I have never lived in a place where you'd pick me out of the crowd as being foreign. But speak with me, or hear me speak, and it immediately becomes apparent I'm from somewhere else. Until I was 11 I'd been a normal Canadian kid, not even aware of accents. I was unremarked, unnoticed, sounding the same as everyone else. This all changed when we moved to New Zealand. I was suddenly different, and people teased me for the way I said things. For the shy girl that I was, this was extremely awkward. People noticed. People paid attention. I would have preferred that they didn't.
My sister suffered the same problem, but she overcame it. She lost her accent, and it didn't take long for her to sound like one of her peers. Despite being younger, my accent stayed. I doubt it was a conscious act on my part, but slowly I came to appreciate sounding different. I didn't quite fit in with the crowd for a lot of reasons, but this was one reason I could be proud of. People even thought it (me!) was cool. I had an identity. I was 'that Canadian girl'. Plus it made small talk (something that I was very bad at) easy.
I've been back to Canada several times since the move, and each time I miss my accent. I'd feel unremarkable and suddenly I didn't enjoy being one of the crowd. Oh, there were a few indications I lived somewhere else - speak with me long enough and a Canadian would become aware that I said some words oddly and had an unusual turn of phrase - but it wasn't obvious and you had to speak with me for quite some time to notice it. I took to wearing a greenstone pendant. When people remaried on it they either asked where it was from or could identify it as Kiwi, and I could explain that that was where I was from, too.
But trips back to Canada were just short interludes. In New Zealand, and then again in Northern Ireland, it was clear that I was a foreigner. And it became a large part of my identity. "Where are you from?" "Is that a Canadian/American (insert totally random nationality here) accent?" "How long have you been here?" "What brings you to our country?". These were the mainstays of my casual social interactions. An easy way to start the conversation.
But now here we are in California and I sound, if not just like then close enough to, everyone else. It isn't the first thing that's noticed. It isn't remarked upon. People ask John where he's from but not me. It is infuriating. From that shy girl who didn't want to be different I've become someone whose difference is very much part of how I see myself. It singles me out as a traveller, an adventurer, someone who has tried something new and seen something different. And while it has been many years since I've identified myself as solely Canadian, it's been a great way to start the conversation of who I am.
I recently read this article and much of it resonated with me. It helped crystalize one of the reasons that I've been feeling like I've lost some of my identity. To quote: "The foreign has long been my stomping ground, my sanctuary ... foreignness became not just my second home, but my theme, my fascination."
I've loved and embraced the otherness. It made me feel special even when deep down I didn't think I was. It marked me out as different, not one of the crowd, unique and worth talking to. I hid behind it, using it as a shield. It made people satisfied that they new something about me without me having to reveal anything below the surface.
I started writing this post with no conclusion in mind, but I guess the takeaway is this - perhaps I'll have to come to terms with the fact that, even though I sound like everything else, I really am my own precious snowflake. My own person, different from everyone else, with valuable opinions, and worth making small talk with. Even if I do sound just like everyone else.