“Oh, nooooo,” I groaned, as I shoved my belongings around my suitcase in desperation. “No, no, no. Shit, shit, shit.”
I had just flown from New York to San Francisco, and now found myself in an airport bathroom with a mouth that tasted like plane pretzels and a face that looked exactly like a face that had been traveling all day and was, at this moment, lit by fluorescent lights that were in all likelihood installed by Revlon in order to make women feel bad about their faces. And I couldn’t find my toiletries case.
I was crouching down over my suitcase, uttering a few more choice swear words, when a woman exited a stall and made her way to the sink to wash her hands. She looked over at me and said, “Everything okay? And what part of Australia are you from?”
She was visiting from Brisbane, but we’d grown up about twenty minutes away from each other in Sydney.
That’s the great — and terrible — thing about being Australian. It’s a small place.
Just a few hours later, in a restaurant in San Francisco, I unknowingly almost cut in front of a woman who was waiting for the bathroom. I quickly apologized, and she said, “No worries.” I smiled, and asked her what part of Australia she was from. Tasmania, but she’s been here for months. That’s another great — and terrible — thing about being Australian. We tend to fly the coop, and when we do, we fly far, and it can take us a while to go back.
I’ve been living in the US for eight years, first in New Jersey, and now in New York. I’m an American citizen, but I was born and raised in Sydney. And though I was raised by an American mother, I had a fairly robust Australian accent when I arrived in the States at 17. Not Crocodile Hunter robust, more like Nicole Kidman forgetting in one scene out of five that her character’s American. In the last eight years, though, my accent has morphed — I sound awfully American when I say words that I hear and say often, like “yeah” or “seriously” or “douchebag” — and sometimes it’s hard to hear at all.
Accents are, of course, so many things. A proxy for class status, wealth, education. A marker of immigrant status, for better or worse. A way to signal that you belong, and a way for other people to assume that you don’t. They’re a barrier to communication, or a way to entice people to listen to you more closely than they might to someone without an “exotic” or attractive lilt. People pay good money to learn to eliminate their accents, and performers pay better money to learn to imitate other ones. For most of my time in the US, I’ve thought of my accent as a source of pride. Now, though, the word that comes to mind when I think about my accent, or when I listen to recordings of myself, is “malleable.”
For every Australian who spots me as one of their own, there are many more Americans who fail to notice my accent. Earlier this week I was chatting to a group of women, and when I told them where I was from, they all expressed surprise. They hadn’t heard any trace of an accent — until I said, “I know, it comes and goes.”
“Oh, there it is!”
There it is. Goes. No. The Australian “O” sound is a very distinctive one: it contains at least four vowel sounds, and it’s almost impossible to transcribe here. And if my American friends’ efforts are anything to judge by, it’s almost impossible to imitate, even with extensive drunken practice. Once, when we hadn’t been dating very long, my current beau asked me if I wanted to go to the movies or cook dinner or some such thing I had no desire to do. I answered with a long, stretched out “No.” He stopped and stared, and asked, “How many vowels do you know?!” The Australian O is really something, and it’s the one element of my accent that hasn’t slipped at all in the years I’ve been living in the States.
Australians don’t hear it that way, of course. When I go home, I get a fair bit of grief for my “twang,” and my countrymen warn me, in that determinedly jocular but mildly threatening way that we’re so good at, that I don’t sound like one of them anymore.
If I’m honest with myself, I don’t. Just like my mother no longer sounds like a woman born and raised on Long Island, I no longer sound like a woman born and raised in Sydney. Malleable, a sponge for new sounds, a transmitter of mangled vowels and mutating cadences.
There are so many things I miss about Sydney. I miss the angle of the sunlight, and the taste of flat white coffees, and the sound of kookaburras and sulphur-crested cockatoos screeching in the evening. Some days, the homesickness drills a hole in my chest, and some days I have to fight the urge to stay on the E train all the way to JFK. That’s the great — and terrible — thing about being Australian. When you come from a wonderful home, no matter where you are in the world, homesickness haunts.
Home. There’s that O sound again.