Funny thing, accent. Triggers all sort of questions from people you’ve never seen in your life – and may not necessarily ever see again. And, unless you want to come accross as extremely rude, you should politely engage in a (pointless) conversation.
There are three main questions.
1. Where are you from?
The sort of question you don’t mind answering too much, although it tends to be a geography quiz of some sort. Bulgaria? Errr, OK. Yes, Bulgaria, and no, not where Dracula comes from. Although that’s geographically close enough, what you are thinking of is Romania. And no, Belgium and Bulgaria are not the same country. Yes, they both start with a B, I can give you that, but one is in Western Europe, while the other one is in Eastern. And no, Hungaria doesn’t sound as similar as you think – not to me, born and bred in Bulgaria. Sorry, this is as far as my tolerance goes. You either know where on the map it is, or you don’t.
2. How long have you been living in the UK?
OK, this question is not particularly personal, so don’t mind answering that either. 14 years. My, where does the time go!
3. So you must like it here, then?
Now, this is the sort of question that I do actually consider a bit personal. I wouldn’t want to explain to a stranger the psychology of a foreigner/immigrant/expat, etc. That you sometimes feel like you’ve lost your identity, that you no longer feel at home in your own country – but would never really feel at home in your new one, either. You’ll always be stuck in between somewhere – like that platform in ‘The Matrix’, between two dimensions. Or the platform in ‘Harry Potter’ – only visible to magicians, but not to muggles.
You wouldn’t want to expose your vulnerability to a stranger, admitting that you no longer feel like a patriot. If anything, you sometimes fear you’ve betrayed your own country because you’ve chosen another one for your own selfish purposes.
That’s why you just go with the answer a stranger would expect from a stranger: ‘Yes, I like it here’. End of conversation.
Whether I like this or not, to me my accent is like being tall: I can’t change it, so better try and live with it. I am not one of those lucky people who can pick up accents. That’s my fate, I just can’t be unnoticed in a group of people: first because of my height, and once they’ve spoken to me – because of my accent.
Living with a foreign accent can be a pickle. Depends on how strong your accent is I guess, or how easy it is for locals to understand you. But mainly it depends on the level of intelligence of your environment. At least this is what I have come to observe over the past fourteen years.
In my first years in the UK, this got to me so much that I decided there was something so seriously wrong with my English that I had to look for a language course. Which proved tricky to arrange, as I has just done a Master’s in this country, with a pretty decent grade, so my language must have been not too bad. Still customers struggled to understand me in the shop I worked in.
I’ll never forget that random conversation with an old funny lady looking for tomato tins – in a shop selling cosmetics and toiletries. She just would not understand me, and all I was saying was ‘tomato tin’. In how many different ways can you pronounce this phrase, for God’s sake?? Try it. Say it loud: tomato tin! See? This is what I mean.
A couple of years on, I got lucky. I got picked for a job for my language skills – bingo! Working in a college language centre was the perfect place for me. I got comfortable, people understood me, respected me and were able to see the person behind the accent. Which was the case in my next job, again in a college, i.e. surrounded by intelligent people. With the exception of ambitious middle-class mothers agressively trying to sort out some future for their dumb sons. Sorry, can’t possibly understand me, as I don’t speak that particular accent of their tiny little village.
Which is what kept me grounded: you should never feel too comfortable here, as you will always be a bloody foreigner in this country!
In my most recent workplace I feel totally at home. It’s a multinational university where being a foreigner is never a bad thing. After all, it’s international students who pay the highest fees. International staff are just as common. So, after working here for over seven years, I thought it was pretty safe to feel settled and decided that accent problems were a thing buried in the past.
Until my son said something last night which hit home big time. We like reading ‘Harry Potter’ together at bedtime. He’s nearly finished the second book when he decided to admit that he’d rather read on his own, as he doesn’t understand some of the words when it’s me reading aloud. Because of my accent.
He is a native British speaker, unlike me.
This is when the American term comes to mind: legal alien. Yes, I am legal, and am settled. But I will always be an alien, even to my own son. Unless I lose my darn accent.