The other day I was chatting with an Uber driver and she told me that she had come to America from West Africa four years ago. When I asked her if she liked being here, she hesitated. Then she said that she is happy here now, but at first it was very hard because too often people didn’t understand what she was saying. She spoke both English and French perfectly but her accent meant that she often had to repeat herself, and listeners got frustrated when they couldn’t make sense of her words.
She gave the example of trying to buy chocolate but pronouncing it with a French accent: ‘shock-o-lah.’ The store clerk was bewildered and when he finally figured it out, he complained that she was saying it wrongly. He was so pedantic and cross about it that she never forgot the encounter.
Emigrating is disruptive in a lot of ways, chiefly in being separated from family and friends but also in feeling constantly uncertain and insecure. Even when you speak the language, it means rethinking and re-presenting yourself in a thousand different ways.
It was a big adventure for me when I immigrated to Canada. I really did not know much about Canada and I didn’t know what to expect. I only knew that my boyfriend had gone there and had written to say, “It’s OK here. You should come.” And I did.
I know it seems like a hasty decision, but at the time it made a lot of sense. England’s economy was in the doldrums in the 1970’s and, much like today, it was hard for young adults to make enough money to leave their parents’ homes. Geoff was an architectural designer and I was a high school teacher and our combined wages were not enough for us to rent a place of our own. So, we started to look abroad.
Geoff applied for a visa to Canada and I applied for a visa to the USA. I was turned down, but Geoff was accepted, and so he took off to British Columbia where he quickly got a job.
When I arrived in Vancouver I was greeted by Geoff and his aunt and uncle who welcomed me to their home. I remember when we got to their house that their children were playing outside by running through the sprinkler on the lawn. Uncle Bob asked me if I wanted to join the children by running through the sprinkler with them. I didn’t know whether or not to take him seriously, and didn’t know the polite way to respond. I was to spend the next couple of years going through similar quandaries.
Geoff and I moved to Trail, British Columbia where he had a job, and it didn’t take long for me to realize I was not going to be able to blend in easily. At first, I wondered why people looked at me when I walked down the street until I realized that I was the only woman wearing a skirt. Everyone else was wearing jeans or pants.
When we went to parties at the houses of friends and co-workers, we found that after dinner the men usually gathered in the living room while the women gathered in the kitchen. I resisted this because I was used to conversations with both men and women together, but I soon discovered that the men preferred it if I didn’t join in. I also got the strong suspicion that the women feared I was threatening their relationships by talking with their men.
When we tried to find a friendly neighborhood pub we found that family-friendly British pubs don’t really exist outside Britain. The closest we could find was a bar that served only beer and wine spritzers. I had never heard of wine spritzers but it turned out they were composed of wine mixed with 7Up. That may not be the classiest recipe, but it was how things were done in Trail. The bar tender thought it was ‘cute’ that I didn’t know this. He also thought my accent was cute, and I have been hearing that now for forty years.
My accent is from west London, and Geoff’s was from Yorkshire. As such, he had more difficulty being understood than I did. Fortunately, he was a very patient man and learned to speak more slowly and to enunciate more distinctly. Even so, it was not as easy as being with people whose ears are attuned to our pronunciations and cadences.
We learned to change a lot of behaviors and mannerisms in those first few years, and after a while the changes became second nature. I still have a British accent, but now I mostly wear jeans. I still drink wine, but now without the 7Up. Those first few years as a newcomer to a strange land were exciting, but they were also self-revealing. When you start to see yourself as others see you, it isn’t always easy to accept that maybe some things have to change.
Many immigrants, after a few years in a new country, take a thousand-dollar gamble when they take a trip back to the old one. It’s a way to check to see if you made the right decision, and it’s also a way to remind yourself that you aren’t an alien everywhere. Somewhere, there are people who understand you without any effort at all, and that means a lot.