When Life hands you lemons…………

29 04 2010

I thought the request was simple enough.

It was a hot day, I was in need of some liquid refreshment and, having walked across Boston Common, assumed that one of the many vendors with a dazzling array of soft drinks for sale would be the best person to approach with a request for a bottle of Lemonade.

So when I was handed a pretzel, I was unsure as to what the correct response should be. Should I say thank you or would it be more appropriate to throw the salty, doughy snack (beloved of so many Americans) back at the man whose understanding of English seemed to be limited.

But I realised that maybe it was not his fault. Despite coming from a country that invented the language, since arriving in the USA I have had numerous problems with trying to get my message across.

I have ordered a bacon cheeseburger in a restaurant and been asked if I want cheese with it, I have asked for directions to certain locations and received confused stares in return and don’t get me started on cab drivers, they don’t understand me at all.

I appreciate that I have a London accent which sometimes can be difficult to understand when I speak at my natural speed but even when I slow down, there are times when the lack of comprehension is vaguely irritating. I am not the only Resident Alien in Boston, but sometimes New England feels like an alien planet.

Page 60 of Welcome to the United States – A Guide for New Immigrants gives a guide to the importance of learning English and it seems that many have not paid as close attention to their lessons as they could have. This country is a wonderful opportunity for many and whilst the importance of retaining individual culture (including language) should not be criticised, if your daily interactions bring you into contact with an English-speaking majority then (sadly) this should be the focus.

However, sometimes it appears that I am not even English.

Australian, Irish, South African, Scottish, and my personal favorite “United Britain” have all been forwarded to determine my point of origin. When I venture that I am from London, the follow-up question is normally as to whether I support Manchester United (not a huge logical departure) and whether I know the Queen.

No is my answer to both questions.

But on occasion, my accent works very well. I have had numerous conversations with people in bars because they have heard me speaking, been able to discuss the finer points of politics, sport and religion with individuals who just want to get a different non-US viewpoint – although the football vs soccer debate is becoming a little tiresome, suffice it to say that FOOTBALL is a game played primarily with the foot as opposed to throwing the ball to a teammate.

I have even spent a very pleasant evening with a gentleman from Alabama who wanted to know about cricket, although after several pints his understanding was still slightly lacking (he kept calling the stumps “poles”) and he couldn’t grasp the joy of a five-day test match at all.

Despite feeling completely at home in Bahston, I do realise that I am a stranger in a strange land. For 90% of the time, I have no problems, and this city has welcomed me with open arms.

But when all you need is liquid to quench your thirst, then a pretzel is not the answer.

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One response

25 05 2010
John

For what little it’s worthFor what little it’s worth, your dismay is not unwarranted, but its root may not be you or even some debate over whether the US remains a melting pot or if the Canadian mosaic concept has really set in. The language barrier is only part of the issue at hand.

While it’s not considered very politically correct to speak of such things let’s face it, you’re dealing with someone who’s current job is a vending station. Some do it because they enjoy daily interaction with a myriad of people. Some for a few extra bucks while pursuing their dreams or figuring out what their dreams are. But alas, I suspect many are doing it because this represents the pinnacle of their existence either due to lack of interest in doing something else or simple inability to advance “further”.

Secondly, if you’re dealing with a US-educated person, you’re dealing with someone who had a fabulous opportunity, but one that has a broad array of ways to avoid or squander. The US has turned brutish arrogance into an art form—assuming that all others do nothing but dream of being like us as they sit in their caves in whatever godforsaken land they call home, be it Somalia, Japan or United Britain. We are so busy not understanding our own nation that we simply cannot be bothered with others.

Years ago while attending college in Iowa, I overheard a man explaining an event where he needed to produce identification. Upon dutifully presenting his Iowa driver’s license, the clerk refused to complete the transaction, citing she had never hear of this mythical land of “Iowa”. A second clerk cleared up the misconception by confirming that there was indeed no such place. Upon engaging a third clerk, the man admitted that it was one of the Hawaiian islands and the confusion cleared, allowing the transaction to complete.

We’re not all smooth-brained loudmouths, but it’s hard to see past them sometimes.

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