Living in the Magnolia State
Prior to 2008, everything I knew about Mississippi was based on a novel set in Alabama. I read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird in the 7th grade and vaguely remember the main character Scout, but the racial injustice in that book is hard to forget. And that surely sums up the Old South… or so I thought.
In January, 2008 I was encouraged to apply for a Fulbright award. I half-heartedly worked on the application, but I didn’t think I would make the cut so I also applied to UCL‘s Medical Anthropology Program (at that time, I was convinced that it was the field I wanted to pursue). Four months later, I received an e-mail telling me I was accepted in the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) Program. My letter of acceptance read: “As a Fulbrighter, you will join the ranks of distinguished alumni of the program. Fulbright alumni have become heads of state, judges, ambassadors, cabinet ministers, CEOs, university presidents, journalists, artists, professors and teachers. They have been awarded 73 Novel Prizes…” Were they trying to convince me? YES. YES. YES. Of course I was going to accept the Fulbright award! Where do I sign? And when am I getting my visa?
I can’t tell you exactly how things unraveled after that; one minute I was explaining the program to my parents, the next minute I was hugging my mother at the airport. My mother was a complete wreck, by the way. The longest I had been away before that was when I attended a six-week training program in the summer of 2007. To say my mother has severe attachment issues is the understatement of the century — so let’s not even go there, ok?
My host institution for the duration of the program (one academic year) was to be Jackson State University and at one point I did think, “hmm.. Mississippi? Really?” But my professor and mentor, Dr. C convinced me that it would be an adventure, a learning experience and all that jazz. I still remember her telling me that I would be like an anthropologist in the field. I actually fell for that. I should have known she was biased, being from the Magnolia State herself (albeit, Oxford which is verrrrrry different from Jackson), but what I completely missed is the fact that Dr. C doesn’t even live in Mississippi! She lived in Kuwait at the time and was in Nigeria at some point. I mean that should have told me something…
I arrived in Jackson’s tiny airport on a clammy summer night and I remember chattering away to my supervisor. She was not amused by my heavy bags but chuckled at my enthusiasm. I naively asked if I can rent or buy a bike to get around. I was surprised when she laughed but in less than a week I figured out why. Jackson State University is in the ghetto. The campus itself is well-maintained and the buildings are fairly new but the area (south Jackson specifically) was something I’d only seen in movies (and Baltimore). I found out, after I moved there, that it wasn’t exactly the safest part of the city, that crime and poverty went hand in hand with stories of drugs and corruption. One could say, that it was in Jackson, Mississippi that I finally experienced culture shock.
During my ten months in Mississippi (when I was not running off to DC or NY) I was documenting my trials and tribulations in long, nonsensical e-mails to family and friends. In January my friend Lindsey – and fellow Fulbrighter – encouraged me to get a journal so I don’t forget the stories I was telling. It was a great idea – thanks Linds! I didn’t think to blog about my experience as I was living it, so I’m dedicating this page to the Magnolia State. I will be referring to the e-mails I wrote and consulting my journal as I piece together the story of a Kuwaiti woman in the Deep South.
*Want to read about my adventures in Mississippi? Click here.