I’ve mentioned before that I strive to blend in here and convince people that I’m Mexican. I’ve also mentioned that everyone laughs when I say this: why would anyone expect a pale, blue-eyed girl speaking accented Spanish to be Mexican? I think what I’ve hoped is that my accent would, one day, be so subtle that I could fool people. Being impatient, I wanted this to be true already. It’s not.
I’m starting to realize, if not completely accept, that I am at all moments a foreigner and my accent will not go away. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few days after a strange series of events that all confirmed that my efforts to blend in, have not been very successful.
Last week in class, a professor corrected a mistake I made when speaking–the first time I’ve been corrected, though it was probably the millionth mistake on my part. The error dealt with vocabulary usage. I wanted to say that something was “shocking,” so I used what I thought to be the equivalent word in Spanish, chocante. The professor informed me that chocante does mean “shocking” in Spain, but here in Mexico it means “grating, irritating.” Deep down, I want to be corrected–making mistakes without even realizing it would not help me improve my skills. But not-so-deep-down, I just don’t want to make mistakes at all, and being publicly corrected embarrassed me. As the professor explained the nuances of chocante, I tried to figure out what to do with my face–smile? nod attentively? appear remorseful? I opted to smile. I could feel everyone looking at me and imagined them all wondering whether I was embarrassed.
Then this past weekend when we were at the beach, I was waiting for Paco outside a public shower. I was still in my beach attire. Two people nearby were talking, and when I accidentally bumped my head on a tree branch, the man nearby said, “¡Aguas!” which means “watch out.” Immediately after, he said in English, “careful!” And my reaction, instant and uncontrolled, was to say in Spanish, “Hey, I speak Spanish. Don’t talk to me in English!” I felt really angry, and I wasn’t sure why.
Finally, yesterday I was in my yoga class, and my teacher asked us all to introduce ourselves to the other students. As I spoke, one of the other students said to the teacher, “I love the way she talks.” I laughed (didn’t know what else to do) and finished my introduction.
Anyway, these three events have got me doing a lot of thinking. The shame I felt at being corrected in class comes from being in denial. I am going to make mistakes, and the people who take the trouble to correct me are doing me a favor. I certainly won’t ever forget how to use chocante! If I don’t expect that I’m going to speak perfectly, since I won’t, then I don’t think being corrected will feel like such an affront, since I already know, rationally, that it is meant to help me.
My unexplained outburst at the public shower–I think there were two things going on. The first is that it confirmed my failure to blend in, since the man assumed (correctly!) that I was American. I don’t like people judging me based on my appearance (who does?), but this poor fellow was not making an outrageous assumption: there are a lot of Americans at the beach. There was absolutely no reason for me to take offense. I am the one American at the beach who isn’t happy to find an English-speaking Mexican when on vacation.
The second dynamic in this situation is one that I haven’t really talked about here on the blog, but let’s just say that the California-style friendliness I was raised to use with strangers, is interpreted differently outside of California. Here, at least with men, is sometimes mistaken for flirtation or interest. So after some misunderstandings in the past, I’ve tended to be extremely guarded, what seems cold to me, with men I don’t know when I’m alone. Even when it is completely harmless (like warning me about the tree branch I had just crashed into), I tend to feel threatened and become defensive. So I think that might have something to do with lashing out–feeling uncomfortable. Beyond just learning the verbal language of another country, there is a whole other language of gestures, expectations, looks and understandings that are also not native to me, and they won’t ever be, though I will get more adept at understanding them as time goes on. It’s been less than a year since I moved here, after all.
And when my yoga-mate said she loved the way I talk, it suddenly hit me: my accent and peculiar way of expressing myself are not necessarily linguistic defects. They just make me “that girl with an accent.” I don’t know why I never compared my situation before to the international students I went to college with, whose accents and funny ways of saying things endeared them to the rest of us. The fact that I am not Mexican, don’t talk like a Mexican and don’t appear to be Mexican are just quirks that identify me in this society, but my background is not a problem in and of itself.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to latch on to calling myself “just another gringa in Mexico!” or walk around with an American flag on my teeshirt. But I’m going to try to cultivate the new social role for myself as the “intriguing foreigner” instead of pretending to be Mexican. If my accent entertains people, that’s great. Since I started learning Spanish at the age of 18, it’s unlikely I could ever lose my accent anyway.
It’s hard to be the different one. I neatly avoided being so obviously and radically different for most of life. But once you’ve been “the only ____ in the room,” when circumstances change, you can be a much more sensitive member of the majority. And learning to love being different, well, that is a new goal for this Existential Migrant.