One Year Later: From Myanmar to Mississippi
“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” — William Faulkner, Oxford, MS
One year ago, I returned home from the trip of a lifetime. I had quit my job, sold my belongings, saved my money, and bought a one-way ticket to Sydney, Australia in October 2016. I cried on the plane, my palms sweating as I clutched my passport, but I couldn’t help but smile to myself as the plane took off. I had done it—I had left, and Chicago was fading into the distance.
My original plan for Australia was that I was moving there for a year. I was going to backpack up the east coast before landing a job in a hip cafe in Melbourne, complete with a cute flat and a cute roommate.
But I found myself two weeks later on a beach in Byron Bay, trying to contain my internal panic. I had had an "a-ha" moment; a revelation. A journey like this didn't come with a guidebook or guarantee. There was no instruction manual. And my type A personality, in which I have always planned for what comes next, was more of a hindrance than anything.
So on that beach in Byron Bay, I let that plan—and all the expectations and fears that came with it—go. I let it all go. And I decided that instead of taking a journey carefully molded to my personal plans and goals, I would let the journey take me. I accepted that an open mind and an open heart would take me a lot further than wrought-iron plans and expectations.
I was simply along for the ride.
And what a ride it was. I worked on a boat in Australia and hiked rice terraces in the Philippines. I reconnected with old friends in Singapore and took art lessons in Malaysia. I rescued a whale shark in Thailand and prayed with Buddhists in Myanmar. I confronted a war-torn past in Vietnam and I fell in love with Indonesia. I toasted to friendship on a rooftop in Hong Kong and I went whale-watching in Canada.
10 months, 10 countries, 110 cities, 72 hostels, 3 sail boats, 15 flights, 20 ferries, 62 bus rides, and 30 scuba dives later—and with $500 left to my name—I boarded a flight back home to Chicago. The journey that I had so willingly given myself over to ended in the arrivals terminal at O'Hare International Airport.
Three months later, I moved to Oxford, Mississippi.
I believe that when you are faced with a choice, you should choose the option that scares you the most. The one that makes you sweat a little bit; the one that makes you wonder if you can, in fact, do the damn thing. I have found that when you pick that option, it is almost inevitably harder, but it is also far more rewarding.
That's how I made the decision to backpack Australia. And it's how I decided to take a job in Mississippi.
I will be the first to admit that moving to Mississippi after a year abroad not only surprised my family and friends, but it also surprised me. Mississippi was never on my radar, and I write that with a lot of newfound love and affection for this state.
But in all honesty, I had never been to Mississippi. I had never been to the South. And I certainly did not know a single soul in Oxford. As Richard Grant shares in Dispatches from Pluto, which chronicles his experience moving from New York City to the Mississippi Delta, some people doubted my sanity. I know I did.
My interview in Oxford was the day after one of my best friend’s weddings. I drove the eight hours from Indy to Oxford with Tylenol, water, and McDonald’s in hand. I spent a lot of the drive reflecting on the previous week: I had just finished final interviews for several jobs on the east and west coasts.
But it was the job in Oxford, Mississippi that I was the most interested in.
The last hour of the drive to Oxford was on a rural, two-lane highway with one gas station and twelve churches. I was passed by rusted pick-up trucks with Make America Great Again bumper stickers. I had no cell phone service. This was my first impression of Mississippi.
I was freaking out on the inside.
My interview was in the early morning and I had a campus tour afterwards. When my interview wrapped up, I walked to the Square, Oxford’s quaint downtown; locals refer to it as "the center of the universe.” I was instantly charmed by the Square; I still describe Oxford to my friends as something out of a Hallmark Christmas movie. This is what I had imagined the South to look like.
I wandered into Uptown Coffee—the same coffee shop I’m sitting in now, iced chai in hand—and ordered a cup of coffee. I remember the cashier calling me “ma’am.” I walked in and out of the small boutiques before finding myself at Square Books, one of the most well-known and much-loved local bookshops in the South.
I snapped photos of the Mississippi state flag waving from the local courthouse; a flag that still bears the emblem of the Confederacy.
On the opposite side of the courthouse, a confederate soldier peered down at me from a looming statue in the center of the Square. Someone had placed a Martin Luther King Jr. book of quotes at the base of it, protected from the elements in a Ziploc bag.
Images of the South that I had only seen played out on the news, or in history books, were suddenly right in front of me. And I didn’t know how I felt about it.
