Note: This post was originally written for a Southern magazine, which (nicely) rejected it for being too controversial. Their new topic request is your gain.
The first date my now-husband ever took me on was for coffee, like an IRL cliché. At the counter, standing next to the 5’3″ scrawny girl, he told the barista his caffeine preferences:
“I like my coffee how I like my women: strong and stout.”
Which is just hot he got it: piping hot and without sweetener. The request was forward, and left me with few comments – which is probably what any man wants out of life: caffeine and a surefire way to keep their lady quiet.
Blinded by the Southern drawl and weaponry adorned across his waist (his “belt knife”), I was too smitten to ask if that was the truth. Should I consider a tan? Would my homemade coffee need to be stronger? Those were two questions to sort out if I was going to see this man again, I decided. And I most definitely wanted to see him again.
Before I could weasel in with a sly, but not-too-obvious way to ask (you know, like first dates do), he created a whole new set of questions. By presenting me with my tea … and calling me a Yankee. A Yankee, like I was some type of Northern laddie sporting buckles on shoes.
It was a word I didn’t know was used in modern times. When talking Civil War affiliations or singing about doodle dandies, sure, but as a self-describer, the term hadn’t crossed my mind.
Giving his cowboy hat a once-over, I wondered what’d spurred the name, and so early into a date. Did I have some type of navy blue insignia? Did my hair smell as good as a candle? Something to do with macaroni?
It turned out to be none of those things. But rather, an entire compilation of others.
Since birth, I have hailed in Kansas (no we don’t want to hear your Wizard of Oz joke). As centrally located as it gets, we Kansans don’t pull allegiance either way – north or south (… or east or west for that matter). We’re used to football games that don’t end in championships, or that even get close to them. We have all four seasons every year, sometimes every day. There’s a bad rap for boredom and farming, half of which is true. It’s full of Republicans; there is no such place as Smallville – just ask the nerds, Superman’s from Hutchinson. And no, I have never seen a “real” tornado, only tails poking from clouds. (If I do get to see the real deal, I hope it’s the kind with sharks.)
But those things weren’t what made me a Yankee, either, my husband said. But rather how those things made me act. Writing this right now? #totalyankeemove, probably.
Historically, Kansas has been somewhat off the South’s radar, or at least separated by culture. It was a free state, why else would Quintrill burn so many hotels? And technically, KS is above the Mason Dixon line, but I had to look up both of those facts to be sure – that’s how uncharted the North/South allegiance is in the Midwest. We’re indifferent to sides, just friendly to all – a stereotype that’s actually true.
But what is so Yankee anyway?
It’s how I drink tea – sugar is not allowed. It’s how I order at Cracker Barrel: with extra vegetables and often from the kid’s menu. Fried okra? No thanks. Actually, what does that even mean? It’s because I’d never tasted grits … and needed to know exactly what they were grown from. It’s because I have flexible standards about hospitality, and ask record-breaking amounts of questions. Seriously, I’m full of them; up north, it’s not rude to ask. Also humoring others or failing – always – to get to the point. Sure, some of that is just female, but the rest, pure Yank blood, apparently.
My lack of formality, he says, is another dead-ringer for Yankification.
While he’s all “Yes ma’am” and “No sir I will not eat seafood in a land-locked state,” me and my Midwestern ways are wondering if that was actually our friends he just spoke with. What was with the formal crap? Was a British person nearby? Do not tell me I missed them; I wanted to ask about crumpets.
All of that, and more reasons to come, make the differences known. In fact, the more I’m exposed to the ways of the South, the heavier the gap becomes: I’m Yankee, he’s Gulf Coast-y.
The first time I visited his hometown – he’s from all-the-way-to-the-water, Mississippi, a new term they should consider implementing on their Wikipedia page – our pasts were highlighted further. No one, like I expected, wore promiscuous denim and spouted one-liners about the South, heavens-to-Betsy.
Instead I just noticed things. Or my husband pointed them out. With no feelings spared, we got into a routine of “Your first grade project is terrible” and “I will never eat that salad again,” or “It’s snow, not toxic foam.” And it worked. With each of our directional behaviors made clear.
By now, I’m well used to the term, expectant, even. But it still irks … sometimes deeply.
Because there is no reciprocation. “Yankee” is a term we Northerners don’t have an equivalent to match. We don’t call ya’ll hicks or rebels or Dixie whistlers. We’ll notice a drawl or snicker about groceries in “buggies” (in Kansas, a buggy is for walking babies … in the 1950s). But we do not have a collective term for Southern folk. Then again, maybe that’s the whole point. A true Yankee has no equal comeback they can call their opponent; when this happens, thou truly knowest thee is of pure Yankee blood.
Cool guys, I get it now. Fun joke, actually … can I start the honorary Southerner application now? I have good references. Just please, do not make me drink the tea.