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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mock the Yank: Or, "it's not paranoia when everyone's out to get you"

I recently passed my 25th anniversary as a ex-pat. So that's nearly half my life making a home, a life, careers, and networks in other countries, namely the UK and Australia.

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?


  1. oh, amen brother! you know i feel the same as you; am the same as you - we even shared that funny cassette tape about how turn an actor's learned cockney accent into an aussie accent (just hold your upper lip STILL) and as a north-east unitarian whose lived as an ex-pat for nearly half my life as well; well, all i can say is that i'd rather be at the rally for sanity...

  2. Hi lovely Rob, Great to read this. I'm a blog newby, so not sure about the process Never mind, just wanted to say Shaw wrote a whole play abut this very issue. But is this an issue of accent? I think not. I see a strong current of identity crisis running through your tea leaves, grasshopper, which might come from years of mixing your accents, stories and even metaphors. (te he)
    At the end of every day, who are you? Are you the clothes you wear? Are you the colour of your skin? Are you the accent or language you speak? There is great accademic debate about this very question, but for myself I have a lovely little quote I repeat often. "No apple tree tries to grow violets. Know who you are and what you must do comes naturally". Knowing yourself is the first tablet on the scriptures at Adephi. "Know thyself".
    You may recall I have two accents:Scots to my parents and Australian to my friends. I grew up in a town where everyone spoke different accents and I HEARD THEM ALL early (as you mention above). But I don't think it's an age thing, I think it's an ear thing. I actually LIKE the sounds of certain accents. (I was always envious of the Italian immigrants and all those extra sounds they got to utter)
    I think the accent issue is about an early learning to "hear". But whether or not an accent defines a person is a totally different question. How people are percieved according to their accent is yet another question. (eg Shaw's Pygmallion)
    You cover all of these in your above comments, but really doesn't it all still come down to how you percieve and know yourself?
    Regardless of your accent, you are still your lovable, intelligent self. Know, trust and love that. Eventually the newbs around you will recognize the lovely human disguised by a national identity, signified by an accent.
    As Byron Katie says "What other people think of me is non of my business"
    Love & Bless

  3. Once you leave you are not one of them when you return. I missed ten years of being British.Even though I read the papers etc. I wasn't here and I picked up some rather different ways of seeing things which as you say is an advantage and makes it difficult for me to be stereotyped I always used to get the 'Scottish' and Glaswegian jokes Pretty tedious but its our British way of showing you you are a friend. We are only rude to those we like So don't take on so :>}