I like moving. I find the excitement at the thought of exploring of a new country, a new culture, a new language stimulating. My curiosity, never far below the surface, swoops up and all things become wondrous again. You know that feeling, when a pattern on a calabash or the design on a pair of crocodile cowboy boots intrigues you enough to start asking questions?
That is when complications arise, asking questions in a new language. Even when it’s English.
Where you from? Asked a rather intimidating African American woman the other day when I was on the Metro. Not here, she accused me.
No, I answered, a bit north and a bit east of Houston, but I’m working on my accent. To her credit she laughed. I am a global nomad. I have been all my life. For ease, even though I left when I was a month old, I normally answer London.
One of my myriad of jobs was to provide intercultural awareness training to executives and their spouses about to embark on the nomadic trail, I also talk ‘on living a global life’ at various venues.
How do I grab their attention from the beginning? I asked my husband when I first started, he being far more used to public speaking than I.
All you have to remember, he replied, is not to say anything important for the first few minutes. They won’t hear a word you’re saying.
Why not? I asked.
Because your audience is too busy wondering where you’re from?
His advice was good. I sound normal to me and speak with an English accent tinged with ‘Strine (Australian). But my normal may not be someone else’s normal – a bit like everything I suppose.
On learning the rudiments of a new language I head straight for the cognates – you know the ones that sound similar in both languages, like irritable, though maybe that’s not a very positive word to choose. It’s amazing how many words are similar.
But fixin’ to learn Texan, oh my! Dang, that’s whole new enchillada and is enough to make you dog tard. Some of those Texan phrases are just bass ackwards, and if you happen to be the only non-Texan speaker around you can find yawn yoan.
I have some dear Texan friends who every now and then mess wid me passel. I have learned not to let them rile me and to just drink another long neck or soda. But I’ve lived here for six years now and I forget I don’t sound Texan. My American friends mostly understand me so I’m constantly surprised when others don’t, or when I’m shoved to the front of some debate to settle the score or ease the way.
This happened yesterday over a moderately contentious issue when it was suggested I go to the protagonist and quietly convince him to stay on board the Board.
Why me? I asked.
Well you’ve both go accents. He’ll listen to you. I was told.
The gentleman in question is a Frenchman. We couldn’t sound more dissimilar if we tried, and yet to our American friends and colleagues we sound the same. We have an accent and it ain’t from round here.
As well as cognates I learn the numbers of my new language in the vague hopes I wont be cheated in the local market if I can at least understand how much I’m being asked to hand over. I like to think I trust people, but sticking my hand out with a wadge of moola is a big temptation for the most honest man.
Moving to Thailand was challenging – the Land of Smiles being the first country I had lived in whose script was indecipherable. It was particularly noticeable the first Sunday I was there. Having been left high and dry with an infant when my husband went away on business (in Texan that would be awl biness), I decided I had to pluck up courage and face the Bangkok traffic, which in those days was horrendous. I buckled the baby into a borrowed car seat and got behind the wheel. All went reasonably well until I realized I had been concentrating so much on the cars, buses, trucks, bikes and tuk-tuks swerving around me that I had lost track of where I was. It was then the inability to read any road sign or say more than a cursory sawahdee kah really slammed home.
I signed up for language classes the next day.
I didn’t think I would have to do that here in Texas. I’ve learnt my cognates, I’m pretty good on numbers, or so I thought. So how come whenever I say two Americans think I’m saying three? Now that really is bass ackwards, is all.
So now when I’m fixin to give a talk, the first couple of sentences are inane utterances that answer that incredibly difficult question for a global nomad, where you from?