I was reading one of my favorite blogs (I’m Just Walkin), about a man who walked across the Northern United States to get to the Pacific in 517 days. He’s now planning on walking through New York state.
This quote he posted as he’s preparing for his next walk, struck me as absolutely perfect:
Samuel sat in the buggy beside Lee, and his clobber-footed saddle horse shuffled clumsily behind.
“What’s your name?” Samuel asked pleasantly.
“Lee. Got more name. Lee papa family name. Call Lee.”
“I’ve read quite a lot about China. You born in China?”
“No. Born here.”
Samuel was silent for quite a long time while the buggy lurched down the wheel track toward the dusty valley. “Lee,” he said at last, “I mean no disrespect, but I’ve never been able to figure why you people still talk pidgin when an illiterate baboon [like myself] from the black bogs of Ireland, with a head full of Gaelic and a tongue like a potato, learns to talk a poor grade of English in ten years.”
Lee grinned. “Me talkee Chinese talk,” he said.
“Well, I guess you have your reasons. And it’s not my affair. I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe it, Lee.”
Lee looked at him and the brown eyes under their rounded upper lids seemed to open and deepen until they weren’t foreign any more, but man’s eyes, warm with understanding. Lee chuckled. “It’s more than a convenience,” he said. “It’s even more than self-protection. Mostly we have to use it to be understood at all.”
Samuel showed no sign of having observed any change. “I can understand the first two,” he said thoughtfully, “but the third escapes me.”
Lee said, “I know it’s hard to believe, but it has happened so often to me and to my friends that we take it for granted. If I should go up to a lady or a gentleman, for instance, and speak as I am doing now, I wouldn’t be understood.”
“Pidgin they expect, and pidgin they’ll listen to. But English from me they don’t listen to, and so they don’t understand it.”
“Can that be possible? How do I understand you?”
“That’s why I’m talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”
As a person with a foreign accent, this happens to me all the time. People have been aggressive, childishly curious, and entitled when they notice I have an accent. When I come to these situations I’m kind but straightforward. But I can’t help wonder about people’s cognitive abilities, their tolerance levels, and their people skills when this happens.
Are we really still that troubled by accents that their carriers (as if it was a disease) must be defined, boxed, and classified, even in 2011-2012?
Does this happen to you too? Or are you guilty of it?