Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Woman Behind the Curtain

When you are a stranger in a strange land, you become an object of curiosity. Meeting locals turns into a game of 20 questions as you are given the usual run-down of inquiries every time you're introduced to a classmate, a friend of a friend, family members and the like: "Where are you from? What are you doing here? Its it your first time to France? Do you like our country? Do you know who will win the 2008 presidential election?" The questions never change, but more importantly, neither do the answers: "The United States, Minneapolis, no not where they have the car race, that's INDIANapolis, I'm studying international affairs, I've been to France multiple times, I love your country...and no, I don't know who will win the 2008 presidential election, sorry."

I recently realized just how often I had been repeating my little getting-to-know-you speech when the French people I was talking to began telling me that I had no accent. I mean, I know I can speak French pretty well, but no accent? Obviously these people had never heard me try to say the French word for "yogurt." The truth is, I have repeated the exact same answers so many times, that I've got the speech down pat, perfectly correct pronunciation and all!

You might think it's nice to be recognized for lack of an accent by native speakers, and at first is really is. But once your feeling of pride and accomplishment wears off you realize that they expect you to sound that good all the time. You've set the bar too high for yourself; now there's nowhere to go but down. It's like that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls aside the curtain and we see that the Great and Powerful Oz is just a man with a loudspeaker. When we eventually move from the introductions to regular conversation, I'm no longer the foreigner who amazingly learned how to speak accent-free French. When the curtain pulls aside, I'm just that American girl with an American accent who can't correctly pronounce "yaourt" to save her life. I just hate seeing the disappointment in their eyes.


Anonymous said...

Just say "Yaway" instead. At least you'll get a laugh or two. Ha!


frogonroad said...

I always thought is wa pronounced Yoplait?

Tanya said...

Nope. It's pronounced in some crazy vowel-laden way that native english speakers (or maybe it's just me) have a hard time wrapping their tongues around.

Blair said...

My (French) boss once said (in French) "you know, you don't have an accent when you speak French." I got really excited, but then he continued "but we can still tell you're foreign because of the words you use." Oh well, can't win 'em all!