As the eight of us enrolled in the public-speaking class introduced ourselves, I realized that we represented an almost perfect snapshot of this so-called New South. A couple of us grew up here, a couple in the Northeast. One person moved here during high school, with his dad's job transfer. Someone was from India, another from China.
The pace of growth in North Carolina over the past few decades has been rapid enough to cause whiplash for the natives. Between 2000 and 2010, we were the fastest-growing state in the Southeast, with an 18.5 percent population increase. In Tony Earley's brilliant short story "Charlotte," the narrator reminds us, "We have to think about the things that are true: Everyone in Charlotte is from somewhere else."
Some days, it seems that the same holds in the Triangle. It's now possible to shop at a Polish grocery store in RTP after sitting down to an authentic Southern Indian lunch in Cary. But it also means at times that it's easy to forget how much this region of the world has changed. When I was a kid, there was no such thing as a pasta section in the local Winn-Dixie; there was just elbow macaroni and spaghetti. Sometimes, when gazing upon the selection of quinoa and fusilli and textured vegetable protein at any of the five area Whole Foods stores, the disconnect stuns me.
I'm of two minds about all this growth: I love it, and it's partly why I returned home to North Carolina after fleeing in a U-Haul bound for Manhattan before the ink on my Tar Heel diploma was dry. I detest it, too, because I often get fed up with the wishes and the whines—"If we only had a BLANK like we did in BLANK!" For years, that first slot was filled with "Trader Joe's," but at least we've met that necessary human need.
Something funny happened to my fed-up self, though, during the three days of that intense public-speaking class. The instructor coached, videotaped and counted our "ums" and "ahs" to an exacting and painful degree. A real camaraderie developed among the classmates almost instantly. The man who had grown up in China took the class in preparation for a paper he's to give at a big conference next month. He started the first day clearly nervous, looking skyward and shifting from foot to foot. But by the third day of class he had transformed—confident, funny, looking us each in the eye.
He talked about small things and gave them meaning, like how he teaches chess at a local Chinese school and how he marvels at being able to go to the grocery store and buy Häagen-Dazs. That was unfathomable back home.
He was from somewhere else, but his quiet stories about how he had come to love this place helped me understand that, for as disruptive as it feels sometimes, the growth of this area has given us the rare opportunity to see anything—even ice cream—through a new set of eyes.