Sweet home Alabama

Sweet Home Alabama: My first time in the South

This April, I spent 5 days in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The official reason for the trip was work; as part of the Google APM program, we visited to see how Google’s technology could make an impact in disaster-affected regions. On a personal level, however, I found myself surprised at many things that I learned while I was there, and I wanted to share my observations about the history, culture, and people of the region.

With a population of just under 100,000, Tuscaloosa has about the same population as San Jose, CA or Cambridge, MA, but it feels like a very small town. Things are spaced far apart from each other, and it’s never a struggle to find parking — even in downtown.

On April 27th, 2011, around 12% of all the structures in Tuscaloosa were either damaged or destroyed by a violent tornado. The tornado left over 70 dead and over 1500 injured. Even today, near the 4th anniversary of the event, the tornado is fresh in many people’s minds. Often times, the event is used as a demarcation — many people would tell stories from “before the tornado” or “after the tornado”.

I was surprised to find that there are no direct flights from San Francisco to anywhere in Alabama. To get there, we first flew to Houston and then took a tiny plane to Birmingham. This plane only had 3 seats in each row, and it was so small that some passengers were asked to move from the front seats to a row in the back to balance the weight!

Alabama: where the planes are not much bigger than the trucks

On the plus side, the Birmingham airport had the shortest lines I’ve ever seen.

My kind of security line

Once we had arrived, the fun began.

Four years after the tornado, Tuscaloosa is still rebuilding. We spent two days volunteering with Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild homes for those who were displaced. I was surprised to find that even today, the destruction caused by the tornado can be felt. The site that we worked on was located directly on the path of the tornado — working on it left us with a great sense of pride and connection with the community.

Our group with the site volunteers

I was impressed by the dedication to service that the folks at Habitat had. Many of them dedicated their lives to helping the underprivileged population of Tuscaloosa. It was clear that they truly loved their community, and took a lot of pride in their work.

I learn how to drill concrete!

While extremely large and violent tornadoes are uncommon in Alabama, smaller ones occur with frequency. Because of this, many department stores carry a storm shelter that you can buy for your property.

Try finding this thing in California!

I was so excited to try “Southern comfort food” and it did not disappoint.

Sweet tea, pancakes, BBQ chicken, and collard greens

I didn’t realize before that pancakes and sweet tea are a big thing. We found a way to eat them with nearly every meal.

At least there is some green stuff…

BBQ was also huge. Alabama is definitely not a vegetarian-friendly place.

I’ve always read about “Southern hospitality,” and it was not until I visited that I realized how truly amazing it is. The people in Tuscaloosa were the most friendly that I have ever met — they were very warm and openly shared their stories. I am very grateful for the hospitality that we were shown.

In terms of style, many young women in Alabama had a peculiar look — short shorts with a t-shirt large enough that it looks like they aren’t wearing pants. I’m a totally creepy for taking this picture, but I just had to share. I have never seen this — can’t say I hate it though.

Girls wearing a large T with short shorts — this was everywhere!

For some reason, I had an impression that folks in the South preferred things the “old-fashioned way” and were not as open to embracing new technology. When I first learned that Uber was banned in Tuscaloosa, I felt initially critical towards the city government.

However, I learned that many folks were very progressive-minded. Leadership at the city level and at the University of Alabama were all working towards integrating technology and business. When we met with Mayor Walter Maddox and heard him explain the complex issues involved between the city and Uber, I felt my criticism shift towards the “disruptive” attitude of Silicon Valley’s cowboys. See this video by Mayor Maddox — it is just impossible to dislike the guy!

Mayor Maddox explains why Uber does not exist in Tuscaloosa

Although jazz traces its beginnings to the African American communities in New Orleans, it has its place in Alabama’s culture as well. We were lucky enough to experience great music at the local bar scene in Tuscaloosa.

Of course, no post about Tuscaloosa would be complete without a section on the University of Alabama. The Crimson Tide, with their elephant mascot Big Al, are known for their football and the famous chant, “Roll Tide, Roll!” I learned that the Alabama fans will chant this whenever “Sweet Home Alabama” is played — see this clip for a tutorial:

I think Harvard students should naturally be supporters of the Crimson Tide, as we share our color anyways ☺

Fraternities are a huge part of students’ lives. Unlike Harvard, fraternities are not just party spaces, but huge mansions where students live.

The fraternities were on another level here…

Football was equally important. We attended A-Day, which was essentially a pre-season scrimmage, but still thousands of folks showed up for the game.

Roll Tide!

Most students who attend the University of Alabama are from in-state, and after graduation, most students tend to stay in Alabama. Because of this, I didn’t notice as much diversity in the student population. For better or worse, I don’t remember seeing a single Asian student as we walked around campus. Though I have a hard time imagining myself attending school there, I found the university itself very beautiful.

I had an amazing time in Alabama and I miss the warm personalities and the delicious food already. I can’t wait for another chance to visit. Roll tide!!!

Sam and I cheer on the Crimson tide
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