I’m not sexually promiscuous. My wardrobe features no Americana or even an Old Navy 4th of July tee. I understand all my classes and can engage in normal social conversation with my classmates. Yet I’m an exchange student; a title I quickly laughed at and dismissed when I was first introduced as such. I’ve seen “American Pie”, and I’ve laughed at the Swedish exchange student in “Can’t Hardly Wait”, yet I fail to fulfill any of the stereotypes these fine films and other forms of media have informed me about exchange students. It may be a different case since I go to an International School where most people have lived in a half a dozen countries and speak three fluent languages, but my title, and possible stigma, as the exchange student has been rearing it’s ugly stars-and-stripes face at me too many times for me to ignore.
I do not exaggerate when I say that every single one of my classmates is a character. This is not a good or bad thing; it’s usually merely an entertaining thing. Karen is one of these characters. Karen has been described by other classmates as “sucking at everything,” her skin, hair and eyes are all a very similar shade of amber, despite being obviously quite a bit older than the rest of the class she remains ambiguously ageless, she is frequently 20-40 minutes late for class and she tends to regularly interrupt class with inane literary references. I’ve never minded Karen, she’s a lot to take but she always interesting, is usually very well put together and is a confirmed owner of patent-leather loafers. She hails from Swaziland but her personal history reads like a “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiago” adventure. South African accents tend to bring out the best in the English language, and her English Prep school education tends to reinforce this accent to a degree suitable for giving the Royal Family dialect coaching. With her older age, scholarly accent and shiny clean loafers whenever she talks to you you tend to feel as if you’re a common street child being scolded. Her accent is so significant, it sums up her persona, Karen is her accent. Karen has issues with my accent.
Coming inside from our break a small group of us were nearly run over by a Range Rover pulling in fast to the school entrance; a head pops out of the drivers’ side window and shouts, “Sorry chaps!”…Karen. Inside the lobby, which consists of the delicious .40 Euro coffees and a few mismatched chairs, I sit down talking with some friends scattered throughout the room. From the corner of my eye I can see Karen closely talking to my friend Madison and looking in my direction. I can already tell she is asking him what my name is. The previous week I was on a brief shoot with Karen and upon seeing my storyboards she came over to me and asked if I would sit down with her and work on hers; she then proceeded to volunteer me as director for the next film shoot by shouting to me from across the classroom, “Rodney! You should do it, I’ve seen you storyboard, you can do it.” I just figured out how to use the coffee machines successfully and had yet to actually touch equipment in the school yet somehow the fact that I know how to draw someone crouching against a wall gives me directorial validation. During the extended silence of the class unwilling to volunteer she volunteered me another two times. Last week she was all too familiar with my name, apparently this week she forgets. I mentally prepare myself for conversation with her.
“Where are you from Rodney?”
“From Philadelphia originally but I’ve been living in Boston for the past few years”
“That’s strange. I wouldn’t have guess that at t’all. I suppose your accent through me. I’ve been having a wild time with it.”
“Oh? I’m not usually aware of myself having an accent I guess.”
“Yes well see Madison [Madison is from Portland, Oregon] speaks quite differently from you but he’s from the States as well. He says everything quite clearly, quite crisply. Whereas you tend to…sing everything”
This is where I stop. This is where I glance over to Stephanie and Jean-Louis to make sure I didn’t just imagine someone referring to my speech as having a “singing” quality. I don’t even think people would describe my singing as having a “singing quality” let alone my everyday speech. Jean-Louis’ confused look and Stephanie’s barely contained laughter confirm that I have not imagined such a statement. I attempt to respond…
“I don’t really understand”
“See! Right there, you sang that.” She makes a twirling motion with her hands as if to illustrate the physical movement of my voice. The dance to my vocal singing. Never having been one to effectively hide my facial expressions she sees the mix of confusion and disbelief in my face and tries to elaborate in what she might possibly perceive as a complimentary way.
“I would have guessed you were from California, Southern California. It’s very much like those rich ones who are always frolicking on the beaches in television.”
