6 Tips for Anyone Who May Be Moving to Appalachia

PHOTO: Making apple butter in 1981, courtesy of Mennonite Church USA Archives
PHOTO: Making apple butter in 1981, courtesy of Mennonite Church USA Archives

Moving anywhere new is never an easy task, especially when one’s new home is someplace that features a culture vastly different than anything they’ve ever seen before.

From having lived in central Appalachia for most of my life, as well as having spent multiple spans away from the mountains of home, I have been blessed with an opportunity to observe many things that make us different as a region.

Over the course of my life, I have heard countless new pastors, doctors, entrepreneurs and ordinary people who have moved to our Appalachian community throw their hands up in frustration a year or two into their residency and exclaim, “This is the oddest, most difficult place to understand I’ve ever lived…”

Though my knee-jerk reaction is to be filled with good o’le fashioned, redneck-mountain rage, at these “damned Yankees” and I’ve often had to bite my tongue to refrain from saying, “Well then why don’t you just move back to…”, the reality is that they are accurate: The mountains of central Appalachia are home to unique customs and peoples and the truth of the matter is that though the Internet abounds with memes with a theme of “love it or leave it”, I’ve never come across any true and helpful guide for someone sincerely interested in being a good Appalachian neighbor, so here’s my attempt at doing just this…

6 Tips for Anyone Who May Be Moving to Appalachia

I. All the stereotypes are wrong…
Here’s a little secret: The media can’t always be trusted.  For two centuries, American media has been falsely portraying the people of the mountains and this prejudice hasn’t slowed a single bit.

Nearly all the articles published by the big New York media outlets either portray Appalachia as being a hellhole where everyone lives in poverty, suffers from diabetes and black lung, and spends every weekend attending Trump rallies.  This is wrong, but so too are the articles you’ve read that presents Appalachia as a kayaking playground where drinking craft beer and camping are the only things to do…  Both of these stereotypes are shallow and not based in reality. Don’t come here expecting a hellhole or a playground, it’s a real place where real people live. Like everywhere else you’ve ever lived, real life happens here, too.

II. Do not confuse dialect with intellect…
Just because a person you overheard talking at the grocery store pronounced “wash” as “warsh” or called a tomato a “mater” does not mean for a moment that your intellect is superior than his or hers.  Dialect is a fascinating thing and even harder to shake. If you’d never dream in a million years of making fun of an Asian-American’s accent, or a Mexican-American’s pronunciation, then you certainly owe it to your new found Appalachian-American neighbors to offer this same human courtesy — you might be surprised to discover that the unassuming little lady who just asked for a “sweeeet teeeee” holds a Phd.

III. You will alienate people by pronouncing “App-ah-LAY-sha”…
While we’re on the subject of language, I’m going to put this to you straight: You will be secretly detested and distrusted by everyone you meet until you lose the habit of saying “App-ah-LAY-sha”.  I’m not writing this to be funny or to begrudge you, I’m saying this with 100% sincerity.

Blame it on the Scottish ancestry, the state governments hundreds of miles away, coal barons in distant lands, or some other culprit, but there is a true “us vs. them” mentality in these here hills and when you say “Lay-sha” you are unknowingly declaring to everyone within earshot, “I’m with them”.

Trivial? Yes. But you’ll make a heck of a lot more friends the very moment you start pronouncing it like you’re one of us.  This is no joke, the people here will overlook other differing pronunciations, but this one sends and immediate red flag to everyone in the room.

IV. Respect property rights…
If your neighbor has a small block Chevy engine hanging from the giant oak in his front yard and chickens in his back yard, wave as you drive by and mind your own business.

The folks who live in the country do so on purpose — so that they can do precisely what they’ve been doing their entire life. Long before you ever arrived.

You moved away from wherever you came from, never forget this.  We didn’t show up in your neighborhood, you came to ours. Nothing will get you more hated more quickly than trying to run your neighbor’s property.

The bottom line is this: If you don’t pay taxes on it or the bank for it, it’s none of your business. If you share this mentality, you’ll be loved here. If you don’t, you should just move back now!

V. Expect to be an outsider at first…
Most of the people in your new community have lived there their entire lives and the network of people in their lives date back to childhood on church pews, high school football fields and forty years together at the local factory — so yes, naturally, you will not be immediately received on the same level footing as so many others.

It will take years to overcome this, but you do it by getting active and involved in the community and begin building relationships the same way everyone else has done: One on one, one day at a time.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and you will not be accepted in a day.  Becoming an Appalachian-American will take years to achieve, but after earning this title, you will ours for life and we will fight on your behalf until our dying breath.

Just be nice, respectful, involved and patient in the meantime.

VI. Yes, some things will irritate you to no end…
Inevitably, you will find yourself being irritated about something Appalachian and it will be our fault.  It may be the pronunciations of certain words, an “outdated way of thinking” or something entirely different.

When these moments arise, you must realize that in life there are certain things that you will not be able to change and when it comes to unweaving the fabric of Appalachia, far greater folks than you have attempted this already, but to no avail.

If you can live with these irritations, then feign a smile and thank God to be living among some of the most wonderful people on the planet.  If you can’t live with these irritations, then for your own self-health, move.  No one wants to be miserable and we’re not changing anytime soon.

I sincerely hope these six tips better help you understand the region and people we love so dearly.

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