Monday, January 26, 2009

The Americanisation of Khadija Ejaz

I led a very stable and sheltered life until high school in Oman and India. In contrast, my life in the US from age 18 to 27 was spent trying to figure out why, despite having being a social whiz all my life, I suddenly could not function beyond the level of a bumbling paranoid social train wreck.

Looking back, I am alarmed at how huge the implications of such a move at such an age all by oneself are and how no one really prepared me for it. And how could they? Most people still don't realise or appreciate how traumatic such an experience can be. In fact, they blame you for it. At an age when children derive their sense of worth from the acceptance of their peers, landing in the middle of what may as well be another solar system can jar the most solid of folks. Add to that constantly feeling inadequate in your new environment and being ridiculed for displaying signs of adapting to your new environment by those in your old environment like it's something you're doing on purpose to hurt people, and you've got a person in the early stages of a meltdown.

I don't really know at what point the process of Americanisation began in my life in America. I'd always been exposed to American culture through movies, music, food, and clothing. Maybe Americanisation is the wrong word. I felt like I was falling behind and I desperately tried to catch up by speaking the same language. I think what began to happen is that I began to show selective parts of my cultural personality, using the parts that the people in my American environment wouldn't respond to less and less until they rusted.

Isolated in a remote part of America, I struggled with my identity from my physical appearance to the basics of my existence as I lived between hemispheres. It was a horrific experience. As a student I spent 2/3rds of the year in the isolated American Bible Belt and the rest of the time I was back in Oman. I disliked the travel aspect of it because it came with weeks of personality adjustment everytime. I, in fact, felt guilty beyond belief that I couldn't hold onto one immutable personality. I wish someone had told me that I was a kid who was still growing into myself and wasn't expected to have as rock-solid a personal identity as, say, a weathered 50-year-old man. Once I started working, I could only make it back to Oman three weeks at the most every year. By the time I was over the jetlag and had started to rebond with my Eastern life, it was time to pull away again and readjust to America. I think after about 10 years of living between different planets like this and not having a proper social support system in either place exhausted me in all the dimensions psychologists (or is it sociologists?) talk about.

Funny thing is, until the last minute I was in the US before flying out for good, I felt like a misfit. After a decade, I felt like I had become more stubbornly Eastern. It's been two months since I've left the US, and I still feel like a misfit but in a horribly opposite way: I now sound like an American to everybody. I mean, I can't even control these things. In America I felt like the most unAmerican person. My unAmericanisms stood out like crazy: my British spellings and pronounciations; my fragmented knowledge of American social cues, history, pop culture, political issues; my sporadic lapses into nonAmerican accents, etc. Now that I'm out of America, it's the opposite. I open my mouth and I and everyone else hear an American speaking. It is really quite tiresome. In America I was the exotic foreign person. Now I seem to be unable to not be American, and I'm not doing anything different. I'm just being me, and apparently, even that's a relative thing. Nowadays I'm afraid to say anything lest my Americanisms start shouting at every random passerby. I think I have linguistic Turret's or something.

Some of my recent Americanisms in non-US territories have been as follows:

1. My accent sounds more American than KFC.
2. I know the name of every celebrity, even the ridiculous ones, featured on Perez Hilton
3. I instinctively extend my hand for a shake in social situations even though it's taboo in the East for men and women to shake hands.
4. I have a firm handshake
5. I make direct eye contact while talking to people
6. I use email more than the phone to connect with people
7. I cannot stop using 'Dayyum'/'Dayyung' to express surprise. Also in frequent use are the phrases 'ohhhmagawd', 'like fuh reals', 'wuuuuuut', etc.
8. I feel frustrated when my social options are limited because I'm a female.
9. I die when I want to run errands but can't because I don't have a car and have to ask my dad to help me do things.
10. I am regularly scolded by my family that my English at home sounds disrespectful and that I must cease and desist usage of the words 'stop', 'no', 'what', 'why', 'don't care', etc.
11. I miss popcorn with butter at the AMC
12. I frequently feel the call of the lonely highway
13. I derive all my information from the InterBible
14. I feel odd having people fill my car up with petrol for me
15. I seem to have become extremely direct and outspoken
16. I'm an expert at ordering fast food (Subway sandwiches and pizza delivery guys, I'm talking to you)
17. I live according to my planner
18. I seem to talk to superiors as if they went to college with me
19. My dad's accent now sounds really British compared to my apple-pie drawl.
20. Well-versed wordly people turn to me about certain American phrases like 'good to go', 'ballpark', etc.
21. An American professor in Oman marvelled at my accent and told his colleagues that I speak perfect American, from my pitch to my speed to my tone to my humour to my facial expressions.

Topping it all:

22. I cannot say my name straight, especially while talking to a customer service person or something. *screech!!!!* I am now Kuh-dee-jaa.

OMG, am I an ABCD??


neha wilson said...

interesting read :) I can see a gem of a person in you (sayin: i hardly know u otherwise)

Khadija Ejaz said...

Aw shucks, you're just sayin' that. ;)

psychoman said...

yikes..i cant think of anything to say, cos you pretty much said it all..I've been vehemently resisting Americanizing myself, but in the process I think I have been severely NRI'd..

Khadija Ejaz said...

I've been an NRI all my life, and I still got muddled in America! I feel like such a fraud writing books about India when I have never lived there. Next stop: Bharat.