I’m English – a stranger in a strange land. I have a range of responses, both verbal and facial, to my first utterance to someone I’ve not spoken with before. Oftentimes I get the mostly charming, “I love your accent” (sounding like “ass-en”) and the more not-backward-in-coming-forward, “Ooh! I could listen to your voice all day.” Rarely the Can I have your number? of, “Say that again. You English guys sound so … ahhh … haha.” Decreasingly the facial responses betray the utter confusion of the listener whom I encountered in my initial months in Texas. Still, I receive the occasional look of incomprehension, but after years in the Fort, I know my regional vocal foibles and tend to focus my Texas pronunciation on those words and phrases, turning “can” and “can’t” into something more like kin, with a long “i,” and Kant, the philosopher, respectively, for example. Yet I park my car in a space that still sounds a lot like ga-ridge and not at all like guh-raj. My fruit of choice when trying to avoid eating chocolate remains a buh-nar-na rather than a buh-nan-a.
The verbal responses mentioned above tend to be from women. Guys are somewhat more straightforward: “Where you from?” Almost never does this question sound like the initial grilling I may regularly receive if I were brown-skinned or had a “funny” accent or name or any combination thereof. Though around the 2016 election, I did have three or four shit-kickers ask me, upon clocking my foreignness, a range of thinly veiled questions transparently designed to determine whether I was “an illegal” and taking care to check that I was “qualified” to be here. It’s simultaneously enraging and hilarious to be questioned about my fitness to be standing in a small town’s big-box store by dudes with careworn faces that could be 35 or 60 who sport unkempt denim over their ill-kept torsos.
A frequent and always startling and confusing response from a guy is the triumphant call of “Australian!” delivered with a self-congratulatory smile and pointed finger of certainty. As a Brit, I am supposed to reflexively dislike and object to Australians for being both brash and consistently better at cricket than the English are. Honestly, I have nothing against Aussies now that I don’t live in England. Fair enough, I toured Ireland with a friend whose accompanying mate, who happened to be Australian, was the most relentlessly miserable human being I have ever met. Yes, a careless driver mowed me down when I was walking to school at age 7. (Heroically, I got up off the tarmac and proceeded to school, whereupon I was vomiting blood within the hour). She just happened to be Australian. So what if my ex ran off with a kangaroo? OK, OK. The surgeon who basically killed one of my grandparents through medical malpractice just happens to be from Sydney. But, honestly, I am no more appalled to be taken for an Aussie by a dude I’ve never met before than you would be if someone mistook you for an Okie. Amirite? Right.
I’ve heard and read a bunch of stuff that wants me to believe that “Where you from?” represents a micro-aggression, which is not, as I initially thought, a polite term for the Napoleon Complex or Little Man syndrome. No, it is a real thing because someone at a university came up with it in 1973. A micro-aggression is the everyday slight, insult, or insinuation designed to belittle or marginalize people seen as “other.” I can kind of get behind the idea that “Where you from?” has micro-aggressive potential, but to be fully aggressive, the question needs to be, and often is for me, “Where are you really from?” #notaustralia