Becoming a Southerner in England

on July 1, 2016

I’ve always thought of myself, and proudly, as a Northerner. Growing up in Michigan, the vast snowy peninsula that snuggles into Canada, I developed the liberal Northern politics. I have the accent, the affinity for apples and gingerale and lakeside fishing, the reckless driving, and the tough ability to withstand extreme cold temperatures and condescend to any snow days south of the Mason-Dixie line (tbh probably any snow days south of Detroit)…

That is, until I moved to England.

The first time I lived in England I lived in Exeter…this time around it’s Plymouth. Both cities snugly and firmly in the county of Devon, in the southwest region. Also known as the “English riviera.” I’ve become familiar with palm trees and old ladies who swim in the sea in January…

No, it’s not some tropical oasis, this is still England, but it’s just, well, southern.

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For a while, I’ve wondered if the UK north – south divide is as profound as the USA, or even similar. It’s difficult to tell, obviously there was no civil war in the UK, and I honestly just don’t know enough people from the North to have a conversation about it. After the Brexit vote, though, it seems there might be a sharp divide. Just look at any map of the results and you can see the “remain” votes of the north fade into the “leave” votes of the south… But what does that make me? A little Northern American transplant in the guts of deep southern England. And I love the south!

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So I had an interesting time this past weekend in Liverpool! Maybe not the north-est city in the UK, but I haven’t been north of London since I moved to Plymouth in September, so this was my weekend in the north.

I met up with my mom (!) who is visiting from the USA, and we stayed with old friends who we met in Michigan but now live in Liverpool (they are English, and proud northerners…both in the UK and USA).

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Their gorgeous house looks over the Liverpool Cathedral. We had a relaxing time eating, exploring, catching up, and desperately watching the news channel in the aftermath of the referendum.

We had some interesting conversations about the north south divide. I was intrigued what someone from the north would say, as honestly in my experience, people from south England don’t give the north much thought except a “psh” or mocking of the Geordie accent  when prompted.

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I was informed that it’s “typical” of a southerner not to venture north of London. That the south is more rural and well to do and the wealthy seat of the government. That the north was the original home of the industrial revolution and now with the shutting of factories it’s born the blunt of recession. It’s working class, determined, diverse, tough, innovative.

In short, this is the story line I was fed  growing up in the north of the USA. Michigan was where the car was invented – but also where the 2008 recession detonated on the auto factories that supported nearly everyone I know. So I have deeply ingrained in me the story line of a tough northerner. It’s a familiar story line that feels like home.

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But hearing it from the mouth of someone else, in a city of someone else’s, I somehow felt “other.” I was being told this as a southerner, as one of those people that hardly sees north of London…

And I wondered, am I a southerner now? Can I be a northerner in the USA and a southerner here… Or are they mutually exclusive? And what does this say of the global north and south…

In short, it was just an interesting conversation in passing as I explored Liverpool with my mom and old friends. But it does make me ponder these stories, and stereotypes, that we are fed about our geographic identity, and how we proudly internalize them. Because honestly, it feels good to belong.

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I wouldn’t go so far as to say the “north-south” stereotypes are damaging – I’m still very proud to call myself a northerner in the USA context – but we should acknowledge how complex they are. Within each stereotype are hundreds of thousands of different kinds of people.

Within the British south there are American northerners (me!), there are people from the global south, there are people who have moved there for university or family or a job…there are people who voted leave, people who voted remain, people who put cream on their scone before jam, and people who put jam on before cream (God forbid!).

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As humans we love to categorize – but they’re not always truthful or healthy. As I’ve made a home for myself in south England, I’ve become to identify more and more as a southerner…as my experience of feeling “other” in Liverpool showed me. And it’s only made me more aware, I think, of all the thousands of different kinds of people you can meet if you only put stereotypes aside.

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So what do you think? Are you a northerner or southerner? Or do you pick and choose the best of both worlds?

 

Sarah xx
  

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