Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cultural Chameleons

Sometimes I feel as though my husband and I are struggling to find a happy medium in the world. We lived in South Korea for a year, in an effort to stay together without having to get married too early on in our relationship. It worked (look! we’re still together and married now!) but I wasn’t happy in Korea. Part of my unhappiness stemmed from always being sick, but another part was due entirely to the fact that in Korea I would always be the foreigner. There was no way I could ever blend in, not in language (which I could have learned if I’d wanted to because I am kind of a genius with languages) and certainly not in looks. I looked different from the front, from the back, and from the side. As you may have guessed from my blog moniker, I am blonde. I am the sort of blonde that prompts Canadians to ask if I am Scandinavian, and Scandinavians to ask where on earth I got such blonde hair. In Korea I was frequently asked if I was Russian – not exactly a flattering comparison when you realise how many Russian prostitutes are living in Itaewon.

I used to receive my share of stares in Brazil, but they were the sort of looks that made me feel like a goddess. I looked a bit different from other Brazilian women, but I usually got away with blending in once I opened my mouth and spoke in perfect, fluent Portuguese, complete with Carioca accent. Despite a certain racism (disguised as classism) in Brazil, the country is actually very accepting of immigrants. In Brazil, if you speak the language, party hardy, and have a warm heart, you too can be Brazilian. This was not the case with Korea, a country in which you are never Korean unless you are born to Korean parents, even if you have lived there your whole life and consider yourself as such.

Still, why was this even a problem for me? I mean, I was obviously foreign, so why did being labeled as a foreigner bother me so much? It didn't seem to be a problem for my husband, who later explained that Americans are terrible at blending in to other cultures, so they just accept that they'll always be singled out and get on with their role as 'the American'. But I never wanted to be singled out as 'the Canadian', even from the time I set foot in France, my first time living abroad.

In France, my style became less casual and more elegant (minus some of the horribly tarty outfits I wore to the bar). My once québecois accent blended with the strasbourgeois and parisian accents of my French friends, creating a whole new mélange. With my blonde hair, I looked like I might come from the Alsace region (though it certainly suggested German rather than French descent). Towards the end of my year abroad, my bon patois had diminished considerably, leaving an indistinguishable French accent in its place. Because no one was able to pin my accent down to one region I was often asked if I was Swiss, and sometimes I even said yes, though I drew the line at braiding my hair 'Heidi style'.

Here in London, one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, I am on my way to blending in. I wear my M&S tights, and cute little outfits. Though I don't take as many risks with fashion as Londoners (partly because I can't afford it, and partly because I don't have the right sort of figure to carry off trendy pieces), I feel like I almost look the part. And then I open my mouth and the truth comes out. My chameleon-like linguistic skills are not, it seems, able to do anything about my midwestern North American accent. Because we spoke English at home, even living in Montréal, my parents' accents have been imprinted on to mine, and nothing will shake them. At the most my accent has transformed to become more like my husband's, which means everyone now thinks I'm from Michigan. Which wouldn't be a problem if I were IN Michigan (I'd blend right in!), but I'm not. I'm in London and I feel terribly un-posh. I envy those with hybrid British accents, or even plain old European or Latin accents. My good Brazilian friend has been dating a South African for years and now has the most beautiful Brazilian-South African-British accent. It's so unfair!

Oh well, things could be worse. At least the sight of my face doesn't make little old Korean ladies crash their bikes anymore.

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