Wednesday, June 4, 2014

I didn't grow up here...

Most Americans - that is those who were born in the US and grew up here - have a very hard time understanding what it is really like to be a 'Non' American, living in America; possibly more so living in the South. It tends to be an almost disparaging joke in Europe, and maybe elsewhere, that Americans are so chauvinistic that they believe that if other nations are not exactly like they are, then they are wrong.

That is probably a slightly unreasonable thing to say, but there are so many people in this country, and so many of them have never been outside their home state, let alone their country, that it is rare to meet an American who actually realizes that life in other countries is quite a bit different, and that doesn't make it wrong.

After almost twenty years here, I still find people looking at me with confusion because I don't share the same experiences, remember the same TV shows from childhood, maybe the 1950s. Hello? I was born in Ireland, in 1946 and I don't ever remember seeing a television set until I was about 11 years old, and that was through the window of a rich neighbor's house ( and I might add, back then I spelt it neighbour). Plus, they only got two channels and both of them were British. Yes, BBC did show a few of the US shows even in those early days, mainly because they hadn't yet had time to grow enough at home.

I had a friend whose family got a TV and it was fascinating. We loved to watch Bill & Ben The Flower Pot Men on Watch with Mother on BBC. To be able to receive the British shows, it was necessary to have a outside arial or antenna.

By the time we got a TV in my house, there was finally an Irish television station, and we got a whole lot of black and white shows which were mainly news in Irish and a whole lot of 'Test Card'. We didn't have an antenna.

We did eventually get color in 1969.

I learnt to speak, or at least understand, 'American' watching my hero, John Wayne, and other cowboy movies, and later canned TV shows from th US. However, we got very few of them. We got shows like Dragnet, Highway Patrol and I Love Lucy, Gun Smoke, Bonanza and a few others, we did not get those US shows that were cloned from BBC shows and we never did get the very early shows.

Take for instance, Till Death Do Us Part, one of BBC top comedy series. Later to be copied by CBS under the title All In The Family.  I have yet to meet an America who will not deny point blank that their hero Archie Bunker was based on a BBC show. Then there was Steptoe & Son which became Sanford & Son when imported into the US. The UK did have a lot of shows which they copied from the US, but they were mainly game shows, and shows like Late Show. If you have an interest, here is a list of UK shows copied in the US. And to keep things fair, here is a list of US shows copied in the UK.

Don't get me wrong. I love America, I love Americans, I am happily married to one. But if they could just understand how difficult it is to be a foreigner in America it would make life easier (for said foreigner). By that I mean, just little things that are so very different between America and just about any other country, but trying to get information on how to navigate the ordinary is not easy. You ask most Americans how to do something and they have a very hard time figuring out what it is you need to know or why you don't already know it. And it would be nice if different was not always wrong, and ignorance was not necessarily stupidity.

Before I came here I attended a series of seminars specifically for Green Card winners (of which I was one) where we were schooled in all the differences we could expect. We were told that we absolutely had to get a Social Security Card / Number and we were given details on how to do that. We also learned how to get a driver's licence and all the other mundane things that were so different and so necessary. Some things they forgot to tell us.

Take a for instance, a very simple example. Filling a car with gas  (1994). I had never, ever seen a gas pump with a handle to start the pump. In Ireland we lifted the pump, stuck it in the car tank, pulled the trigger and that was it, I had never seen those old pumps with the handle. First time I tried I spent 5 minutes trying to figure out how to make the gas flow (which incidentally we call petrol). I guess I looked like a moron and I might never have done so if my passenger had not been an American girl (we were both counselors at summer camp on a day off - see my book for more on that). On the same subject, I had never seen an air pressure pump in a gas (petrol) station that didn't have a gauge attached to it! And I stopped trying to air up my tires because all I manged to do was let more air out.

Then there is the accent, mine not theirs (I have met a number of Americans who do not believe they have an accent at all). Most people don't have a problem understanding me now, except perhaps when I forget to use the American terminology (see here for some of the differences ) but at least I can quickly correct that.

When I first arrived my accent was much stronger. The Irish have a much softer accent that the British which often makes us harder to understand, we tend to soften, or sometimes eliminate the trailing 't' sound, and more often if there is a 'th' or where one word ends with 't' and the next also starts with 't'.

I had only been here a few months when I had my accent corrected very harshly by a totally obnoxious guy. I was volunteering at a Haunted House construction (read about that house here ) and had been sent to the supplies department to fetch a roll of duct tape. I asked for it, in my Irish accent I guess it sounded something like 'I need some duc' tape please'. The aforementioned obnoxious guy assumed a disgusted look and, despite being seated, managed to look down his nose at me and at first pretended (I am sure - he couldn't have been that stupid?) not to understand what I wanted, and then said 'We call it duct tape here' as he gave me a roll.

Very few people have been that rude but many do laugh or get exasperated if I display ignorance, and they still tease me about the way I speak, and some of the sayings I use. An example of something I said recently that caused some strange and confused looks was 'a spanner in the works' . See here for definition. I did quickly correct myself and replaced the spanner for the American wrench.

So, coming up to 20 years here, I am beginning to think that I never will be totally assimilated; but perhaps that is a good thing, at least I maintain my own identity.

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