Monday, February 23, 2009

"Do I Detect an American Accent?"

It's more about me than about New Zealanders. But I've written this so many times it seems I've memorized it, more or less. Chalk it down to another identity crisis and anxiety, rather than anger. I mean it to be funny.

* * * * *

When I meet people for the first time in New Zealand, in a friendly, casual setting (say, a friend’s birthday party), I almost hold my breath and count the seconds from the time I’m introduced to the stranger till he or she pauses meaningfully and makes what’s become the most boring Kiwi greeting; “Do I detect an American accent?” Never a North American accent, mind.

You bet; almost 100% pure, standard, Mid-Western speech broadcasters around America once strove for, free of charge. And you don’t detect it; you’re bombarded with it, by me, an Asian… Hello, my name is Meg and I will be your sociolinguistic anomaly for the evening…

For some folks, it’s the only notable thing about me; never mind they can’t remember my name, I’m Asian, so I must be May… But she speaks with an American accent.

The question can also be disguised in different ways: “Where are you really from?” “Nelson” and “Tokyo” don't cut it, notwithstanding the fact that in most Asian countries, English taught in schools is of the North American variety.

I like the few people who have made the effort to come up with “Are you Hawaiian?” There are Asian-Americans all over the continent, having lived there for three, four and five generations, but never mind, you gave it your best shot to bridge the geographical/ethnic chasm.

But why are you so concerned with the way I speak? Do you ask others with noticeable accents, “Do I understand you’re from the wop-wops?” or declare, “You speak like a moron.” And would you ask me if I were, let's face it, a white girl, or would you just assume?… I don’t have a problem if your interest is genuine, and I got my geographical history down to a 90-second spiel for your amusement, but the inquisitors are usually uninterested in the answer. It's a statement in disguise. They seldom give me the 90 seconds before walking away, so I’m been answering, “Yes.”

What more do you want? I’m sorry for Pearl Harbor and POWs; I’m sorry whaling, our stupid manga, and the electronic industry. I'm sorry for the used cars and the bus tours. I’m sorry I’m short, fat and loud. But guess what? Between Bill Gates, the Internet and Hollywood, your grandkids are gonna sound more like me than you, so get used to it. …

Here, have a cookie.

* * * * *

In 2001, during an announcement on board a Fullers Ferry to Rangitoto Island, Auckland, I first heard the word "cookie" being used by a Kiwi; "biscuit" or "bickie" is still the norm, though one does hear "cookie" more frequently of late. You can tell I started writing this much earlier than 2001, and how startled I was to hear the word in Auckland. By then we had been living in Nelson for five years.

17 comments:

  1. I live in a neighborhood with a lot of immigrants. In fact, the Swedes are in minority. Lots of Muslims, and lots of Somalis. And very lot of roamers how dangerous it is here.

    But of course, if I meet someone for the first time, none would say anything about it. Just look at me in a peculiar way (why do you live there? Its cheap).

    ReplyDelete
  2. I wonder if I'm trying to find or create a box into which I can conveniently be slotted...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Too funny. I grew up in the Midwest of the US but have lived most of my life in the south. My northern relatives all laugh at my "southern" accent, while every southerner I've ever met always nails me with "you're not from around here, are you." Just can't win in the accent department.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Too right, Leigh. But now my Minnesotan buddies say I sound very much "downunder". I thought it was only my vocabulary, but no, I use some of the Kiwi consonants!!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Meg I get the "Oh are you Australian" or "Where is your accent from?" all the bloody time over here. I think that for most people they just don't know what else to say to new people.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Tracey, probably time for me to stop being so paranoid, then...

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think it's just a way to open a conversation, Meg. Just like remarking on the weahter or asking "what work do you do?". I find that in my case, the real answer to the latter tends to scare people so I use a single, deliberately vague job title which satisfies those who are only asking out of form. The few who are actually interested ask more questions.

    I can understand how this would bother you, especially if you're searching for a sense of place. Because I have a very soft, non-region-specific accent with traces of both Australia and NZ I used to be asked where I was from all the time, particularly back in my home country. People would ask how long I'd been in Australia and be astounded when I'd tell them "five generations". I'd often not be believed.

    I'm asked more rarely here, and people tend to tentatively inquire as to whether "I might be Antipodean?" when they do.

    ReplyDelete
  8. My dh used to travel to Japan quite often for work (US, midwest, auto companies). During meetings, interpreters were necessary.

    He came home from one trip with a story of a Japanese woman who translated to English with a Scots accent. Turns out her English language instructor was from Scotland. The interpreter had never been to Scotland.

    So you never know. But it's the only story he ever came home with regarding an interpreter.

    I grew up in the Pittsburgh area, have lived in the Detroit area for over 30 years. I still get the occasional, "You're not from around here, are you?"

    ReplyDelete
  9. Geodyne, it gets tiring after living here 10+ years, I guess. Not to mention shopkeepers and taxi drivers and plumbers and so on and so on. I never happened in Minnesota - but then of course I was speaking more or less Minnesotan, albeit as a foreigner.

    Valerie, my primary English teacher was an Irish nun from Cork who had lived in Japan 20+ years by then. I still can't recall any trace of Irish accent from her, though, in the way one does from television or Irish persons from Dublin. I know nothing about Irish regional differences, though.

    ReplyDelete
  10. And in school, we learn HEAPS of Scottish and Irish folks songs. Back in my days, almost as many as Japanese songs.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm being accused around hereof being the catalyst for your current crisis, but I'm convinced that my only comments referred to your being mildly vertically challenged....

    ReplyDelete
  12. That's right, JB, you only keep hammering about my undertallness :-> This thing predates you by about... a decade. Exonerated!!

    ReplyDelete
  13. For myself, I will often ask people where they are from when I hear a different accent - having lived in Australia for 6 years and then China for 10 years. Its simple curiosity - seeing a flower in the midst of a field of grass. When I lived in in Australia people always commented on my Californian accent -- and when I lived in China, well, no way to disappear...just about everyday comments about being foreign (usually curious and friendly, once in a great while hostile), and in the very remote countryside areas, people sometimes surmised I was Japanese (my grandparents were norwegian, swedish and Saami), or that i was once a local and left to some faraway place and came back changed. It's just a people thing -- noting differences. Most with a good heart, some with room for improvement......

    ReplyDelete
  14. Well, I do get sick of it, Gail. That is the truth. But then Dictionary.com's word of the day today is... "hidebound". There you go.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Don't worry Meg I am from the UK and have been living in Wellington for twelve year's and nearly every day a shopkeeper, stranger on the street etc. asks, 'Where are you from'. They also assume I'm a tourist - and always respond with a shocked look when I tell them how long I've lived here.

    Quite often it's just a conversation opener. People don't mean any harm, they are just curious. I have to admit to asking the same question - but I never 'assume' I normally say, 'I hope you don't mind me asking, but where are you from?'. I even ask fellow Brits - as the local accents vary so much and I'm always pleased to meet a fellow Brit.

    On a side note - we've just spent a wonderful week's holiday in Nelson - wow - it is so gorgeous!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Well, Sarah, if you're a Brit in Welly and it happens, I guess I have no hope. I might carry a beautifully handwoven bag with holes for eyes and every time someone asks, I'll just pull it over my head? However, Kiwis don't preface the question, do they? And because I'm such an anomaly, I have evidently-non-Kiwis ask me the same, too. It's never ending...

    ReplyDelete
  17. And I'm glad you enjoyed Nelson. It's gotten cooler since yesterday, but last week was varied and interesting!

    ReplyDelete

I love comments. Thank you for taking the time!