This piece of mine first appeared on Stoner’s Journal:
“Where are you from?” “WHERE are you from!?”
Where am I from…two places, really, but I have a feeling I already know the one you want me to identify, so I will answer that way. You might wonder how such a simple question could be so incredibly loaded. Well, this isn’t really the question I am being asked, you see.
“Where are you FROM?” (Asked with an at-best-rather-thinly-veiled-expression-of-dismay-bordering-on-disgust)
“Bulgaria. But I have lived in the United States for the last 24 years.”
“Wow. Your accent is SO strong and heavy.”
“Where are you from?”
“No, but where are you REALLY from?”
Ok, let’s parse this out.
“I can’t be languid about my linguistics; I don’t get to be detached from my discourse.
My accent could be described as droll, charming, different, or interesting. Or, it could be a signal of A. a general stupidity and/or ineptitude, or B. an inability to adapt and make myself more socially acceptable and, therefore, palatable to your sensibilities. Let’s talk about A. The incongruity of this will not escape you: I teach GRE test prep at an university. My vocabulary, factually-speaking, is probably far wider than that of most “native” speakers. I have no issues comprehending or speaking English. Yet, as soon as I open my mouth, I am waging a tacit battle against so many assumptions: that I am somehow intellectually-deficient, that I am only here to visit for a short while and couldn’t possibly live here, that I just got here, and am soon to return “home.” At the very least, it forces me to engage–to make excuses, to explain, to expound, to prove, to dispel, to educate, to elucidate, to open hearts and minds. Casual banter becomes…well, not quite so casual.
I can’t be languid about my linguistics; I don’t get to be detached from my discourse.
I sometimes wonder how the people who say, “But your accent is SO strong,” expect me to respond. I am not sure there is a retort to this. Is there? “Ehm, I am sorry, I guess…”
This, of course, is about something much bigger than my accent. I first came to U.S. when I was twelve. I would sit in class, unable to raise my hand or speak. The words were lodged into my throat…It felt like the only way they would come out was if you turned me upside down and shook them out of me. They probably would have landed like marbles on the floor, enunciating their landing one by one. I remember my utter dismay when, after the first test I took (in geography, funnily enough), the teacher announced “Only one person got a 100 on this test and she hasn’t even been here as long as all of you have.” Even more amusingly, I later won the award for the best student in U.S. history during high school.
I digress–what I’m really saying here is that my accent is merely the manifestation of something bigger. It’s both the cause and the reminder of my general alie-nation. “I’m cut off from the main line, like a disconnected modem.” You see, my own words are foreign to me. When I speak and hear the accent, I feel divorced from *me.* Because the words certainly don’t sound accented in my head. Mostly, I feel like I am talking to people through a plexiglass window. There is a disconnect. Sometimes literally. I am constantly made aware of it as soon as I begin speaking, laden with–and beset by–assumptions.