Saturday, May 09, 2009

Displaced Person

I was born on Long Island, New York, which, like most coastal land, is flat. I always thought there should be mountains although until I was 11, I had never seen any and believed that they resembled upside down ice cream cones, only larger.

I was aware of the so-called New York accent, but never developed it. It was one of endless ways in which I was a misfit. Years later at acting school, I was the only person in my class who had no regional accent of any kind. I sounded like a Californian.

For a couple of years, I lived in Minnesota where all the people were nine-foot blonds except for the men, who were taller. Their ancestors came from Norway, Sweden and Finland. I was never taken for Scandinavian. People politely asked me, "What sports do you like?" as they looked down at my five-foot oneness, and I knew they were thinking "Jacks. She plays jacks." What they said was "Oof-tah." In Minnesota, everyone plays ice hockey, which is a vicious sport. You would think it was about skating but the skating is just the means to beat someone up. Hockey players tend to be missing their front teeth. Nobody minds this.

Lunn's grocery store, which was carpeted, had seven or eight aisles of cookies and pastry as opposed to the standard one or two in other places. I assumed the intensely cold winters had something to do with this flagrant need for fat-building carbs. It is so cold in Minnesota that some men earn their entire year's living driving around the stadium parking lot jumping cars with dead batteries after hockey games. An evening at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis was memorable not only for seeing a young Tovah Feldshuh, who later played a major bitch on Law and Order until they killed her off, but for the fact that my post earrings froze in my ears during the short walk from car to building.

You would think that with such severe winters, the summers would be moderate but you'd be wrong. The summers are as insanely hot as the winters are cold. It didn't escape my notice that there is no ocean in Minnesota, but there are millions of lakes which infuse everything with the loveliest quality of light I have ever seen. The beaches are manmade, truckloads of sand deposited on the shores of lakes. Even the mosquitoes are oversized, probably from sucking on giants.

I missed the ocean so much that I moved to a small town by the sea in Massachusetts, which has a distinctive accent, too, as in Hah-vard. Boston was built in circles, even the places called Squares, so you can't get anywhere without driving miles out of your way to turn around, which could reduce even Marcus Aurelius to tears. The fashion industry has no foothold there; jack boots and dark down are worn for all occasions because sensible trumps death.

Later, living in Vermont, I was considered a "flatlander." This is not a compliment. "Varmint," as I fondly called it, is no slouch either when it comes to sub-arctic temperatures, especially when your house is not heated. I built a wood stove out of a galvanized garbage can and chopped logs every morning. To this day, I sneer at people who go camping in their RV's and think they are roughing it.

When I moved to North Carolina, I was told often and most tediously the difference between Yankees and Damn Yankees, the former being folks who come to North Carolina from above the Mason-Dixon line, the latter being folks who come to North Carolina from above the Mason-Dixon line and STAY. The Blue Ridge Mountains of Western NC are incredibly beautiful, and so is the Eastern coastline, the Outer Banks, miles and miles of exquisite empty beach ending at Cape Hatteras.

But I have never known another place where purveyors of so many religions were after my soul: The Southern Baptists, Methodists, Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists who chant for goods and finally lost interest in me when I confessed that I was only in it for the sushi, the Church of Christ, Seventh Day Adventists, Snake Handlers, Sister Polly and her tongue language and prayer cloths and the Jehovah's Witnesses. I'm sure I've left out a few. Apparently, I have a soul that cries out to be saved by every manner of deity, but I stayed true to my roots and rejected them all regardless of race, creed or national origin. I am an equal opportunity heathen.

To the rest of the country I may not have an accent, but my lack of a drawl designated me a depraved Union foreigner in Tennessee. I wish I had a pair of shoes for every time I heard "Y'all ain't from around here, are ya?" In the South, you would think the Civil War happened last week, and they're plotting a rematch.

It seems oddly full-circle, in a way, to be living in California because all my life I have been asked if I am from here. I am neither blond nor Asian so I will never blend into either of the majority populations, I did not move here to be discovered by movie makers, and I have not experienced a major earthquake yet, though it's only a matter of time.

But I will say this -- I am finally in a place where I speak the language.


Paul said...

Hi Susan. What an enjoyable and evocative essay. Having moved around a lot myself, and not having a true home town and lasting friendships, I understand the the theme of displacement.

