Growing up in the American south, I was always acutely aware of accents. I can remember clearly my mother scolding me for adding extra syllables to words, an unmistakable twang that betrayed me as an Alabama girl. “The word is ‘bat’!” she would say. “Not ‘bah-yat’!”
I went to an expensive prep school, well known in part because of the eloquent, well-spoken young men and women it produces. I knew from a young age that the way I spoke sounded more like the people on CNN than the people down my street. I wore this as a badge of honor.
When I decided to come to England for university, it seemed like my accent would only prove to be an advantage. I assumed, somewhat correctly, that an American accent here has the same effect as a British one in the US. I assumed, completely falsely, that everyone in my university would be intelligent, well-spoken, and sound like a BBC News presenter. What I found, instead, that I was hit with a tidal wave of accents that I was in no way prepared to face, much less interpret. I had grown up with two accents: well-spoken and country. How, I asked myself, could there be so many accents in a country so small that it would fit easily inside Texas (with room to spare)? I was flooded with accents that somehow, were all British, and were all distinctly different from my own American-speak.
I believed, naively, that my accent would prove only as an advantage. After all, I hold dual citizenship, so my British passport would dispel any false impressions my accent gave, right? I found this immediately to be completely wrong. Before I even began my first year, I began receiving emails warning me that since I had missed my English Language Test I would not be able to start lectures, because they were unsure of my English abilities. I laughed this off, sending back a slightly sarcastic but good-humored email informing them that I thought the test slightly unnecessary. In my first week, I was consistently herded towards the international student gatherings and forwarded the international office for any concerns. Once there, they looked up my information and told me I needed to go to regular student services since I was listed as a home student. I told them, exasperated, that this is what I had been saying all along. They looked at me as if they didn’t really believe me, but sent me on my way.
At the bank on campus I was faced with a Kafka-esque battle with the customer service workers when I tried to open my bank account. They told me I could not have a regular account because I was an exchange student, and would have to open a special account with no overdraft and a monthly fee of 10 pounds. I told them i was a home student. They did not believe me. I brought in my letter of admission listing me as a home student. They told me it didn’t matter because I was a foreign citizen. I brought in my passport. They told me it didn’t count because I wasn’t a natural-born British citizen but had gained citizenship. I brought in my British birth certificate. It was no use.
Student Finance, the company in charge of student loans, was much the same. Before leaving for university I had been told I would receive a student loan as a home student, and this was a huge relief as my family didn’t really have the means to pay the fees. Once I arrived and sent of my application however, I was swiftly denied with no explanation. I was determined to fight this, so I began a two-year long battle trying to get something, anything, in the way of financial assistance from my university or the government. This fight culminated in me screaming at a terrified Scottish employee who made the mistake of saying “I’m sorry, but according to our system you just aren’t English.” This pushed me over the edge and I was directed to a manager after repeatedly shouting “You aren’t even English! YOU aren’t even ENGLISH!” at the poor girl. I almost feel bad about it now.
At one point, after months of exhausting phone conversations in which the person on the other end would seemingly dismiss me the minute they heard my voice, I had a friend of mine, a Londoner, call up and speak to them in her accent. Immediately, they explained to her that despite the fact she was ‘technically’ a British citizen, she did not meet another requirement that says you must reside in the UK for 3 years before starting University. This simple explanation of a loophole had been all they needed to say to me, but had been consistently denied to me simply because I was talking to them with the wrong accent.
As a naturally very shy person I struggled through going to coffee shops, grocery stores, cinemas, buses, and any other place I had to speak to the staff. Inevitably, one would stop what they were doing , hold up the queue, and exclaim “Wow! Are you American?”. The other customers would glare, the person would wait expectantly for my life story, and I would turn bright red and start to stutter.
