Friday, May 16, 2014

On learning to dismount the high horse

As you (probably) know, I am a South African expat, living in the UK. If you're an expat, too, you will know that a conversation about your accent is something that takes place pretty much on a daily basis. Shopkeepers, people with whom you strike up conversations on the train, people on the other end of the phone, fellow attendees at business meetings... everywhere and anywhere seems to be the right place and any time seems to be the right time for "Where are you from?"

Some people like to guess. South Africans ('saffas'), New Zealanders (kiwis) and Australians (ozzies) often get mistaken for each other. At one stage, I worked with an Australian. We had a lot in common and we got on really well. His family and mine spent social time together on the weekends. This clearly showed in the way we interacted with each other at work, and many people assumed we were a couple, because we got on so well together and 'had the same accent.'

These are three very competitive sporting nations and in general, it doesn't go down too well with a national from one to be mistaken for another. I was no exception. I bristled when I was asked if (and sometimes told that) I was an ozzie or a kiwi. A facetious "g'day mate" brought out the worst in me.

But then I realised something. I can't tell accents apart, either. Yes, I can tell my ozzies from my kiwis (it's in the As and the Is), but I can't tell a Pole from a Latvian - and we have many of both in our town. I can't tell a Pakistani from an Indian, and there are many of both of those all over the UK. I have no idea how offended a Polish person is when asked if they're Latvian, or vice versa. I have no idea whether a cricket fan from Pakistan bristles at being asked if s/he is enjoying an England/India game being televised at the time.

So I decided to get down off that high horse before I got a nosebleed. It really isn't a big deal. And at least the person is showing some interest and making conversation about something other than the weather.

But I'm still ridiculously pleased when someone gets it right. Just this morning, I popped into a little shop on the Charing Cross station and the man behind the counter identified me as a South African. I asked how he could tell, and he said (a) that he was a fan of cricket in general and Kepler Wessels in particular and (b) that with the South African embassy being just across the road, hordes of saffas visited his shop on a daily basis. The man himself was from India...or Pakistan...or Bangladesh...or maybe even Sri Lanka. I couldn't tell. Something I am readier to admit from ground level than I ever was from my perch on that horse I mentioned.

Now if I can just learn to stop bristling when people try to 'do the accent' which I have never heard anyone do successfully...

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