Where Are You From?
I’m a story repeater.
Give me the flimsiest of excuses and I’ll tell my favorite yarns with gleeful indifference to anyone’s familiarity with the subject. Most people have their favorite stories — the ones we like to tell because they’re funny or meaningful to us or just because they say something about who we are. I can appreciate the joy of repetition, but there’s one story I have to tell over and over that I dearly wish I didn’t have to: the one where people ask me where I’m from.
English has been my primary language for 18 years, but I came to the UK as an almost-adult, and because of this, I’ll always have an accent. After all these years, it’s pretty mellow and not particularly distinctive, but curiosity is evergreen and most people simply can’t help themselves: “I can’t quite place your accent!” I answer the question quickly before moving on to another subject, irritated at the conversational dead end. Sure, we can discuss country facts, but I’ve answered this question in every possible way over nearly two decades. There’s simply nowhere interesting left for it to go.
It’s a bratty complaint, right? I’m a white Western European immigrant to a primarily white Western country; I’m not exactly experiencing discrimination. But that question — it’s every damn day. “Where are you from?” The implied message is subtle, but it’s very clear: I don’t quite belong.
I didn’t speak a word of English until I was 10 years old. From the first English lesson at school — “I am Jill, I am Bill” — I had this unshakable feeling that this was really, really important. Even at 10, I understood that this language was the key to the world, and I knew that I needed to learn it if I wanted to travel and meet people whose lives were different from mine. It took me five years to speak English well enough to get by, and nine years to be fully fluent. Now it’s my primary language — speaking, working, dreaming. When I speak what was my native language, I reach into English when I can’t find the words because it’s the language that I live in now; it’s the sound closest to my heart. So, tell me: Where am I from?
Accents are a social identity; we tend to prefer accents we are familiar with. Our attachment to language starts in the womb, and research…