“Where are you from?” they ask me the minute I open my mouth.
All it would take is one word, a simple hello, and they would immediately discover that I’m not one of them, that I’m a transplant from a faraway land.
After seventeen years of living in the US, I still haven’t figured out how to pronounce one American word correctly before revealing my true colors, my deviation from red, white and blue.
Even though I’m a naturalized citizen who proudly carries her American passport everywhere I go, I was not born in this land. This purgatory is where I dwell—one foot in Rockville, Maryland, and another in Jordan, where I grew up. Having an accent only accentuates that sense of not belonging, the unsettling feeling that the jig is always up, that I’m a foreigner who will die a foreigner.
When I first moved to the US and realized my phonetics issues, it bothered me. It really bothered me, especially when sometimes the question of where I was from would be followed by, “Do you speak English?”
It infuriated me when people slowed down their speech to talk to me so that I could understand them since, in their eyes, my accent was proof of my language inferiority.
I grappled with many issues as I sunk into the hole of self-doubt. Would my accent affect my job prospects? Would potential employers think I’m not qualified enough even though I had over two decades of experience and a master’s degree in journalism from one of the best universities in the United Kingdom (the birthplace of the English language)?
Would my accented American English impede my pursuit of a writing job in English? Shall I enroll in an accent reduction class? Can I even afford that?
Although eventually I got various jobs in the US and appeared on TV to comment on international news, was invited to speak on panels, and was published in top newspapers like the Washington Post and Elle magazine, self-doubt never left me.
That damn accent.
My unfair advantage
Everything changed when I attended a live presentation by media mogul Greek-American Ariana Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post. She started her presentation with this one sentence: “I have an accent.” Then she made a joke about her accent, saying her ex-husband thinks it’s because “she never listens.” Everyone laughed, and she moved on. She addressed the elephant in the room first, made it fun, and then went on with her presentation.
That’s when I realized her strategy and how she managed to work it in her favor. She used her accent as her opening line and as a joke that set her presentation on a powerful note. She transformed what I’d always seen as an impediment into an advantage.
I was so inspired by her accent strategy that I started doing the same. I flipped the script using my accent to showcase my worldly experience. I would start any presentation I give or any job interview by saying that I worked and lived across the world “as you can tell from my accent.” My audience would usually react with a smile or chuckle, moving on to the day’s business.
I also use my accent to eliminate the fear of asking stupid questions, especially when I’m on the phone trying to sort out a financial issue with the bank or an IT problem with my internet provider.
I would ask any question I can think of because of the perception of accented people being less educated, immigrants from a less developed locale who just got off the boat.
“What’s an interest rate again?”
“What’s a SWIFT code?”
“What’s the difference between 5G and 4G?”
All my questions got answered.
I ask and ask and never stop. My biased theory is there is no stupid question if you have an accent. The world is your oyster. In those instances, I embrace the assumption that I’m subpar and ask stupid questions to my heart’s content.
Instead of being an impediment, my accent is now my superpower, my way of showcasing my unique expertise, my cosmopolitan brand.
After years of dwelling in self-doubt, my accent now is my unfair advantage; it’s what makes me stand out from the crowd and also lets me get away with asking many questions.
When I usually make a joke about my accent, the response sometimes would be, “It’s a beautiful accent.” Yes, that damn accent is beautiful, after all.
When I first came to the US, I used to spend hours on the phone with potential scammers because I thought it was rude to hang up on people. I would listen to them telling me how I won a cruise to the Bahamas, how my car warranty has expired, and how my Google business listing is not showing up correctly. I would just listen quietly and answer their questions because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings, you know, it’s rude to hang up on people, and just like a good Arab, I would have to say goodbye ten times before hanging up. My mom would be proud. I used to argue with my American husband about how he handled them. “You can’t just say I’m not interested and hang up the phone; it’s rude,” I would say to him.
“They are scammers. You don’t waste your time on them, ” he would respond. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t just hang up!” I would say and then storm off. I knew I was right. I thought I was right.
Now, 17 years later, I would hang up the phone the minute I heard them let out their first breath. No hellos, no goodbyes. As soon as I terminated the call, I immediately added their number to my blocked numbers list, thanks to the magic of the iOs.
Assimilation 🇺🇸 at its best.
*Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels