Guest Post: Reconciling My Immigrant Roots and Appalachian Upbringing
From the editor: This essay was originally published by Krishna on Medium in 2019.
Most holidays, I go home to a small town nestled in the hills of Central Appalachia. If you’re from there you’ll hear it endearingly as Pike-vull, but on a map the town is more likely to be recognized as “Pikeville, KY.”
On my homecomings, after a day of reunions, I’ll steal a moment to return to my former room. I’ll sit down again at my old study table just to enjoy that comfort of familiarity I have long drawn from within those four walls, nearly bare now but still bearing the marks of my childhood: impressions of darts that missed their target, pushpin holes from the ghost of an old cork board. From my desk, I can see through the window into the scene outside — pink crepe myrtles lining the bounds of the property, a small pond bursting with water lilies, a white driveway embossed with red floral designs, a short stretch of sky framed by the side of the neighbor’s house and a gently sloping hillside. Beyond that, hills and hills slung with soft green foliage.
Although I cannot claim it as the place of my birth, Pikeville is most certainly where I was bred and so is more my home than anywhere else. The smell of Pikeville is the smell of Appalachian mountain air — untainted, earthy, replenishing — how I imagine it to have been since the beginning of the continent. Descend from the mountains and you’ll notice the local character permeating the air: pickup trucks, coal trucks, corn bread, baked beans, yellow-white honeysuckle, river draft. The sonorous measured accent of Hillbilly people, punctuated by quick snaps like over-tuned fiddle strings, fills the ear with the voices of bluegrass music. The region is beautiful — beautiful in the same way it seems to have always been.
My parents are still there, and I grew up there, and so did many others whose skin is brown and who trace their ancestry to India or Syria, Pakistan, Vietnam, or the Philippines, among other places peppered outside the predominantly Scots-Irish roots of the area.
Sometimes I feel guilty. I wonder if I have any right to claim to be part of this Appalachian culture. I remember lighting Diwali fireworks as Pikeville’s autumn leaves burned into their own festive colors. I remember my mother serving food that was always too spicy for my friends from school, and never really knowing the answer to why I don’t eat beef. But I also remember the increasingly infrequent passing of coal trucks before my house, and the stunning growth of the hospital and the university, and how the natives were here before all of it.
Change is inevitable, and culture is too adaptive, encompassing, and resilient to be represented in just one face. I remind myself that no perfectly composite person exists who can speak for an entire culture and tell me I do not look the way they do. Home can be a face like mine, just as much as it can be a face like LJ or Patrick, Katie or Noor. Memories of my first dance, my first play, my first clumsy slip into a creek, and the people with whom I shared these moments, if not the threads of my genealogy or the complexion of my face, keep this belief alive.
I will never be one thing or the other. Perhaps I am several identities at once, something novel altogether. And that’s okay.
Even now, I may return to Pikeville to find another friend has moved away or another teacher retired, replaced by faces that don’t know me, that ask me where I’m from or what brings me. And yet, when I am tired and the world feels loud and lonely, this is the place to which my mind wanders to find its rest.
Guest post by Krishna A.