I still say “y’all,” though I left Texas over twenty years ago. When I say it my voice grows softer, my cadence slows to a light drawl, like I’m slathering frosting across a hummingbird cake.
Y’all , to many people, is the parlance of strolling cowboys tipping their hats and Southern belles with meringue-sweet lilts, not a Filipina-Italian woman like me. My use of it is a choice that has become a habit. The other day I used it on people visiting from the Texas office, and my boss, who knew I thought of myself as more of a New Yorker, called me out on this cultural double-dip. “Look at you,” she teased, “with that y’all .”
I had broken it out as a kinship thing, an “I’m one of you” to others that hailed from the Great State. My y’all had little effect; we didn’t immediately debate UT versus A&M or share cooking recipes that feature Dr. Pepper. Maybe they didn’t buy my overture. Maybe they were confused transplants, just like me.
Describing exactly where I’m from in Texas takes time. The most frustrating conversations I have these days are with people from the East or West Coast who have just returned from Austin, that southern Xanadu where BBQ, Democrats, and Texans coexist. They ask if I am from there, and if not, then perhaps Houston or Dallas or San Antonio?
“No, the other Texas,” I reply. It’s like tracking a lesser, almost invisible star that appears close by but lies hundreds of light-years away. “I’m from Orange, a small town in Southeast Texas on the border between Texas and Louisiana. About an hour and a half from Houston and Galveston. You know Janis Joplin? I grew up near her hometown.”
They nod silently, and I start to make snap judgments about them based on the snap judgments I imagine in their heads. Sadly, I realize, my attitude toward non-Texans is not entirely dissimilar from the us-versus-them stance that made me feel like an outsider when I lived in the state myself. I wonder if I even have a right to this grand defense of small Southern towns, as I bailed on mine as soon as I could.
Expat Texans, Texan Democrats—all us Texan “others”—have a complicated relationship with our home state. We don’t so much vacillate between love and hate as dwell in a purgatorial confusion of bluebonnets, great Lone Star myths, and George H. W. Bush. When encountering one another outside our home state, we greet each other warmly, but I can never decide if we are intimate members of a special club or fellow escapees. We share the burden of interpreting Texas for the rest of the America, explaining everything from chicken-fried chicken to “Don’t Mess with Texas” to the statewide obsession with guns.
No one walked that fine tightrope between celebrating and critiquing the state better than the liberal Dallas columnist Molly Ivins, as if knowing in her bemused coverage of conservative state politicians that the road to hell is paved with a damn good time. “I love the state of Texas,” Ms. Ivins once explained, “but I regard that as a harmless perversion on my part and would not, in the name of common humanity, try to foist my pathology off on anyone else.”
Hate the politics, not always the person: It’s a good rule to follow in a state where you cannot despise the person who listens to Sean Hannity on the radio as passionately as you would like, because it is your father-in-law or your third-grade teacher or your childhood friend or your next-door neighbor, who babysits your daughter.
I was only a year old when my parents left their second-floor apartment in Yonkers, New York for Orange, Texas, where my father believed he could carve out a better living. “We’ll only move down there for five years,” he reassured my mother. They stayed for thirty-four.
Towns like Orange are what make up most of the state: one-Walmart towns; cities that disappear into the rolling plains of Central Texas, the pine-studded bayous of the Gulf Coast, and the flatlands of the West; towns that appear like a mirage after driving so many hours through the state, or in the case of Orange, as another convenient filling station off the highway. My family never fit in here. We didn’t rally at the big high school game on Friday night, though that and the annual gumbo cook-off were the city’s biggest events. None of us drove pickup trucks or knew how to hunt or fish, and we were the only family on the block that didn’t own a handgun or hunting rifle.