But it was October, the weather was perfect, and I had this moment outside of Square Books where I felt the pieces from the past year slot into place, one by one. A future that had been vague and blurry was coming into sharp focus, and I knew before I got back in my car for the drive home that Oxford, Mississippi was where I was supposed to be.
I was just as surprised as anybody else who knew me.
But I also knew that I really wanted the job. And after a year of living abroad on my own terms, it was important to me that the job I accepted was one that inspired and challenged me.
I still wasn’t sure what to make of the Confederate symbols and presence in Oxford. I was worried about being a liberal in the “Deep South.”
And I held the same stereotypes of Mississippi that many other Northerners hold: that Mississippi is deeply conservative, racist, and poor. Even Mississippi politicians acknowledge the negative reputation that the state cannot seem to shake.
When I was offered the job in Oxford, I hadn’t totally worked through all the above. I was nervous.
But I really wanted to figure out the South for myself, in the same way I had figured out Myanmar, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
So, I withdrew from the other jobs, accepted the offer in Mississippi, and started packing.
One of the reasons it has taken me so long to write about Mississippi is because, frankly, I think it is a hard state to understand, which makes it even harder to explain.
And my perspective, as a millennial, white (Asian) woman who grew up near Chicago with no connections to the South, varies dramatically from the perspective of someone who grew up here or attended college here, and even that will differ based on whether that person grew up in Oxford, Jackson, the Delta, or the gulf coast, and certainly whether they are black or white, male or female, straight or gay.
So, this is my perspective.
Just like I admitted that the South was never on my radar when it came to my job search, I will also admit that moving to a small town where I knew no one was a lot harder than I thought it would be.
Like, really hard.
Oxford is a tight-knit, well-connected town where everybody grew up together, went to the same university, and are now raising their own families here. Mississippi itself is a small state; your reputation matters, as do your connections. And every conversation between two Mississippians meeting for the first time involves each of them tracing their lineage to figure out how they know each other or who they know.
I was an anomaly from the start; I just showed up here, a Yankee with no accent and no roots.
Although I never once felt unwelcomed in Oxford—thankfully buffered by true Southern hospitality—it was certainly different than being in a city where everyone is looking for friends or something to do. I had to try hard to meet people close to my age and I constantly felt like I was putting myself out there.
And while I am still baffled by where all the young professionals are in Oxford (the subset of people who aren’t undergrads, retired, engaged, or married with children is really, really small here), I learned very quickly that I was surrounded by a lot of good, very friendly, proud Oxonians who fiercely buck the nation’s perception of the Deep South.
So it took me close to a year to find my groove in Oxford, and I guess that’s true for anyone who finds themselves in a new place, whether it’s a small town or a big city. I had to keep reminding myself that it takes time to build relationships and routines, and that I would, with time, figure out where and how I fit in.
If anything, this past year has made me appreciate my friendships even more, whether those friends are here in Oxford, Chicago, or Indianapolis. And it definitely made me very grateful to those people in Oxford who invited me out and introduced me to other people.
A lot of people have asked me if I had culture shock after moving to the South. And not just the South, like Austin, TX or Charleston, SC, but the South, like Mississippi, which seems to carry a different connotation to it than any other state in the Deep South.
At first when I was asked this question, I joked about the food being a lot more filling and a lot more fried. But it turns out that a lot of things did surprise me about Mississippi.
I was surprised the first time I drove through the Delta; a swath of flat land that encompasses the western part of Mississippi. When Robert F. Kennedy visited the Delta in 1967, photos from the trip and Kennedy’s recollections prompted national conversations about how to address poverty, right here, in the United States. The Delta felt forgotten as I drove past rusted school buses and forlorn shacks. And for the first time, I could understand how people in rural areas could feel forgotten; not only by the American people, but also by the American government.
I was surprised by how often I ran into people I knew, even after living in Oxford for only a few months. Wherever I went, whether it was Kroger, the local coffee shop, a bar or restaurant, I would run into a coworker, an acquaintance from church, or a friend from yoga. I was always greeted with a genuine smile, even as I was bewildered at constantly running into people. At first, I found the level of anonymity unsettling, but now I’ve found it to be an endearing aspect of Oxford (provided I look around first to see who may be sitting near me at a restaurant).
