When people learn this, they nearly always express surprise that my accent hasn't changed. My standard response to this is to bore the socks off them by pointing to research in developmental psychology indicating that once you hit a developmental threshold at around the age of 15, you pretty much have to want to change it. Before that age threshold, accent is soaked up by a kind of codependent osmosis of 'fitting in". When my older daughter Kate spent a year in Australia as a 12-year-old, it took only a few months for her to pick up the laconic drawl.
After that threshold, you have to make yourself do it. Think of Mel Gibson's mid-career morph from Mad- Max drawl to flattened Californian in the Lethal Weapon series, the better to advance his career in the USA. If you know any adult who, in adulthood, acquired an accent, there was some reason they wanted to do it, and had to work at it for a while. This requires a sustained act of will.
|yankee as apple pie|
So in my case, it may just be laziness. In Australia, working as an actor, there was financial encouragement to remain the token Yank, as it pretty much sewed up a niche market I alone could fill. Never mind the talent, feel the authenticity of the vowels. However, if I'm honest, there's more to it than laziness and self-enrichment.
Especially in Australia, since 9/11, I have often longed for my accent to vanish. I became a lightening-rod for local anti-American sentiment. This took many forms, and usually said more about the interlocutor than about geo-politics. A guy mowing my lawn said he had "a bone to pick with me about that Rupert Murdoch of yours." It was no good telling him that Uncle Rupe was an Adelaide newspaperman. No, no, once you become a US citizen, that's it.
|yankee as a meat pie|
More often, though, confrontations took the form of "you yanks are all alike", like whatever the negative judgement was. If you demonstrate self-confidence, it's typical American arrogance. If you express enthusiasm about something, it's typical Yankee showmanship. If you vigorously argue a point, you are a fascist. If you succeed at something, the game was rigged. If you fail at something, there is barely concealed glee. You get the idea.
For a while, in the wake of the Bush-era foreign policy insanity, I felt like a spent my life apologizing around the world on behalf of my birth-country, at pains to point out that there were many of us who voted democrat, opposed war, were outraged by the curtailment of civil liberties, appalled by the use of torture--the the things that filled the headlines in those dark days. New people i'd meeet would find out where I was from, and they'd pull an intake of breath, gearing up to recite the litany of our foreign policy offences, and I'd have to beat them to it: "Look, yes, I'm sorry, I know. It's horrendous. It's not me they represent." And so on.
|As yankee as a pie full of wet rocks|
Now, you'd think that a theological college would provide a safe haven from anti-American prejudice and stereotyping. But you'd be wrong. In the two months I've been here, the "small pond' has only amplified prejudice (as in pre-judging one's character--an American is necessarily like thus and such) and stereotyping ("spoken like a true American"). As if any person is MERELY determined by factors beyond their control--colour, birth-country, gender, etc. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised: ministers and aspirants are only human, and prone to the same us-and-them reflexes as everyone else. But it is dis-spiriting nonetheless.
"Anti-americanism is the last acceptable form of prejudice." Discuss.
All of these reminders of my "radical otherness" reinforced my alienation from whatever country I lived in, worked, in, paid taxes in, raised my kids in, had my being in. Had adopted BY CHOICE, not chance.
So why not adopt the local accent and short-circuit the confrontation, stereotyping, blame, and alienation? It's not like I didn't have the voice skills. I could have done it easily.
Thinking about this, I can see three reasons that may account for this apparent masochism. First, hanging onto my accent is just about my only through-line to my past, my only link to my origins. Maybe this is fear, that I'd be so un-moored without it, I'd lose a sense of self. Second, choosing to sustain my 'radical otherness' give me an 'outsider' perspective that I've relied on in my writing, teaching, acting, and preaching. I enables you to offer people new ways of looking at things, and that novelty of perspective is in itself different, interesting, educative, and thus valuable. Third, otherness indulges a personal taste for dialectic, and this is not always helpful (see the post "Leading with my chin" below). You can disrupt comfortable, reflexive views of things and thus create the conditions for conflict. As a life-long, gigantic sissy, I actually hate arguing and just want everyone to get along and play nice.
"A man reaching his fiftieth year is more certain than he was at forty that he now possesses more past than future." (--James Lander, Lincoln and Darwin: Shared Visions of Race, Science, and Religion)
Given this hard truth, how do I want to live the remaining years? Go back the the US and finally, finally just "blend in" again? Is that even possible, given an adult life spent doing the opposite? Can you ever really go home again?
Three passports=belonging nowhere?
Or continue to plow this rocky furrow--a man without a country, a stranger in a strange land, offering to the locals the strange and exotic fruit of that labour?
Stay tuned, friends.....
|As Yankee as a...umm...doodle?|