people who had been educated in the United States, most of the people I talked to had only a vague conception of America that was centered around big cities and loud pop culture and, of course, the NBA. Exclamations of Yatelanda Laoyingdui,” or “Atlanta Hawks,” were common whenever I told people I was from the same state as Atlanta.
Crucially, because Chinese people have no real prejudices or even a real concrete notion of the South, I felt like I could actually be myself, a personal identity that includes my deep appreciation of my home culture.
I’ve learned from my experiences that it is human nature to feel a sense of being split between different worlds. While ignorant statements about my home still bother me, I have chosen to actively reclaim my accent without worrying what people think about it. My time spent in the South during my year and a half off of school gave me sufficient confidence to know that if a person takes the time to get to know me, they will be able to appraise me as an individual regardless of my accent. If their prejudice prevents them from doing so, I have learned to tell myself, then they simply weren’t worth my time to begin with.
From all of this, I have also learned to value those people who whether out of necessity or a desire to live a better life for themselves and their family have made the plunge into another culture that is alien from their own. I have a heightened respect for the immigrant communities in Gainesville and North Georgia as a result of the, comparatively much milder, prejudice that I have myself experienced. Until you live in a culture that is foreign from your own, it is hard to fully recognize the sacrifices these people have made.
For this newfound appreciation of my neighbors’ sacrifice, as well as my own enhanced worldview, I am grateful for the chance to have lived and thrived in multiple worlds, even if it means that I will never completely feel a part of any single one.
Will Morris is a Gainesville native and currently BA candidate at Harvard University majoring in History, East Asian Studies, and Government (focusing on China).