In my third year, I had the misfortune of working in customer service. I managed to get a job at a large concert venue in my town, where I worked at the concessions stand selling Coke, hot dogs, and fries to ice hockey fans and people who came to see Strictly Come Dancing. The work shifts were short, but the sheer volume of customers was enormous. For our larger gigs, where everyone from Elton John to Ed Sheeran would play to a sold-out arena, we could have up to 4000 customers in 2 hours. Imagine my horror when, as I’m dashing about desperately trying to fill an order for six large diet cokes and 4 hot dogs with various toppings, a customer stops me and asks with wide eyes “Where are you from?” or “What part of America are you from?” or, the worst, “Are you from Canada?”. Customers in the queue behind them would glare at me and roll their eyes as I spluttered a response while balancing multiple food items and trying to make change in my head.
Still, four years after moving here, I face the same frustration almost daily. At a bar that I frequent, a man comes up and starts speaking to me. He asks me what part of America I’m from, and I tell him, quickly changing the subject to something about him. He proceeds to explain to me in a grandiose way how great my city is, talks to me about the nightlife, and tells me at length about where the best places to go are. I keep trying to change the subject, but am well aware that it is too late. After several minutes of listening to an explanation of why I should visit the English countryside before I leave, I give up and just excuse myself to the toilet. Even in my favorite bar, I am a tourist.
I have tried many times to explain this frustration to others, often with similar responses. They tell me I’m being over-dramatic, that I should be flattered, that people are only asking because they think I am interesting. I recognize that perhaps I am exaggerating, but that doesn’t make it any less irritating. To be constantly seen as an outsider, to be mistaken for a tourist in unfamiliar territory, is to be reminded that you don’t belong. For a person who grew up feeling that way, and came back to the country of my birth because I felt that I belonged here, this is a jarring and uncomfortable reminder. A reminder of outsider-ship, a reminder that I am and always will be a permanent foreigner in what ever country I visit. Some strive for this, and see it as exhilarating, declaring themselves to be ‘citizens of the world’. I understand the appeal, and I too feel liberated by my ability to be at home anywhere. However, ask a refugee or an asylum-seeker how they feel about it, and you will see a very different story.
None of this is to say that I am anywhere close to understanding the feeling of someone who is a refugee or has been forced to flee their own country. The only thing that forced me to flee my country was a fear of becoming stuck in one place, of never moving. I know I am lucky to have been able to make this escape.
I think often of people who don’t speak English as a first language. Imagine coming to England, or to America, from a country where there is no opportunity. You come here, seeking to make a life for yourself and your family. You learn English, but are unable to shake the accent. You may live here for 10 years, and speak perfect fluent English, but the second you open your mouth the only thing people hear is ‘foreigner’. You hear constantly in the news and the mouths of others that foreigners are bad, that immigrants are destroying the country. In your heart you belong here, but in their minds you are an outsider.
I have, indeed, been lucky in this. My skin color and my particular accent make me the ‘right’ kind of foreigner. It is interesting, in fact, that I am immediately identified as a ‘tourist’, while my darker-skinned accented friends are frequently deemed ‘immigrant’. Just as, when I lived in China I was an ‘expat’, while my Chinese friends here are ‘foreigners’. It is fascinating to me to hear people in my workplace rail against immigration, and then go silent when I raise my hand and point out myself. People, it seems, are often quick to point out differences, often to the detriment of the accused party, but frequently overlook the similarities that would allow them to understand one another.
Just like the guy in the bar: had he paid even the slightest bit of attention, he would have seen me get out my British passport when I paid for my drink. He would have seen me flash my university student card for the discount. He would have seen the way I dress, the slight English-isms in my speech, or the fact that all my friends are English, and realised that he wasn’t speaking to a tourist. Instead, he told me at length about the time he visited New York for a week, and I listened patiently. He told me he was trying to move permanently to Chicago, and I thought, with no small amount of satisfaction, that one day in the near future he will go to his favorite local bar, and someone will come up and ask him how long he is visiting, and he will not know what to say.
Cover photo by David Marcu for unsplash.com