When I left my parents’ driveway at 4:00am just over 14 months ago, I drove through the morning to Atlanta, where I boarded a plane for Korea with a Tennessee-shaped hole in my heart. Throughout the year, as I immersed myself into a scintillating new culture and marinated myself in soju, I silently picked at the bright orange scabs of my homesickness every day. Most things that I missed were not surprising such as my family, my friends, or pizza without yams and mayonnaise on it. However, on several occasions, my homesickness took very startling turns that I never anticipated. For example, I developed a strange relationships with bluegrass while I was in Korea. It seemed that I became ensnared in a vicious cycle through the help of the wonderful WDVX and their live streaming webcast. To illustrate my point, I made this complex flowchart:
It never ended the whole time I was there. At one point during my stay, bluegrass confused me so bad that I accidentally fell really hard for someone not worth falling for. It turns out that you should never combine alcohol, lonesomeness, religious freakouts, and bluegrass into the same evening. Hearts will be smashed to pieces. Eventually, I made a set of criteria for myself that had to be met before I could tune into WDVX:
You see, missing home got complicated. Since being home, I’ve been reminded of several things that I didn’t know I was going to miss until I happily saw them again. Additionally, there were things I thought I’d be starved for that never mattered at all. It turns out Korea has an abundance of passable Mexican food, and my friends in Korea turned out not to be just friend substitutes or placeholder friends, but instead legitimate friendships that I will nurture the rest of my life.
So, if you’re reading this from Tennessee or from elsewhere, I hope that you’re cherishing the particular sweetness of wherever you are– something I strived for in Korea that has made me feel more at home in Tennessee. Now that I’ve been back a while, the reverse culture shock has dwindled considerably and I feel genuinely less psychotic than I did in those first few weeks. I am no longer convinced that my neighbors want to combo-rob-rape me and the sweetness of the season has begun to seep back into my heart, filling up that Tennessee-shaped hole and maybe making it stronger than ever. In honor of my heart and my home, where the heat is sweltering and the beer is cold and there’s always a honky tonk close by, I’ve made a list of the top missable things about East Tennessee:
- Gardens. The ability to just put some vegetables in the ground in your yard and then, by pure and simple magic, they grow.
- Porches. Front and back. Lawn chairs or swings and citronella and cigarettes. Until your heart’s content and your mosquito quota is full.
- Soul Food. Be it Chandler’s or my mama’s. Fried everything and barbecue that kills you. The way some desserts are too rich to eat too much of– I like the soul food too savory to finish, but you do. Fried green tomatoes and okra and squash and collard greens and mustard greens and turnip greens and sweet tea.
- Baking. Picking mulberries off the tree in your yard and making dough from stuff you can casually and simply buy at the store and baking it and feeding it to your friends because they’re there and you can.
- Spices. Going to the store and getting whatever you want and making your food taste like anything you like. More than just spicy or soy sauce or teriyaki. You can make any culture’s flavor in your very own kitchen, because this is America.
- The rare times when you’re at the barn on your parents’ farm and it starts to rain and you have to piss, so you just go outside and pop a squat in the middle of a light summer storm. That simply and naturally. Agree or not, it’s a unique experience that never even crossed my mind until it happened again.
- Bonfires. Being in someone’s backyard and grilling and drinking (or not) and sitting with people you love and listening to oldies and talking and seeing people in that dim and beautiful light until the fire dies down and then you say goodbye. But you’ll see them again for the same thing, quite soon.
- House Concerts. Folk Music. Folk Singers. Eating in a friend’s kitchen and hearing a stranger play his songs. The intimacy you have with people you’ve never met and the soft uncertainty of whether you will again.
- Bluegrass. And feeling happy for the happy songs and sad for the sad and understanding the melancholy like you never knew you could.