One of the first posts of yours I read included a picture of a young woman, Asian I think, with long black hair. For some reason, I thought it was a picture of you.

Of course, as I've followed along, I realized you didn't fit my initial perception - not at all. Such is the way of perceptions, right? Still, though, the image persists.

Anyway, I enjoy your writing, wisdom, and wit. It reminds me of what's possible.

Warty Mammal said...

What a wonderful post! You have such a marvelous writing style. Also, I'm incredibly nosy, so I do love all of the details.

Jocelyn said...


I just got to fall in love with you all over again.

Which is what happens every time I read one of your posts.

But this one especially, as I pretended you were typing right at me during the MN part--even though I'm not 9 feet tall nor will any member of my family ever play hockey. But I KNOW the 9 footers and hockey players, so it still resonated.

Then I realized that you were typing to everyone who's ever lived in any of these places...and to those who haven't...but rather to anyone who's ever lived anywhere.

The CEO said...

I have spent a lot of time in several of those places and I couldn't agree with you more. I am still in love with the lakes in Minnesota, and find North Carolina breath-taking. I was wondering if you knew when the next round of the Civil War was due to begin?

nick said...

Well, you've certainly experienced the American cultural and climatic extremes. Why do believers always think our souls are in desperate need of saving? And why are locals always so scathing towards outsiders?

I can sympathise entirely with the misfit syndrome. Everywhere I go I never quite meet other people's expectations, I'm always irritatingly deviant. Glad you finally feel at home in California.

And you're not blond? I have a very old pic of you in a red T shirt, sunglasses and blonde hair - or was it from a bottle?

furiousBall said...

people laugh at me when i tell them how happy i am to be living in Jersey, but it just fits me

thailandchani said...

This is a really good post because all of us who have moved around can relate to it. I'm strictly a Southern California girl (moved from New York when I was still a toddler) .. and have lived in other parts of the country. Maryland, Arizona, Washington and Colorado. They all had quirky cultural characteristics. Now I live in Sacramento and no longer have to worry about cultural anything. It doesn't exist here. This place is truly a cow town.

Compared to Los Angeles, I feel like I'm on Mars.


Cecilieaux said...

This calls for my favorite bad news/good news joke about California:

The bad news about California is that it's full of laid-back, blonde-wood adoring, hangup-eschewing, who live on some freeway.

The good news is that there's the San Andreas Fault.

As a student of 11 once wrote to me, "no fence."

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Welcome home to California.
"...I wish they all could be....Californian Girls....."

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I have no idea which post you're referring to. Are you sure it was mine? In some of my fonder fantasies, I am a beautiful Asian woman with long black hair, in others, a beautiful Black woman with bouncing shiny curls. As noted, I don't always fit my own perceptions either, but thank you for giving me every chance.


Awww, you're too kind. I didn't do any of my former homes justice, just a quick dip of the wings in passing.


Actually I was thinking of you while writing about Minnesota, wondering what you'd think if you read it. But more importantly, is Lunn's still there? It was the absolute best supermarket I had ever seen, or have seen in all the years since I lived there. They had produce that hadn't even been invented yet.

The people in your state are not only big, they are all gorgeous. It's quite unfair, really, if one happens to be a runty brunette.


Any li'l cotton pickin' minute, I reckon. As soon as I get my musket polished.


You're an ex-pat, too, but I suspect the Irish are more forgiving than most Americans anywhere.

That picture sounds like one from a trip back to NY in July of '07. My hair is brown, not bottle blonde --the sun created that effect. Hence, the sunglasses.


I have never understood why New Yorkers sneer at New Jersey. It's right next door, and also a beautiful state which produced Sinatra, Springsteen, Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey, Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Addams, and YOU. What's not to like?


Um, compared to Los Angeles, you ARE on Mars. But cows are nice, too. I don't think much of the custom of tipping them, though, unless they give really good service.


No fence. It's good to know you've got my back.


I could do worse. Speaking of the Beach Boys, people actually surf here, right under the Golden Gate Bridge. You wouldn't catch me in that freezing water even in a wet suit, though.

Glamourpuss said...

Yes, home isn't always where we come from; it wasn't until I moved to London that I ever really felt I belonged somewhere.


heartinsanfrancisco said...


