February 2nd, 2015


In this family, I am a foreign country

Yesterday, Humuhumu came to me with her gloves in her hand and said solemnly, "Mama, I can't do it." She likes to put all her clothes on herself, but gloves are difficult. She tries, but she can't do it.

The way she pronounced "can't" (KAH-nt) gave me a sudden, very sharp pang of alienation. It's a sensation to which I've become unaccustomed, embedded as I am into life in the UK. It brought home that my daughter doesn't sound like me. Not only that, she never will. She'll grow up with a British accent - what flavour is still to be determined, as she hears Brummie and Black Country at nursery, but academic British and American at home. Both my children won't sound like me. Maybe one day they'll be even embarrassed by their mum's American accent. It was unexpectedly painful to know that no matter how British I become in my habits and my tastes, as soon as I open my mouth I'm instantly identifiable as non-native, and I'll be the only one in our little family to be so.

There's a passage at the end of the last story in Zen Cho's Spirits Abroad that resonates particularly with me.

Past a certain point, you stop being able to go home. At this point, when you have got this far from where you were from, the thread snaps. The narrative breaks. And you are forced, pastless, motherless, selfless, to invent yourself anew.

Despite striving to reinvent myself over the past decade, I know that my expression of Britishness is always identifiably tinged with foreignness, and I don't just mean my accent. It's always a little jarring to be reminded that integration is not a process that is ever finished, or that can truly be perfected. I want my children to be as well integrated as possible into the culture they'll have to spend the majority of their time in. It will be effortless and natural for them. I don't want them to have American accents. But since they already seem to have so little of me in their outward appearances, apart from dark eyes and in Humuhumu's case, an outrageous fringe of pitch-black eyelashes, it hurts a little to watch them do with ease what I have to practise consciously. And to know that this difference between us is permanent.

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