“Uh no” is all I can manage to muster in my most East Coast monotone manner. Karen disregards and continues…
“Like those girls who are always vacationing in Malibu, those rich kids from the media, Southern California. Very rich California”
Karen keeps repeating these phrases as if they are cues for me to chime in, saying how she’s right…yes I was mistaken, my accent is very SoCal, rich girl, I was having a blonde moment before when you described it the first few times but once you mentioned Malibu I totally understood.
Now like every red-blooded adolescent male I had fantasies of Jeep rides down Sunset Boulevard, one hand balancing the steering-wheel and the Venti-Frappicuino, the other adjusting the rearview mirror to check myself out; but those visions came and went with “Clueless” viewings. They were never substantial and I happily never have an actual experience relating to said Jeep ride. I have a few Southern California friends and have been to Los Angeles quite a few times but I dislike the city mostly because I never feel like I belong there. Karen’s repeat viewings of the O.C. tell her otherwise.
I could only tell to Karen that I had never had such a comparison before and repeated my personal geographical history to which she replied:
“Oh so that’s what a Boston accent is like!”
“Oh god no.”
Karen soon dropped her traumatizing description of my accent and I was left to debrief with Stephanie (my friend who was born in Mexico and was raised both there, Seattle and studied in Spain) and Jean-Louis (my friend who was born and raised in Guatemala but has studied in Belgium and France). Stephanie having lived in the West Coast laughed at Karen’s remarks, which made me feel better. Jean-Louis inquired as to whether I had a Philadelphian accent, to which I replied I’ve never actually lived there but it’s the closest place that people in Europe might know. He then asked if I had a Boston accent sounded like and I did my best “Pahk da Cah in Hahvahd Yahd,” anyone who needs reminding as to my ability at accents or impressions needs only to read a few posts down. Jean-Louis then said that reminded him of “Rocky.” The movie Rocky famously takes place in Philadelphia.
While I might have left a few people confused, myself included I’m not used to being a representative of the East Coast. There are really only a few Americans in the program and none of them come from the East Coast, far from in all cases. A few times in Europe, when asked I’d tell people I was from “the New York area’ seeing as I’ve been countless times, isn’t too far from my hometown and honestly just didn’t want to have the conversation die at “Pennsylvania”. When I was traveling in England in high school people would often respond shocked, “You’re from Transylvania!!” But suddenly I felt an imposter to even the title of East Coast. I’ve never been in a position of providing a sole personal representation of the East Coast. I’ll spend my nights researching Boston, Connecticut, and Baltimore. I’ll interview and get advice from my friends in New York. I’ll start a big fight with Stephanie over the merits of Seattle rock versus Brooklyn rock. I’ll claim Tupac was nothing compared to Biggie; and I’ll delete “California Love” from my iTunes. Perhaps I’ll just say I’m from Pennsylvania and welcome the confusion, enjoy the looks of people as their eyes widen and check my molars for signs of fangs. Out with the Amish questions and in with the Vampire assumptions.
I’m one of two exchange students in the school of over seven hundred and I was denied a school ID today because they weren’t sure whether or not exchange students get them or not, we’re their first ones. They weren’t sure about insurance as well. Seems I’ll be wrapping myself in the good old red, white and blue for protection. Pass the “Freedom Fries” please.
For a trip that was largely based on getting far away from the U.S. and the East Coast, I was suddenly brought a whole lot closer to it. The diversity in terms of my classmates’ personal histories and cultural identifications are so varied, by comparison, I seem to be the clear-cut one. I in no way feel some grand need to fulfill some sort of “representing your country well” promise that teachers usually sternly tell you before you embark on school trips outside the country, but it’s an interesting place to be in. Who knows, perhaps I’ll embrace my few months as the exchange student. No need for a jacket if I’m wearing my large American Flag sweater! If I’m invited to a party my classmates will teach me phrases like “Would you like to touch my penis” in French and then send me off to greet their French friends with my new phrase. I’ll give a loud, guttural American laugh at their shocked expressions thinking they just didn’t understand my French through my heavy accent. It’s very Californian you know, very rich, very beachy, very…Malibu.