Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Lots of Lessons

I still find myself steaming after my encounter with company number three’s representative.
Reluctantly I am beginning to acknowledge that it was his attitude when asking me about my nationality and accent that have upset me the most. You see, he touched a nerve.

When I came to England in the late 1980’s and met G, it didn’t take me very long to realise that England was the place I wanted to make my home. My reasons for this included, but were not exclusive to, the fact that G lived here. Anyway, I believe that in most cases, if someone chooses to make a new country their home, they ought to feel the sense of belonging that comes from being a citizen of that country. The paperwork I used to come to England all those years ago meant that after five years of residency, I could apply to be naturalized. Although many people accused me otherwise, marrying G didn’t hurry the process along at all. In fact, when I did apply for naturalization it was based entirely on my time of residency, and not on our marriage. For those who did accuse me of marrying for a passport I think sixteen years of marriage – and the renewal of our vows at our tenth wedding anniversary – probably did a good job of proving them wrong.

Anyway, during those first five years, I desperately wanted to be a citizen. I also desperately wanted to fit in. Although being “the Canadian girl” really helped me to be remembered and was a great thing when one is a “temp” or “Kelly girl”, it was also a huge burden. What if people were judging all Canadians based on my behaviour? And sometimes being different was the last thing I wanted. So I cultivated a British accent, picked up as much vernacular as I could, and tried to blend in. Please don’t misunderstand, I was very proud of being Canadian, but as I had chosen to make my home somewhere else, I really wanted to belong there. But despite all my efforts after two years of working in Soho, everyone from shop keepers to new acquaintances were still asking me the dreaded “where are you from?”. They would always look at me incredulously when I said “Sydenham” (the district of London where we lived).

To make matters worse, when we did go back to visit Canada, I had picked up enough English expressions and my Canadian accent had softened enough to make it sound like I didn’t belong there either. The first time someone asked me where I was from in a shop in the town I was born in I was thrilled. By the thirty-ninth time the thrill had worn off. I began to realise that no matter where I was, I was different. For someone who has always sought the approval and acceptance of others, this was agony.

Even all these years later, I still get asked where I am from no matter what country I am in. At home in England, I get asked. Visiting Canada, I get asked. I’m always the different one, always the foreigner, even though officially I am a citizen of both countries. I consider myself to be British and describe myself as such, but officially I am still a citizen of both.

Happily, as the years have worn on, I have learned to cope better with this situation most of the time. I try not to think about the fact that I never quite blend in. After all, who wants to be ordinary? My voice has become flexible enough that, with concentration, I can use one accent or the other. Yet ninety percent of the time I really cannot be bothered to make that much effort and on the whole my accent is usually pretty mid-Atlantic. However, if I get very stressed, I sound very Canadian. On a day like yesterday, stressed as I was, the last thing I was thinking about was what I sounded like.

Yes, clearly the representative from company number three did touch a nerve, one that is still very raw despite nearly twenty years of living with it. I really do not mind being asked where I am from, it is just that sometimes the tone it is asked in can be very upsetting. It is like when some says “In this country, we” when they are explaining a situation, as if I’m just off the boat. I wonder why I am so insecure about this after all these years. I put so much stock in what other people think of me, even people like the annoying man from company number three. I really need to concentrate on getting my confidence from inside myself, and not from what other people say or do.

This move really is teaching me a lot of lessons.

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