Same But Different

Image Credit: WikiCommons

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At International Student Centers all around the world, there is a much cited diagram called the ‘Cultural Adaptation Curve.’ Basically, like a new relationship, you fall in love, you enter crisis as you discover the other person isn’t perfect, and then you adjust. Yeah sure, I thought as I rolled my eyes. I think I’ll be okay leaving Australian to live in a country renowned for pizza, and learning about US literary culture along the way. What could go wrong?

When arriving in the land of the free, the first thing to make me nervous was not the much politicized gun violence or the thought of witnessing Fox News, but my own voice. I had prepared for the challenges of living and studying in a new country (navigating new supermarkets, driving on the wrong side of the road) but I never thought that I would struggle with my own words. English is my first language, so it didn’t occur to me that there would be language barriers.

“Excuse me, what stop is Walmart?” I ask the bus driver.

“I’ve never heard of that” he responds quizzically, his eyes remaining ahead on the road.

“The big store? You know… WAL-MART?”

“Ohh you mean War-l-mart.”

It was hard enough adjusting to a store that was bigger than any supermarket I’d been to before, let alone learning I was pronouncing it wrong. I was incredulous that in a single place you can buy chips, pillows and guns. I’d never seen a gun available for purchase before and Walmart sells them in a variety of colors like pink.

I began to resent my long Australian ‘ahhhs’ (as in ‘caaahrs’) announcing my foreignness at every turn. I wanted to fit in, arrive at Walmart in peace and pursue capitalism like any normal American. I hoped I wasn’t called on in class and dreaded opening my mouth, not sure people could understand me or if my drawl was just too humiliating. In short, I was a slack jawed hick in a shiny new city.

Desperate to feel normal, I fled to my headphones, which I filled with the quintessentially Australian Courtney Barnett. I spread vegemite on my toast before I rushed off to class, wondering whether eating a salty yeast spread was really the best way to connect with my roots. I’d never before identified with being Australian. I stay at home on Australia Day, avoiding crowds of drunken patriots. I classify myself as ‘Greek Australian’ with an emphasis on the Greek. It felt dizzying to be away from an identity that I never had acknowledged.

As the weeks disconcertingly rushed past, the words lost their power. The anxiety lifted as I began to focus on what I was saying, not how I was saying it. My opinion on Young Goodman Brown’ seemed to matter more than how I pronounced Hawthorne (Haaaawthawn). Words didn’t stick as much in my mouth and I didn’t lock my jaw as tightly.

After the second month passed, I spent a weekend in Seattle and consequently, a good few hours milling about at a bus station. I sprawled on the metal chairs, feet on my backpack and book in hand trying to block out the sound of the TV.

“Aww this is Naked and Afraid. Have you guys seen this?”

I sit up straight in my seat. What is that? Where is she from? South Africa? I look to my travelling partner and he sees my expression of dumbfoundedness.

“Australian,” he says to me.

“It’s horrible,” I reply, “Do we really sound that bad?”

By: Katerina Bryant