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Friday, August 6, 2010

people of accents

I am a person of accent. Although I’ve lived in the U.S. for more than two decades, I still have a prominent accent. People who know Israelis recognize my accent in a flash. People who have never met a native Hebrew speaker before running into me usually think I am French because I have a soft ‘r’ which they assume to be French, but really is a Hebrew ‘r’. Some people assume I am not very bright because I have an accent. Many people think I'm a tourist.

I used to think that being perceived as a French person was a much better deal than being Israeli. The French appear to be a lot more sophisticated than the Israelis, at least when it comes to food and fashion. The Israeli stereotype conjures up in most people's mind images of terrorist attacks, desert, and Hasidic attire, none of which can be attributed to me since I come from the northern part of Israel and am a devout secular. When I told my French colleague about my French preference, she said that being French in America is just as annoying, because people usually assume a French person is either a chef, a restaurant owner or an antique furniture dealer.

While I sympathize with my colleague's predicament, I'd take that over any Israeli stereotype. It is so much sexier being a chef than being perceived as a supporter of West Bank settlers or a right wing fundamentalist. It really doesn't matter how much lobster I eat or how many times I express opinions that don't fall under the usual headlines from Israel, people assume I am kosher and trigger happy to some degree.

In California, when American-born "natives" think about people of accents they usually think about "ethnics" and illegal immigrants. But many people of accent don’t look much different from the general Caucasian population and blend in pretty well when they venture out... until they open their mouth, and then they have to deal with the general stereotypes, comments, and questions.

One of my "favorites" is the comment, "you speak English so well." Well, maybe I have an accent, dude, but I've been speaking English longer than you do, is what usually pops into my head. Sometimes I can't help myself and say, "you, too." Sometimes I swallow the expletive that wants to come out of my mouth and thank the offender.

Here's a sample of questions I still deal with on a very regular basis:

Are you visiting? Do you like it here?
Where are you from? (People usually assume I'm from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, as if these are the only two inhabitable places in Israel.)
What brought you to the U.S.?
Do you have a family here? How long have you lived here?
What do you think about the conflict, Netanyahu, Sharon, Golda Meir?
Do you eat sushi?

Waiters add their tip to my bill because they know that Europeans don't tip and they think I am from Europe (France or Croatia or the Czech Republic). Some of them give me an attitude because they think I'm going to stiff them, because I am ...European. When I was pregnant with my daughter people started speaking to me in Spanish the moment I opened my mouth, I guess because only Latinas dare to be pregnant and walk on the street at the same time. Some people just go blank after they ask for directions and I start talking. And job interviews were never a fun experience, either.

Sometimes I wish I didn't have an accent and I imagine what my life would have been like if I could speak American and be one of the crowed. Then one of my friends would say, "Please, don't lose your accent. You can read the phone book on NPR and you'd make it sound like poetry of a political prisoner who has written their life's story on toilet paper with bug juice."

I think I'm going to take this as a compliment and keep my accent for the time being.

1 comment:

  1. My mom still laments that people always comment on her accent, everywhere we go--after 25 years as well (she is French)! And although many people in the States have accents and generally people like the French (generally), I think what is most vexing for her is that people immediately view her as an outsider despite how long she has lived here...