A West Coast Girl's Guide to Living in the South

Thursday, July 23, 2015

[the article I wish I had been able to find a year ago]

There’s something difficult about leaving home when the state song literally declares “home means Nevada to me.” Nonetheless, as the college application process began, I knew that I wanted to go out of state, and preferably to the East Coast. I pictured myself somewhere with a global worldview: Washington D.C., New York City, anywhere in the Boston area. Never did I think I would find a school in the South, fall in love at first sight, and quickly apply Early Decision. Thankfully, financials fell into place, I was accepted to a Living-Learning Community, and I survived the Hunger Games aspect of class registration! 

None of this, however, could prepare me for the total change in cultures from the West Coast to the South. I tried to prepare myself by researching on Pinterest, Instagram, endless blogs, and anything else the internet had to offer, to little avail. Most of the articles I found were tips for Yankees moving South of the Mason-Dixon Line, or Californians moving to the Northeast. So here it is*, as a hope that it can help others making that same major move!

Embrace the great things about this culture:

The South and Southern way of living has so much to offer especially in terms of hospitality and nice weather. Be open to experiencing the beautiful things that this move will result in.
  • The food here is perfect in every way: loaded with butter, salt, and sugar and worth every single calorie. Tater tots are served for breakfast like, hellooooooo – what an age to be alive. Enjoy both cookout and Cookout. (Here’s your first lesson about Southern vocabulary: What we might call a barbecue is called a “cookout,” “barbecue” is the food you eat at a cookout.) A cookout, of course, should never be confused with Cookout, the restaurant which the South is #blessed to have. We may have In-n-Out, but nothing compares to the beauty of Cookout. Their milkshakes –which they call “Fancy shakes,” because they’re really just so fancy, you don’t even know– and their hushpuppies… like wow. Nothing quite like a milkshake that takes your full mental effort to get up the straw.
  • The only thing here sweeter than the sweet tea is the people. Total strangers will smile and ask how you are, hold the door open for you even if you’re far away, and yield to you even if they have the right of way fantastic habits to get into. Also, PEOPLE ACTUALLY SIT ON THEIR FRONT PORCHES. It’s not necessarily applicable to college dorms, but it’s the cutest thing to see lil’ old folk sitting out drinking sweet tea and smiling at passersby. On campus that might manifest in picnics, or studying outdoors (yes, just like you saw in the college brochures).
  • People here also dress up for football games excuse me, what? Yeah, that’s right: long gone are the days of needing to bundle up for a home football game, now replaced with bow ties and sundresses. Local families and alumni will come hours before to tailgate and dress their children in the school’s colors. It’s kind fun and really quite sweet after you get over the initial awkwardness of realizing this display of hometown pride is not a casual venture to be taken lightly.

One of my favorite events with one of my favorite people.

Dressing up for football games is part of the next step to overcoming West-to-South culture shock: Understand, at the same time, the quirks.

  • Very quickly you’ll learn a lot about geography. For example, Northern Virginia is hardly Southern, and Florida isn’t at all.
  • Other than dependable humidity, the weather is predictably unpredictable.
  • Boat shoes are waterproof: which means they work for your rain storms and occasional inch of snow. (If it’s more than an inch of snow, most opt for Bean Boots.)
  • God is everywhere. “Good Lawd,” is a commonplace phrase, all the best restaurants are closed on Sundays, and church is as much a social experience as it is religious.
  • The only people who wear more pastels than Southern belles are Southern gentlemen.
  • SO. MANY. MONOGRAMS. Seriously, on tumblers, on backpacks, on boots, key-chains (or “key fobs,” as some of your new peers might call them), and literally everything you didn’t know could be emblazoned with your given initials.
  • A year ago Lilly Pulitzer didn’t have her connection with Target, so I had never heard of her, nor did I much less, own anything in any of her prints. I didn’t totally understand Jack Rodgers (until I bought a pair of flats and omg, life changing). But here, these are not only brands, but household names.
  • These kids have gone to Washington D.C. every year since the first grade, so seeing the monuments doesn’t sound like an exciting way to spend a Saturday to them but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think it’s the coolest thing you’ll do this semester! (Which, of course, it won’t be, but be excited about it nonetheless!)

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

That being said, the South has a complicated history: even amidst current controversy, Confederate flags still fly, and the Civil War is still called “the War of Northern Aggression.” DO NOT LET THIS SCARE YOU. Please note that the header of this section says to understand the quirks of this region: as a transplant, it is important to consider the valuable aspects of this complex history. Take the time to ask people about the way they were taught about the Civil War without casting immediate judgement. Which, brings me to my next point:

Bring your unique perspective and experiences to the table.

Chances are, you’ll be one of the first (if not the first ever) West Coaster your new classmates have met. Embrace your uniqueness and use it as an interesting facet of conversations.
  • People on the West Coast talk about going to Coachella in all seriousness, but in the South it’s more of a fantasy in a far-away land (and, to be fair, three-thousand miles and three time zones makes it just that).
  • On the note of snow: most people here haven’t grown up skiing. At even the news of the mildest now warning, Southerners flock to grocery stores. It doesn’t matter if you need more of whatever you’re actually buying; it’s a matter of principle.
  • Laugh when you see quinoa advertised as “adventurous,” and then pride yourself in explaining the beauty in a food that tastes like rice but is packed with protein.
  • Be prepared to encounter people who can’t stand to drive for more than a couple of hours and are shocked to hear how long it takes to traverse Western states. “Yes, I have driven the entire Californian part of the Pacific Highway. No, it wasn’t torturous. No, I don’t think a ten hour drive is the end of the world.”
  • Pride yourself in being from the Best Coast and don’t be afraid to make it your caption on Instagram when you find other West Coasters because you will, and you will bond. Mostly about being so far from home, but hey, you’ve gotta start somewhere.
    West Coast, best coast

Ultimately, allow yourself to become an amalgam of both cultures:

College is about ~~finding yourself~~ or ultimately, creating yourself and defining the person you want to be. Allow this person to be a healthy blend of both cultures. “Y’all” will slip into your lexicon. Don’t fight it. Embrace it. Let it naturally happen in conversations with friends from home without thinking twice about it. (Your autocorrect will get used to it, too, if you just give it time.) Realize that it’s okay to call home to be reminded what familiar things feel like. Acknowledge that the Mexican food will always be better at home, but that you probably would never have a new-found love for Cuban pastries or authentic barbecue without coming to the South.

Little Stony Man, Shenandoah National Park

Join in on the chorus:

This goes for the college experience in general: get involved! The biggest change, regardless of where you’re going to college is the fact that there’s a whole new academic and social landscape. Yes, it can be as terrifying as offering the world your heart on a silver platter, but at the end of the day, it’s a matter of getting involved. Don’t be afraid to start small hanging out with the people on your hall or from a class. I don’t know if this is particularly a Southern thing, something we do at my school, or just a college thing in general, but this is my piece of advice: when “Sweet Caroline,” or “Wagon Wheel” begins to blare, regardless of the social setting, join in on the chorus and do so unabashedly.

Good times never seemed so good.

Happily yours,


*This started as a student blog post for Unigo, in which I used the same aforementioned points to talk about college-associated culture shock more generally. That piece can be found here.

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