I daresay you belong wherever you set your lovely self down, but London is a wonderful place to reinvent oneself because nobody cares. New York is like that, too, especially Greenwich Village, where I lived at two different times.

Mariposa said...

Love this post...I so enjoyed. From somebody who is from the call center industry which supports mostly US, this is a fun read. We usually study accents and locations...and I can't help bu laugh and smile reading your experiences as you move from one place to next!

Such a good writer you are!

Ian Lidster said...

Everyone from New York should sound like Di Niro and Pesci in Goodfellas in my esteem.

I'm a westcoaster and actually the California non-accent sounds pretty much like the BC non-accent.

Oh, and we do have mountains on our coastline -- huge mountains. Too many mountains,sometimes.

I am also a bit of a chameleon with accents. I spent two weeks in Ireland and ended up sounding like I was born in Cork.

Anonymous said...

Having lived all over the country, I can certainly relate. Although it's funny - to me Californians do have a distinct accent. My own accent is variable - sometimes Southern-tinged, sometimes not. I tend to morph a bit depending on who I'm talking to. My sons, who were born and raised in Tennessee, do not have southern accents.

Cardozo said...

What a beautiful post.

A California boy my entire life, the lack of an accent has always been a sort of internal symbol representing what I perceived to be a lack of culture.

Recently, though, I realized that - along with my Jewish roots - my culture is "American," which (in its ideal form) really means "democracy," "diversity," and "capitalism," each with their own cultural accoutrements. There's actually quite a lot of potential in those words, and it feels good knowing my culture is waiting for me to pitch in to improve upon it.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Perhaps we've had conversations, then, as I have called Customer Service call centers of several companies.

I've noticed that all the reps have American names, which I assume is so we won't know we're talking to someone in Malaysia or Mumbai.


I also pick up accents easily which is strange considering that the NY one never took hold. But to my continued wonderment, Flip, aka L.A. Boy, channels Pesci or DeNiro whenever he's angry. It always makes me wonder what planet I've landed on. And why.


When I lived in NC and TN, my speech was a little softened but w/o a full-on twang. I still didn't fit in because my great granddaddy didn't know their great granddaddies.

I agree with you about the California accent - it's slight, like "Carrie" and "Kerry" pronounced the same, but it's there if you listen.


The mantra of my own Jewish family was that we were "just American." There was no religious observance or training, probably out of fear of another Holocaust, but I always felt that I was passing for something to which I was not entitled. Later, I came to believe that my upbringing had freed me to investigate other ways of thinking and believing.

The Fool said...

Welcome back, Heart. Your post is a most wonderful and witty reflection/memoir...and your capture of the nuances of regionalisms made me smile. I grew up in an old New England town (est. 1636), where they'd spent the better part of 300 years screwing things up. I ran as far away from it as I could at seventeen...and you could say I ran until the road ran out. In the interim, I've visited many of the places you note...and have come to the conclusion that most places are strange. Some are truly strange. Where I am is just cold, and cold suits me better. Like you, I've found a place to call home. Thanks for sharing. Kudos.

the walking man said...

There is a common language accent that permeates the land. I have noticed that no matter where I spent time BS always sounded the same.

Anonymous said...

I am quite sure you would have an accent here in Australia ;) You may not understand us, nor us you although are we not all supposed to be speaking the (so called) queens english?

heartinsanfrancisco said...

No Fool,

Yes, it certainly is cold where you live. Cook and Peary may have mentioned that once or twice in their North Pole travel logs. :)

New England is a good place to be an independent loner. I suspect Alaska is, too, only colder. Am I way off base here?


You're right. BS is pretty much a universal language. Which is sad.


With all respect, dearie, she's not my queen. But I am very fond of the Australian accent and could adapt, I'm sure.

The Fool said...

Well, it all depends on where you are in this it is quite huge...x2 the size of Texas. Fairbanks can get gets down to -40 to -60 below in the winters...and the summers are hot - even hitting the 90's. It's sheltered by mountains and far from the ocean. Down here in Homer is a cakewalk in only dipped below zero one night this winter. Southcentral has got the warm ocean currents...and it sure beats what I remember of New England winters. They can be quite bitter in that neck of the woods, as you probably well know from your time in Varmintland. I had a buddy from up here who moved to Varnint...and even with Alaska winters under his belt, the locals wouldn't associate or consider him as one of their own until after he'd put in a winter there. And yes...this place breeds independent spirits, but there's quite an interdependence among them. There are Alaskans, and there are those who live Outside (the colloquial term for the rest of the U.S.). Go figure.

seventh sister said...

