A friend of mine recently moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., after a two-year teaching stint in China. In August, I went to visit her. I told her I’d help her explore her new home, but frankly, I was a little relieved that I couldn’t find my tent before I left. It gave me a legitimate excuse to back out of camping in the region that inspired the movie “Deliverance.”
Despite Hollywood stereotypes, I tried to keep an open mind about the South, willing myself to eat the butter-flavored pretzels served on the flight from Memphis. But I knew I was in for a foreign encounter when the first restaurant I spotted featured “barbecued pork nachos.” You shouldn’t try to mix Mexican and barbecue. Bad things can happen to your digestive system.
At a “Friends of China” picnic we met the coordinator of Chattanooga’s sister-city program. He was an older gentleman in suspenders, and he told us about a school art exchange between the two countries.
“The Chinese art was good, not much to talk about,” he said, and then described a painting that an American youngster submitted of a “necked” man bent over and trying to hold back walls.
“Disturbing,” he commented. “I’m not sure what those Chinese psychologists will make out of that.” Yet he was not disturbed in the least when his Eastern European neighbors slaughtered their goats on their front lawn and roasted them whole in a spit.
“ I buhlieve in private property rights,” he said.
While perusing the newspaper’s events listings, I was pleased to find a bluegrass festival playing in a small town in Georgia, about 90 miles south of Chattanooga. Now here was familiar entertainment that offered real southern culture, I mused.
We didn’t call ahead to ask for directions because at home, it’s easy to find a bluegrass festival. You’ll see signs, or follow the line of cars to the park or the civic center. Not so in the South. We ended up at a small gas station asking directions from (I’m not making this up) a sizeable man in bib overalls whose only teeth were two yellow incisors that jutted out from behind his lower lip.
He was nice, but I needed a translator to decode what sounded like, “Tubby Decker, heel, rat, and laugh.” With that we made it a few miles in the right direction, but we still needed another stop at a gas station to find the festival. It was located in a metal barn between cow pastures on a back road. We walked into the music hall and saw a four-piece band decked out in panama hats and suspenders entertaining a crowd made up entirely of senior citizens.
In Montana, bluegrass festivals are a good party. Even if the names on the lineup aren’t recognizable, you can usually groove to the beat, grab some grub, and make fun of the bearded man dancing like a man on LSD.
Not so in Georgia. No one was dancing, but occasionally they jiggled their knees and yelled, “Yes!” to familiar gospel tunes. The whole affair had the feeling of a combined tent revival and a Whist party. I never needed a beer more.
After a few renditions of “The devil went down to Georgia,” the band treated us to Alabama redneck jokes. Believe me, I’m taking Alabama off my “places to visit” list.
On nearly my final night, my friend and I were invited to a Southern dinner party. I wasn’t quite prepared for it. Dinner-party guests at my house typically stand around in the backyard waiting for burgers and bratwurst and complimenting me on the quality of my condiments. They’re lucky to get silverware, let alone different sized forks.
Martha Stewart would have been jealous of our Southern dinner. We were served filet mignon, stuffed tomatoes, and homemade tiramisu for dessert. It made your posture improve just to look at it.
What made the experience harder to digest was that our hosts were unaware that I was not a “believer.” I had little to offer when they discussed their favorite Christian books. In fact, I was relieved when the conversation turned to Chinese pollution, a topic I felt more qualified to discuss.
Unfortunately, Southerners had started to rub off on me, and I was horrified to hear myself say with an accent, “Well, you know the good Lord wants us to have clean air and water.”
After dinner, we retired to the drawing room. Our host immediately asked for prayer requests. A professor asked for prayer for his bad back. His wife asked that she wouldn’t have to teach German in China (divine intervention seemed to be needed here), the pastor’s daughter asked for a Christian roommate in Italy, and my friend for a church.
Finally, the host turned to me and said what I had been dreading, “Whale, Janelle, we don’t want to leave yuh out. What can we pray about for yuh?”
There are many things I should have said. I should have said, “Let’s pray for world peace.” Or, shocked the hell out of them and said, “Let’s pray that John Kerry becomes president. I don’t want to have to move to Canada.”
Instead, I briefly looked like a deer in the headlights and said, “Just general. General prayer will do for me.” They seemed to accept that, and very few prayers were offered in my name during the 45-minute prayer session. Can’t say that I blame them.
Despite my culture shock, I have to say that Southerners are about the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Within minutes you’ll hear their life histories and have an invitation to dinner. But, on my next vacation, I plan to journey to a place where the lifestyle is “foreign” because I’m in a different country. I can only hope the foreigners will be as hospitable as some of the Southerners I met.
Janelle Holden, formerly of Dolores, now lives in Livingston, Mont.