I was surprised by how quickly I picked up on yes ma’am and yes sir. I don’t find these phrases to be old school; I think they offer a sense of respect, kindness, and formality when speaking to someone. And it just sounds nice. Y’all has taken a bit longer, but “you guys” sounds like nails on a chalkboard to me now. Y’all just sounds much more friendly and colloquial. Oh, and I finally understand the many different contexts of how bless her heart can actually be used—such a multifaceted phrase!
I was surprised by Southern food and its ability to not only bring people together but also bring to light Southern traditions, history, and culture. For example, I’ve always associated tamales with Mexican culture, but it turns out that tamales are an important culinary staple in the Mississippi Delta and it is African Americans who have kept that tradition alive for generations. Not to mention I have also developed an appreciation for fried catfish, fried pickles, fried tomatoes, fried okra, and Ajax’s veggie plate (also primarily fried).
I was surprised by Southern hospitality and that it is, in fact, a real thing. Southerners are polite and eager to make someone feel welcomed, a quality I really appreciated when I first moved here. They take their time and are not rushed, which creates an atmosphere in which you feel like you have all the time in the world to kick back, chat, and enjoy each other’s company. And they somehow make small talk meaningful, in which being asked “How are you?” actually warrants a real response, not just a mumbled “fine.”
Oh—I was surprised by how hot it is here. Summer in the south is akin to that one month I spent in Vietnam during the sticky, hot, and humid rainy season and then I skipped Laos and Cambodia solely because I literally could not take the heat anymore. And then I moved to Mississippi. Where it is just as hot and I have complained about the heat since April, which was a bad sign (it is October now and it is still very hot).
But really, I was most surprised by how much I learned about slavery, the Civil War, racism, white privilege, and the Civil Rights Movement.
History—the good and the bad—is very much alive here in Mississippi. And while I don’t want to bind Mississippi to its dark past every time I write about it, learning about and confronting Mississippi’s past is actually how I’ve grown the most as a person in the past year.
Before I moved to Mississippi, I did not know who James Meredith, Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, or Michael Schwerner were. (Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962 in the midst of riots; Evers was a NAACP activist who was killed by a sniper outside his home in 1963; Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were three young civil rights activists killed by the KKK in 1964.)
I didn’t know that churches, as well as beaches, had to be integrated alongside schools. I didn’t know that Oxford was burned by Union troops. I didn’t know that African Americans voted, served in public office, and owned businesses before the Jim Crow era. I didn’t know that the state’s flagship university shut down for four years during the Civil War because its student body went off to fight and 100% sustained casualties. I didn’t know that two people were shot and killed the day James Meredith walked onto campus to register.
And while people’s opinions may differ on this, as someone from the North, I was surprised at the many ways in which Mississippi has strived to address the past.
I learned about the University Greys and how the Lyceum served as a hospital during the Civil War simply by walking through campus, thanks to the displayed contextualization plaques.
I learned about the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the Jim Crow laws, and Mississippi’s dark history of lynching by paying the $8 admission fee to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, the United States’ first state-sponsored civil rights museum, which opened in 2017.
I learned about the university’s struggle to acknowledge its complicated past while also moving forward by reading not only Robert Khayat’s autobiography, The Education of a Lifetime, but also the university’s freshmen textbook, which doesn’t shy away from addressing its administration’s controversial decisions before and after the 1960s.
I have learned a lot since moving to Mississippi, and it has forced me to check my own understandings and perceptions of slavery, Confederate symbols, and white privilege, as well as the negative stereotypes that I held of the South.
I moved here with the unfair—but widely held—perception that Mississippi was unwilling to pull itself out of its past. And while Mississippians do have strong opinions on how to acknowledge the past, I have personally found that for a state that has always had the furthest to go when compared to the rest of the United States, it has come pretty damn far. And I respect that.
Mississippi has nestled itself into a very soft, cozy corner of my heart. I have found myself to be defensive of this magnolia state and quick to correct anyone who writes it off or preemptively judges it.
They are making a mistake.
I nearly made that same mistake, and I would have missed out. Not only on the South and Mississippi itself, but on the people: Mississippians who strive to make this state great and who welcomed me with an embrace, good food, and a hearty y’all (and sometimes with a bless your heart, but in a good way!).
Faulkner was right. To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.
I spent a year backpacking solo around the world, but it was Mississippi that surprised, challenged, and ultimately endeared me the most. And even though I have only just started to understand Mississippi—just scratching the surface, really—I know I have gained a better understanding of the world.