What I want to go back for?
Muddy Waters allegedly said, “I wanted to get out of Mississippi in the worst way. Go back? What I want to go back for?”
I moved to Mississippi in August, 2008 to teach Arabic at Jackson State University (as a Fulbright TA). By Thanksgiving I knew what Muddy Waters was talking about. I wanted to get out of Mississippi and never go back. Before leaving Kuwait, I had prepared myself for an adventure. This was going to be my first experience living away from home, and for a whole year! I decided that I was going to make the most of it: meet new people, explore new places, read Southern literature, try new food and basically live my life to the fullest.
Maybe I had high expectations but in a few weeks I started writing to my friends saying that I was not prepared for life in the Deep South. Without a car, I was completely cut off. I was stranded in the ghetto. The people I met were not friendly, the classes I took were mediocre and the activities arranged by the international program were too outdoorsy for me. My living arrangement (read: psychotic flatmate) probably aggravated my sense of despair.
Fate dealt me several blows during the first part of my Fulbright program. Office politics and the animosity between employees demotivated me. I became withdrawn and instead of making the most of my experience, I spent all my days online, chatting with friends back home and composing silly e-mails. I was a 21st century hermit. I’d go to campus, teach my classes, head back home and get online. Later in the evening, when everyone in Kuwait was fast asleep, I’d venture out of my apartment and walk to the gym where I’d work out for an hour then get back to the safety of my room. I had met a few international students and I we hung out almost on a daily basis, but they lived on campus and I didn’t and I knew better than to get too attached to them (they were all heading back to their own countries in December). And just when I was getting comfortable in my pitiful routine, Red Lobster changed my life! Wait, that’s pretty pathetic too.
Early in September, one of the employees coerced me into attending a luncheon at the Red Lobster – even though it was Ramadan and I was fasting. I can’t remember the details but she needed to parade the international teachers to a group of benevolent citizens who funded and supported exchange programs (hmm). I contemplated not going but I pushed myself because Ramadan is not just about fasting from food and drink but all about increasing one’s good deeds and being a better person. It was there that I met my friend S. (who I often refer to as my savior). I must have been so tired and hungry that I still can’t remember what I said to her that day. But apparently we exchanged e-mails! And I am so grateful we did.
A month later, S. got in touch with me and I think we met for the first time in November. S. plucked me out of my apartment where I was wallowing in self-pity and showed me Mississippi. She showed me the southern hospitality one reads and hears about. She talked to me about the rich literary tradition in her soft drawl, introduced me to her family and friends and by January all but adopted me!
It was only after I saw Mississippi through her eyes that I grew to love it and tried to understand it. It was on our adventures that I finally lived up to the promises I made myself. I was meeting new people, having the most unexpected adventures, reading Eudora Welty and enjoying cup after cup of sweet tea. Although I wanted to get out of Mississippi in the worst way, I now yearn to go back. There are stories I want to hear and places I want to explore. As William Faulkner pointed out, “to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”