This year I’m participating in a study abroad exchange program from my English university to a college in Chicago. I was well aware of the American stereotypes we cast, and braced myself to eat lots of carbohydrates and struggle without a car. I’d visited America before and stayed with friends in Baltimore. I was aware of culture differences and had an open mind about the people I may meet. I was a little less prepared for the reaction other people would have towards me being foreign, or, more accurately, being “British”.
America is a big place, its only connecting land countries being Canada and Mexico, after that there’s two giant oceans either side. When I first started noticing peoples heads shoot up when I said I’m from England, I presumed it was curiosity or excitement at meeting a foreigner, but then I noticed it wasn’t the same when I was with people from other parts of the world (e.g. Asia or even Canada).
It was about a week after my arrival that I went to orientation, and by then I’d learnt my accent was something people liked to talk about. Upon leaving the building for the day, a girl who I’d only just met cornered me and asked how I was finding America. Meanwhile, the girl on my other side heard my accent and squealed. “Are you British?!” she asked, while I simply nodded. She squealed again before proclaiming to the entire lobby of people “I’m going to tweet I just met a British person!” and walked away. Talk about objectification.
During my dorms first floor meeting, a guy from my building stood up, announced he was from Panama, and that he had a British accent. Following this, he did some stomach churning sweep around while winking saying “steady, ladies.” The next few weeks saw the secret admirer Facebook page for the college fill with posts about him, commenting how adorable his accent was. Out of ignorance, I had to google Panama. It’s near Mexico, and isn’t even one of the random islands still under the English monarch. I knew he was a faker, and he avoided speaking in front of me after that.
While waiting for the bathroom at a house party, I introduced myself to a guy also waiting. Hearing where I’m from, he (a little drunkenly) asked “can you tell when people are faking a British accent?” I scowled at him and asked if he’d ever done so to try and get girls. He didn’t need to respond, his awkwardness answered for him.
After a while, I noticed how people always called me “British” instead of “English.” It was something inexplicable to me, as I’d grown up knowing I lived in England, not “Britain”. Upon where if it was appropriate, I’d remind people there are other accents within the country of England, and other countries within Great Britain.
A few months in, I discovered a basic formula to conversations with strangers:
Them: Saying something generic.
Me: Giving a standard reply.
Them: Hey! Where are you from?
Me [without enthusiasm]: England.
Them: Oh that’s cool, what are you doing over here?
Me: Studying abroad.
Them: Oh nice! My friend / grandmother / aunt was born / studied / visited *random town* this year / last year / back in the 50s. Have you heard of it?
Me: Oh, cool. No, I haven’t.
It’s not like I didn’t appreciate the enthusiasm, just having this conversation several times a day, with waiters and cashiers or even staff at the college, grew repetitive. There were too many relatives to care about, too many friends who’d wanted their slice of traveling to Europe. I was there to enjoy America, not talk about the many towns of England.
It seemed to me that everyone was fascinated with Europe. They would ask me about Italy, France or Spain, expressing their envy that I lived so close to these culturally rich places. But when I expressed my desire to travel to Asia and parts of Africa, they’d smile and not say much else.
My nationality and experiences made me somebody that everybody wanted to talk to, or talk about. At a house party where I only knew two people, a girl in the group I walked past dramatically said “Isn’t that the British girl? She’s been here before.” Even in McDonalds, as I was trying to order fries with a girl from my class, a guy came up to me, asking if I was the British girl. Upon replying yes, he told me who he was and that we’d briefly been introduced at a party, and I just wasn’t sure what to do with this information. I was just trying to get some fries.
In my classes, even my teachers treated me differently. One failed for the entire semester to understand anything I was saying, while another looked to me for clarification every time she mentioned something or somebody from my country. When we had a lesson on accents and dialects, the entire class joined in, seemingly playing an accent version of “true or false” in regards to English pronunciation (which varies with different areas of the United Kingdom anyway).
When placing orders, I’d occasionally receive the wrong thing, especially at Chipotle when it was busy. Once, upon ordering pizza, the girl asked me what dipping side I wanted. After the third time of asking me to repeat that I wanted “garlic butter,” she turned helplessly to my friend, who just shrugged his shoulders. I saw the wheels turning in her head, then her eyes flashed with recognition as she said “you want garlic budder?” I sighed and nodded as she looked relieved, saying to me “you sound like you have an accent, have you taken a class or something?”
It wasn’t all frustrating though, if I was in a hurry and a street campaigner stopped me, I was able to tell them I had no access to an American bank account so I couldn’t sign up for a direct debit payment. If I ever accidentally mis-pronounced something, I could blame it on the differences in pronunciation. If a guy asked for my number, I didn’t need to think of excuses – that would only be my number for a couple of months, so why not?
In my apartment, an Irish maintenance man came to fix something I wasn’t aware had been reported as broken. Being English, I thanked him anyway despite the fact he’d stunk the apartment out by running the dishwasher while it had a broken drainage system. I recognised his accent but didn’t want to start the same conversation I’d been so tired of hearing myself. Instead, he did. After the basic formula was completed for us both, he told me to contact him should I need anything, and he hoped I enjoyed Chicago. I appreciated the conversation far more than I would have in my home country.
I didn’t write this article to try and complain about how I’m treated, or stereotype anybody, or boast. Instead I wanted to highlight the curious way we each react to people and situations we perceive as different. People are only human. There’s no need to be excited about somebody just for their accent.
Differences can be subtle and still be noticed. Look around, everyone is unique in their own way. Don’t be excited by obvious differences, because the subtle ones can be the most beautiful.