I so agree with you about North Carolina. I did not change much between the time you lived there and the time I did. I have decided I never want to live east of I35 again.
I will try to write about my experience driving through Tennessee sometime. Those people are weird.

I am happy that you have at last found a place that feels like home.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

No Fool,

It's not surprising that Alaskans consider those from other places Outsiders as you (and Hawaii) are isolated from all the contiguous states. There is probably some honor involved in being hardy enough to live there, unlike the wussies who inhabit the rest of the country (especially Hawaii, where it never freezes, even.)


That's just the thing about NC - it never does change. There is so much natural beauty in that state, but also so much prejudice toward "others" as well as the attitude that "if it was good enough for my daddy, it's good enough for me." I believe in healthy change and trying to make things even better than they are.

I have never felt as close to the land as I did there, though, living on a vast piece of land of which I knew every inch until the owners clear cut all of it because they were too lazy to work. It was truly heartbreaking and I left soon after.

I'm eager to catch up with YOU and hear more about your new life in Santa Fe.

LittlePea said...

Great post. I lived in California for about five minutes during the dotcom boom and was in tears and hysterics when we moved. The minute I arrived, it felt like home to me. Perhaps because I am half Asian and half blonde(on my dad's side-heehee). As much as I love Florida(or didn't you know?) I would easily give it all up for a small cottage in Napa.

I love regional accents, some more than others. I have one that I can turn off and on depending on who I'm talking to and what I want out of the conversation.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Sweet Pea,

I love that you turn your accent on and off, depending on what you hope to gain from a particular conversation.

Napa is very beautiful, but I don't believe they have any shark's teeth lying around so you may want to rethink this.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

I love that.
The whole thing!

And truth flows through every bit of it, like old man river cutting a swath through the nation.

I'm glad that you're home, as crazy as it may be, sometimes it takes us a while to get there.


Scarlett & Viaggiatore

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

By the way... I was shopping the other day and came across a package of sea salt, proudly announcing that it was gleaned from the SF Bay... and I thought, " WANT people to know that? I don't think I'd eat anything that came out of the bay, salt or fish or otherwise... yuck!"


I love the bay, I do, I love that whole area, but I've seen what goes into and comes out of that bay.

S & V

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Salt with oil sludge from the Cosco Busan's li'l accident involving the SF Bay Bridge -- very appetizing NOT.

More than a year later, the bay is still not clean and sealife is suffering. It appalls me that people allow their children and dogs to swim in it. I have found that no matter where you live, there is more than enough stupidity to go around.

Maria said...

Ah, with the exception of a few years spent in Baltimore, I am a born and bred prairie woman.

But, we did vacation in Minnesota every year when I was a child and I do have vivid recall of the giant mosquitoes.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


They are hard to forget, especially when they have removed large chunks of your body, requiring transfusions.

Mariposa said...

Hearts...I guess that was their first reason for choosing an American name as aliases...then when it was no longer a secret that they were outsourcing their call centers, I guess it's for callers to get their names easily!

heartinsanfrancisco said...


That makes sense. Americans are famous for mangling foreign names when people from other countries move here.

So, if you've ever helped me with a service problem, thank you again!

meggie said...

I loved this mini travelogue, woven with your accentless accent!
Oddly, my brother & I sound as if we come from different countries! No idea why or how.

the walking man said...

Actually the foreign based call centers use "American" names not for the caller but to mask the destination of the call. They also teach the operators and technicians American (German, French et al) colloquialisms to throw into the conversation.

If you are fortunate enough to get an operator who has been on the job for awhile it sounds almost as if your talking with a very bright exchange student. I actually like engaging them in conversation while we're fixing whatever needs fixing.

While I do not like the outsourced jobs I understand that the person on the other end is simply making a living so it is nice when the communication and dialog flows without all of the "say that again please."

heartinsanfrancisco said...


That's interesting. My brother and I have different accents, too, despite having the same parents and growing up together.

(His is wrong, of course.) :)


In my experience, many of these people have such heavy accents that they are nearly impossible to understand. I even wonder if that is intentional on the part of the companies that employ them - how can you challenge anything if you don't know what is being said?