Most importantly, we weren’t from there. My father was the firstborn of an Italian-American, blue-collar family from Yonkers; my mother, a Filipina doctor from Manila. When they first moved here they tried their best to adapt, my father purchasing a pair of cowboy boots made for a tall Texan to wear under a pair of tight Wranglers, not for a roly-poly, five-foot-four New Yorker. My father never lost his Yonkers accent; he referred to my female friends as “dolls” and always sounded like he’d been ripped from a Neil Simon play with lemon ices and hairy-backed men in white undershirts. What I never imagined, when I heard my father speak, was a cowboy. He decided the boots were too pointy for him. He kept the leather belts and the wallet one of his elderly patients had made him, with “Dr. Zappie” hand-tooled on the front.
My mother never adopted the Texan twang, nor does she have any Filipinx inflections—unless talking to relatives back home, she speaks with the accent-wiped voice of a newscaster. Picking and choosing what she wanted from the area like it was a big buffet line at Luby’s, my mother learned how to make quick versions of Cajun specialties like crawfish etouffee, sidestepped the Southern fascination with all foods deep-fried, decorated her house with bamboo furniture and tapestries from the Philippines, and found a Vietnamese grocery in Port Arthur to buy imported water chestnuts. Though she never took to teasing her hair out big, she developed an insatiable addiction to Navajo jewelry, bearing a striking figure in her hefty turquoise necklaces and silver dangling earrings that she paired with tank tops, wildly printed skirts, and wide ’80s leather belts in a rainbow of colors. She piled on clothes from every country like a shopping-obsessed Sherpa, and it was hard to identify her background—Asian? Mexican? Indian? The guesses changed daily.
If my parents didn’t quite mesh culturally or visually, the political and religious leanings of the area suited them just fine. More conservative than their siblings and as devout as the most Catholic Cajun, they somehow found, in a town like Orange where there was not even a mall, both a Catholic grade school and junior high to enroll my two sisters and me in—and then, lo and behold, a Catholic high school just a half-hour away, in Beaumont. In my grade school class of about twelve kids, only two or three of us weren’t second cousins: me, the black girl, and one random white girl.
Never in my life did I feel more brown than when I lived in Texas; “brown” was what they wrote on my little sister’s Beaumont birth certificate: Father: White; Mother: Brown. I was never the victim of a hate crime; it was more an aggregation of little incidences: other children chanting the rhyme “Chinese Dirty Knees” at me and my Filipinx friends; my father complaining that some physicians would rather send their patients to white male doctors than to my mother; that kid in high school who asked me, “What the fuck are you, anyway?” There were few interracial couples in my high school and in my town, which pointed to a creeping, unspoken belief that white goes with white. I noticed how certain white families’ names in Orange and Beaumont matched the names of city streets, prominent buildings, and the movie theater: The UA Phelan. Broussard’s Funeral Home. Families grow their roots down deep in these Texas towns, and you begin to believe that they are the rightful owners.
Filled with doctors’ and lawyers’ kids, my high school in Beaumont might have been your average preppy school in the Northeast, but here preppy translated to a strange filtering of the J. Crew catalogue through Texan sensibilities: Boys paired cowboy boots with chinos and drove Mercedes-Benzes or two-seater pickup trucks with the wheels jacked; girls favored big hair bows, shiny red cowboy boots called Red Ropers, and a year-round tan courtesy of the local salon. Kids camped out for the Garth Brooks concert and U2’s Zooropa tour, and both Pearl Jam and the “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” played at our dances, dances with themes like “Howdy Doody Hosses” or “Puttin’ on the Dawg.” The most popular guys in school had names like Ford or Jo Ben, or bore a striking resemblance to the Marlboro Man. The most popular girls in school vied to be pageant queen of the annual Neches River Festival; the king, chosen from established leaders of the community, was around forty-plus years older. Known as much for her virtue as her beauty, the prettiest girl in my class rarely spoke ill of anyone, and when she presented at Neches River Festival as a debutante, she performed the famous Texas Dip without injury, her head almost, but never quite, touching the floor.
High school was also where I met some of my greatest feminist heroes. “It is my belief that it is the virulence of Texas sexism,” Ivins wrote, “that accounts for the strength of Texas women.” I think of my friend Amber, the only self-proclaimed feminist in our school where feminism felt like a dirty word. Amber was vocal about how the men’s sports teams received new uniforms every year, while she and the other women basketball players had to accept old ones. When the cheerleaders brought the men’s sports teams catered lunches on game days, she would step in the line to protest, waiting for the cheerleaders to turn her down.
