Losing my NZ-ness

21:25, May 12 2013

Sometimes these days I forget that I'm foreign here in the US. I can now go days, weeks even, without anyone stopping to ask me, incredulously, "Where are YOU from?"

I can't remember the last time I got the "bear doing a magic trick" look, when all I was trying to do was order a sandwich. It means that I'm starting to blend in here, which is nice.

This one truth brings with it a raft of kind of answerless questions. Is America simply less strange to me now? Has the relative comfort I have found in this culture led me to vibrate on a different frequency? Has my accent changed? Have I?

Maybe selfishly, I'm aware of this shift both when people react to my otherness and when they don't.

I recently signed up for a gym. I was sitting at the front desk completing my paper work with the manager, making small talk and I dropped into conversation that I was originally from New Zealand. The gym manager didn't even address it cursorily. He plowed past it. It seemed as if this New Zealand-ness I was claiming made me about as foreign to him as if I was claiming to have a Romanian great-grandmother. It felt odd.

But then just to be confusing, times like yesterday, when I'm at the supermarket buying milk and the guy behind the counter launches into an inquisition about my nationality, it feels jarring and weird to me. Because I was just minding my own business and feeling like I was at home.


(I was also wearing my most consistently complimented T-shirt, a Threadless shirt with a kiwi bird on it that is sliced open to reveal Kiwifruit inside. My sister and brother-in-law gave it to me. People love that shirt here. The supermarket checkout guy almost had kittens in excitement. "Oh man, a Kiwi! Wearing a T-shirt with a kiwi on it, that is in itself filled with kiwifruit! That's the most awesome thing I've ever seen!")

I'm not sure when the transition happened, but being foreign has become less of a talking point, even with strangers. So in turn, I dwell less on having come from somewhere far away.

I have three theories about this.

The first is that my accent has changed and I'm now fully conversant in American. I know the intonation and jargon required to make my antipodean brogue much less obvious. I write a lot about New Zealanders and meet many of my countrymen over here in different capacities. When I was in Sundance, writing about the New Zealand movie Shopping, much of the cast commented that my accent was ever so slightly American. Late last year, I had drinks with an old friend and a friend of his I'd never met, who were travelling around America. The friend didn't even pick up for a while that I was  from New Zealand for a half hour, maybe.

I still talk like 80 per cent of a New Zealander and I will always have an accent, but I think that a certain twang has been sanded away.

It could be argued that I'm also more comfortable in America now. I know the systems. I tip. I get the pace of life. I get the humour. I know the political system. I know how much things will cost. I can work a subway system. I know the local political figures and the requisite sports stars. Freeway gridlock doesn't throw me. I'm immersed now in the same cultural framework as everyone else. I grew up in a similar cultural context, but now I've caught up on the 30 per cent that's different.

I've caught myself up with the American X-factor.

Undeniably, an abetting factor to these first two is that I spend time around a lot of Americans (like my wife!). LP and I don't spend a lot of time reflecting on our different origins. We like to laugh about how we can't even discern each other's accent. LP doesn't sound American to me anymore. She just sounds like LP. In a wider context, with my American friends, we don't spend as much time talking about New Zealand anymore. I exist within their cultural framework. I'm not reaching back as frequently into the skip bin of New Zealand references to make sense of a conversation.

To them, I'm not James the New Zealander any more, I'm just James.

And for longer stretches of time now, in my head I'm not the guy who's not from around here, but just James, too.

I'm happy to not be all-caps FOREIGN any more, as much as I know that I'll always have a certain outsider way to me that people will pick up on.

But there's a small amount of tension about letting go of that instant modifier, because it means accepting that the whole immigrant gig isn't an experiment, or a phase - it is just my life now.

It's a bit needy of me wanting to be different, but then not, you know? 

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