I hit a real milestone in our repatting adventure the other day, one I wasn’t expecting at all. Indeed, I hadn’t even given it a thought before.
Growing up in the US with an English mother, I was used to way people treated her because of her accent. In shops, salespeople would sometimes just follow her about, ignoring other customers and hanging on every word she said — sometimes she appreciated the personal service, sometimes she disliked the intrusion. A realtor once took her to see a $1million house, under the mistaken impression that we must be loaded just because she sounded posh to him. And often, people would reply to her in an attempted English accent — I always noticed her slight flinch, but I never really understood it. To me, their attempts were charming, flattering, funny, and usually, I thought, pretty good.
When I moved to the UK all those years ago, I had a perfectly American accent. In reality, if you listened very closely, you’d be able to hear a tell-tale lilt that revealed there was something different in my background, but most people didn’t catch it. Certainly the Brits I lived and worked with didn’t — to them, my accent was as American as apple pie and Chevrolet.
And, apparently, my accent was just too tempting as well — at least once a week, and sometimes more often, someone tried to imitate me. I’d say something perfectly innocuous and what I’d hear back would come as a complete shock. What were they saying? What were they doing? That strange sound!… OH! It’s… it’s… it’s supposed to be me?!? This is what they think I sound like?!?!?
And I’d smile… or wince — I was never quite sure which expression my face pulled — but no matter how I looked outwardly, on the inside I was always cringing. They never, ever got it right. No matter how many attempts at an American accent I endured, week after week, year after year, not one of them was anywhere near as good as the imitator thought it was, and every one was painful to hear. Ah… at last, I understood why my mother’s face always registered that barely noticeable flinch.
But now, we are back home and I should blend smoothly back into the crowd. Except that after years and years abroad, I don’t sound so very apple pie any more — most Americans, in fact, hear my now mixed accent and assume that I am a Brit born and bred. It’s confusing to them — and amusing to me — when I explain that, actually, I was born just down the road.
So I should have been expecting it, but I wasn’t. I was chatting away quite cordially with my neighbour yesterday when her voice suddenly jacked up an octave and she began speaking peculiarly, mangling her vowels and sounding a bit like the Queen being strangled. For a moment, I didn’t get it. And then she did it again, and I realised… she was trying to imitate me! And it was awful… awful. That familiar feeling came over me, and I cringed inside. But I tried very, very hard to be smiley on the outside while I quickly brought the conversation to a close.
And as I took the girls’ hands and walked back to the house I realised with a sigh that I’d reached, again, that most dubious of expat milestones. And then I realised with surprise that I’d one-upped my mum… Oh, lucky me — I get it from both sides now!