My best friend was a large black girl from the other side of town named Cheryl who started freshman year wearing a billboard to announce her candidacy for class president. Before I even knew Cheryl , I knew of Cheryl, from the whispers in the cafeteria about “ that girl, you know, the one who wanted to try out for the football team?” Women do not try out for the football team; they cheer alongside them. I would have eaten lunch in the cafeteria with Cheryl, but she disappeared when the lunch bell rang. We all had our ways of escaping.
I had dreamt of moving to New York ever since I was a kid, when my family would visit my grandparents’ house in nearby Yonkers and my sisters and I would try to find any excuse—a Broadway play, a museum exhibit—to head into the city. I saw the city like so many other frustrated teenagers do: as a salve for everything that came before.
At seventeen, I left Texas for college in Philadelphia and then moved to New York after graduation. Whenever someone on the East Coast said to me, “I would never take you for someone from Texas,” I took it to mean that hailing from Texas could not be a good thing, and by some bizarre application of the transitive property this was a compliment for me and an insult to my home state. It also felt like complete vindication for my younger self, the me that was never asked to a high school party.
When I moved to New York I wanted it both ways: to be better than where I came from, and yet to use it as a way to distinguish myself. In America we may not all dream of living in dead-end Southern towns, but how we love to mythologize them; ours is an endless fascination with the far corners of America in all its Bible-thumping mystery. Who knows what kind of strange lies in those crop fields, in those swampy bayous?
As a Texan or ex-Texan, it is easy to get caught up in this mythology and to perpetuate it. Our stories come toppling forth, one after another, until Texas sounds like a caricature of itself. When people used to ask where I was from, sometimes I even went smaller and told them I was from Orange instead of Beaumont, as I spent half my youth in each town. Five stoplights were too many; I wished I had lived where there were only three. Having a mall made Beaumont seem too cosmopolitan; better to say I was only from Orange, where it took us years to score that Walmart.
Here I was, building this grand backstory, when in fact I had never experienced the true dead end of a dead-end town. I was always just a long-term visitor, with an exit plan at a private Northeast college funded by physician parents.
It was only after leaving small-town Texas that I realized I hated living there, but loved having lived there. For someone who spent so much time dreaming up ways to flee, I became, and continue to fancy myself, a self-anointed judge on all things Lone Star, weighing James Van Der Beek’s sad attempt at a Texan accent against the nasal, clipped, and high-pitched perfection of J. R. Ewing’s. My friends’ raves about the Texas-based TV show Friday Night Lights never go on for long before I interject, “But why does everyone look like they’re from LA?” After seventeen years in Texas, I somehow feel it is my right to weigh in on what real fajitas taste like, real country versus alt country (corollary: why alt country is unacceptable), how a pair of cowboy boots must be worn with skin-tight jeans instead of loose-fitting pants, what a true Western shirt looks like, and the proper way to pronounce New Orleans.
I recently attended a gallery show in my current city of Seattle, where I ended up talking to a young man who worked for an oil company around Galveston. When I offhandedly mentioned that Texas is pretty racist, he took offense—he had met a lot of great people since moving down there, he told me. This irritated the hell out of me, because this guy had grown up in the Pacific Northwest and had only lived in Texas for a few years, and also his experiences as a young white man must have been different than mine as a half-Asian woman.
Still, I felt bad, as deeming a whole state racist is not fair to the good people who do live there, so I walked back up to him. “Sorry. I just had some bad experiences growing up, you know?”
He turned to me and said, “We all have.”
Was the discomfort I felt my fault? Was it his? The encounter left me feeling the way I often had when I lived in Texas. I remember looking down at the floor, angry and ashamed at the same time, and noticing how close his foot was to mine. I wanted to step on it right then and there and grind it into the floor. Just a little gift from one Texan to another, y’all.