One thing that I have come to appreciate in the last few months is the importance of being understood. The society you live in must understand you if you are to ably acquire that fabled cup of water for your perched throat.
Jokes have been told forever of the clueless Ugandan from a completely different culture, who goes to live in the West and on returning, perhaps to visit his relations, has a most annoying twang in his accent. The old women in the village (where he is obliged to go, at least to show off the distance between him and the people he left behind) cannot stop jeering, thinking, “What a waste!”
Of course there have been people who travel to Nairobi, Kenya or South Africa, only a couple of hundreds of miles and return with an accent. Mind, that accent is not always connected to Swahili. If they came back with the most amazing Sheng, that would be something. Unfortunately, they come back speaking like they’ve lived in the Bronx for the last 20 years.
But I have been disabused from the notion that accents do not change. I have come to learn, first-hand, why the accent of a person who goes to live in a new place must change. It is of such importance, a person cannot survive without it. The old joke about knowing enough of a language to ask directions and water is not so much a joke when viewed in this perspective.
Many people I have met in my work in Finney County have listened to me speak for three minutes then asked, “Where are you from?” They go on to state that my accent is “interesting.” Just like they did with Mildred.
I am the lucky one. I guess I must say thank you to American TV and all those American novels I have been reading since childhood. These have helped me realize in a bit that something I said came off strange, so I need to recalibrate. I know people who have answered questions from Americans totally differently than they should.
Accent is the major factor. I have also caught myself having to explain what I meant after someone has gone off answering something I asked on a tangent. This one time I asked the Attorney General of Kansas what he thought about gangs and he heard ‘guns.’ There I was waiting for a polite way to stop the train before I could correct him.
In my line of work, I need to come around to a point where people will not think I am some sort of slow thinker. Some friends in the trade would understand this. You can only get away with that so many times.
I have a friend in Texas who has been in this country for more than a decade. He has the drawl down to perfection and he does it without thinking. But he has never forgotten how to speak his Ugandan languages, even with an amazing accent when speaking Luganda, which isn’t his mother tongue. I believe that is what it should be like in the final analysis – being yourself and letting nature take its course.