Monday, September 19, 2011

Relativity of Life

This week is made of awesome! Today is a bank holiday. Tomorrow to Thursday, I'm on the Junior High School trip, and Friday is another holiday. (Oh, and October 10 is also a holiday. 3 long weekends in one pay period? Welcome to Japan.)

Some friends of my Jamaican friend in a neighbouring town came up for the weekend and I hung out with them. We had an absolute blast. There was one thing that kind of bugged me though. They said I didn't sound like a Bajan (Barbadian).

I wasn't bothered by the fact that they said that, but by the fact that it's true. My accent is a bit like water. In the absence of other matter, water doesn't have a colour. But put it near another substance, and you'll be able to see that colour through or reflected in the water. My voice is pretty close to a neutral accent. And I switch accents according to what I'm saying and who I'm saying it to. If I spend a day in the company of someone with a strong accent, I'll pick it up.

So for most of the weekend, I went between the neutral accent, and a Jamaican one. Once they even told me I sounded Trinidadian. And I felt bad, because I love Barbados, and I rep it every time I can, but my accent disappears the minute I talk to someone from somewhere else.

Saturday night, we went to dinner at Mameshichitei (lit. 7 bean restaurant) and the owner, Mama-san, treated us to a Japanese-Western feast. The visiting Jamaicans have only been here 2 months, and the Canadian and my Jamaican friend have been here a year, but my Japanese is better than the rest of the group. As I conversed with Mama-san, the guy sitting next to me kept marvelling at my fluency. (My Japanese isn't really all that good. It's just that you tend to have the same sort of conversation when you socialise, and after 3 years, I've gotten really good at that conversation.)

But one thing he said stuck with me.

"You sound just like a Japanese."

And I do. People tell me this all the time. Foreigners who have better Japanese than I do, say they wish they could get the accent down like I do. Plus, I actually make a game out of talking to people when they're not looking at me, and then watching the shock as they realise I'm not Japanese.

My muted, malleable accent applies to foreign languages. When I was in Colombia, the Colombians all thought I was from San Andres, an island off the coast. French people think I'm from Martinique. Martiniquans think I'm from Quebec. It never seems to occur to Spanish and French speakers that I didn't grow up speaking the language. If it weren't so highly unlikely for me to be a Black Japanese, the same thing might happen here, until I got past the depth of conversation I'm comfortable with.

And all of this is because my ears pick up on subtleties and my mouth translates them in a way that other people don't seem to do. And all this happens naturally.

In one case, it's maybe a bad thing. On the other hand, it's one of the things that facilitates me easily transitioning back and forth between 5 languages. Sometimes, the very same things that are a source of pain, discomfort, shame, etc are also what bring our greatest joys, and make our acheivements possible. Good and bad don't exist in a vaccum.

Life is relative.

It's Monday. That's what's on my mind.


J.B. Chicoine said...

I think if I were going to choose a gift (the aptitude sort), it would be language! (okay, I really wish I had a singing voice too) I do okay with English as my native tongue, and I took 4 years of French in high school (but didn't do too well and retained very little of it). I can count to 10 in 4 languages--that's it!

I think it is sooooo cool that you are so multi-lingual! and have even mastered accents of the native! I'm in awe!

Marsha Sigman said...

I can speak Southern English. Which is different from regular English.

I can do a really bad british accent...that's it. Oh, and I imitate my drycleaners guy but that's only for entertainment purposes. I'm seriously jealous of your versatility.