Celina Stewart: Reflecting on home

Guest Columnist
Thursday, May 26, 2016
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2016

I have a red-and-black print of an Andy Warhol quote on my wall: “The world fascinates me.” For as long as I can remember, this has been true. As a child, I grew up walking the botanical gardens in Singapore, learning badminton in Jakarta and systematically numbing my taste buds with as much spicy food as I could. When my family evacuated Indonesia to the United States after Sept. 11, I felt disoriented and shell-shocked in my Georgia public school. When we moved to Nashville, Tennessee shortly thereafter and I began class with my third second-grade teacher, I cried.

The funny thing about being immersed in Brown’s diversity is that I’ve only recently begun reminding people I grew up overseas, explaining why I prefer fairy bread (an Australian concoction of white bread, butter and sprinkles) to peanut butter and jelly and why I cannot place most American “throwback” references. I’ve only just begun admitting to myself one of the biggest truths about my identity: my hometown. When you aren’t from anywhere in particular, choosing a hometown takes on significance. It’s a validation of place, belonging and comfort. As a Brown student who is cognizant of Tennessee’s religious and racial prejudices as well as  its continuing shortcomings in social justice, this decision has been fraught with cognitive dissonance, bargaining and more than a little embarrassment.   

My middle and high school years were bathed in copper hues: orange t-shirts for the University of Tennessee, attended by about 70 percent of my public school’s large graduating class; crimson for Alabama’s Roll Tide slogan and college football’s Southeastern Conference; blood red for the stripes on the flag we saluted without fail at the beginning of every school day; and red for the color of the only political party you could publicly approve. Before coming to Brown, I abhorred these shades of red, longing to bathe myself in cool, refreshing blue.

At Brown, I’ve studied systemic oppression, feminism, cultural appropriation, privilege and religion. Academically, I know with absolute certainty that many of the experiences I had while living in Tennessee fell well within the categories of “problematic” or “extremely problematic.” I’ve realized that feminism isn’t a curse word, nor does not shaving your legs or being transgender make you any less of a woman. I’ve realized that the privileges I enjoyed in Tennessee aren’t only unrealistic (did I mention that I went to Taylor Swift’s rival high school and Kesha’s middle school?) but part of a larger problem of wealth distribution in the United States. I identify Nashville as my hometown knowing full well that any mention of the South immediately conjures preconceptions in most of my peers of conservative beliefs, Bible-thumping and ignorance. This knowledge makes my understanding of home a complex, tense part of my identity. Yet I can’t deny where I come from.

I have continually confronted and interrogated the lessons I learned in Tennessee’s public schools during my time at Brown. I’ve often laughed outwardly and grimaced inwardly at my unbeknownst ignorance among peers who attended high schools far more rigorous than my own. I smiled freshman year while frantically learning the basics of staying kosher, keeping up with friends’ New York families and feigning familiarity with New England’s meteorologically and socially chilly tendencies. I appreciate the learning curve that comes with being immersed in such a diverse community, especially after coming from someplace where too much difference came with a heap of suspicion. The hard part about acknowledging Tennessee as your home is that you have to accept everything that comes with it, knowing full well that, to most of your peers, the South cannot approximate the sophistication or opportunity of the North. There is a certain expectation of proving your worth, of showing that you weren’t just the admission committee’s pet Southern acceptance, and that you can blend into this place.

In “Thank God for Hometowns,” Carrie Underwood sings, “Thank God for the county lines that welcome you back in / When you were dying to get out / Thank God for Church pews / And all the faces that won’t forget you / Cause when you’re lost out in this crazy world / You got somewhere to go and get found.” Driving to Tennessee this summer on I-40W from Virginia, I realized that home is where you return to, again and again. Home is the open field you aren’t afraid to walk with girlfriends at midnight, just to taste the honeysuckles and watch the fireflies in the grass like fireworks personally welcoming you back. Home tastes like fried pickles and sounds like Luke Bryan. Home, I’ve realized, does not define where you’ll go. Rather, it helps you understand where you come from.

My classmates at Brown have been some of the most incredibly intelligent, independently impressive people I’ve met. In trying to keep up with them, I traveled by myself to Panama, Argentina and Uruguay. I studied abroad in Spain and the Czech Republic. I completed an internship conducted almost entirely in Spanish, despite my feelings of lingual inadequacy as an international relations concentrator. I will work as a consultant in New York next year. For someone from a town that encourages staying close to home, these are acts of courage and accomplishment. These achievements were only possible because I saw those around me doing similar things and I felt that I could, too. This type of exploration, whether of our ideals, our bodies, our thoughts or our worlds, is a necessary part of college. My world is much bigger for having attended Brown.

So this column is for that small group of us who call the South home (even those of you from Texas). Our time at Brown has not only solidified which brand of bourbon we enjoy best, but also given us the tools to understand how a place with such a complicated, frustrating and poorly taught cultural history can also provide us with such comfort. This is for the folks in Tennessee who told me to come to Brown and prove that Tennesseans are smart and can go on to do big things. To them, and to all of us in the class of 2016: We made it.

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  1. This registers epicly high on the condescension scale. I know the author wants to celebrate Brown and TN at the same time–but what’s the point of throwing SO much of the South under the bus with these broad-stroke subjective observations? To be oh so enlightened and oh so unwilling to nuance in prose… This piece just “signaling” to the in-group at Brown.

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