“Are we being punked?”
My husband keeps asking me that, several months after we moved to Charlotte from California.
Most recently, the question was inspired by an elderly grandfather in the hot bar line at Whole Foods who learned we were new to town, then volunteered a list of parks in the area that were baby friendly. He even offered to draw a map on a napkin to show us how to get to the green spaces his grandson loved.
When we committed to move here from our balmy home in West Los Angeles, we had expectations:
We knew we’d need to exchange our thin windbreakers for warmer coats — if only for a few months.
We knew that the cost of living would be a relief.
And we knew to expect tea so sweet it made your teeth tingle.
What we didn’t expect was for this city to feel so genuine and, let’s face it, relentless.
I grew up an Army brat, but my maternal family is from Upstate South Carolina, and I spent my teenage and high school years there. I am familiar with Southern hospitality. But my last memories of the South were of being an angst-filled teenager who wanted to break out of the slow pace, the racial tension and the history that never sat well with me.
I assumed then that the South was alone when it came to poor race relations. I was wrong.
Almost a decade ago, I landed in Los Angeles as a graduate student at USC (not that one, this one), and settled in a neighborhood called Los Feliz, where you might just bump into Channing Tatum at the Best Buy. I met my Californian in a co-ed kickball league in the neighborhood park.
I’ll just break it to you now; I married up. My husband is 6-foot-4, classically handsome, and with his meticulously maintained shiny bald head, a la Boris Kodjoe, and his athletic build, he cuts a dashing figure.
Yet in our LA home, a modern high-rise with gleaming surfaces and outrageous rent, people with brown skin were the minority. It was common for our white neighbors to jump in fear when they turned a corner and saw my husband taking our trash to the chute. Women in yoga pants squeezed into the corner of an elevator when they spied him, and men averted their eyes. We once attended a packed wedding where some guests chose to stand rather than take the two seats next to us.
While calling on doctors’ offices in Beverly Hills for work, my husband — wearing a full suit — encountered stares as they seemed to wonder, “What is he doing here?”
Los Angeles boasts a beautiful unmatched diversity, but it’s largely segregated, with some exceptions. Most residents venture to Koreatown for karaoke, East LA for incomparable tacos, and then retreat to their own relatively homogenous havens.
Charlotte is by no means perfect (see SouthPark Susan), and like many other cities across the country is dealing with a gentrification crisis that displaces minorities disproportionately.
However, at least in my limited experience here, Southern cities seem to have been forced to confront racial tensions and stereotypes, and they make efforts to introduce people to those who don’t look like them.
Now, Angelenos don’t deserve the reputation of, say, New Yorkers. The people are friendly enough, but many are politely distant or, depending on your perspective, distantly polite.
But in Charlotte, at least the Charlotte we’ve found so far, if you simply appear to be lost, there’s a good chance someone will draw a map on a napkin.