“Your English is so good”

For many International PhD students the experience of living in another country is a positive one and one which they look forward to with excitement. However, some aspects of this experience may not be exactly how they expected, especially when they leave the ‘bubble’ of campus. In recent years we have heard more and more in the media about ‘micro-incivilities’ and ‘microaggressions’. In this post Maria, a former Warwick English Literature PhD student, reflects on some of her experiences and how she felt. What have your experiences been?  Have you experienced similar questioning? How did you feel about it? What motives did you ascribe to it? Was your experience in the UK? Or did it happen when studying in another country? Have your experiences been different in different territories? Have such conversations changed over time? How do you manage such conversations? We would be interested to hear your views.    

I am a migrant. I moved to the country I now call my second home when I was a young adult. When I moved away from my home country, that was my first time stepping outside my home country’s borders. That was my first time on a plane. My first time living away from home ever, for any length of time. My first time cooking a meal for myself, doing my own laundry. My first time having to do “grown up stuff” on my own: opening a bank account, (eventually) finding a flat share, sorting out my tuition. A lot of firsts.

I made this choice because I had a Romantic view of life: I wanted to study abroad, learn about other cultures, practice my language skills, challenge the ideas I had imbibed growing up, learn what other things were possible in life. In short, I simply wanted to broaden my horizons, and I wanted it with a passion, almost at any cost. It wasn’t easy, but I thankfully did have a support network backing me up. I grew a lot. I ended up staying in my adopted country not for lack of other or better options, but because my life here had grown organically within and around me: I made dear friends, I found trustworthy mentors, I met partners, I picked up habits, I fell in love with places, people, and aspects of the culture.

But ever since I moved, I have had interactions with local people that have left me uncomfortable. At first, I didn’t really understand where my discomfort came from, and such uncomfortable interactions happened rarely, anyway, in my privileged, international university campus bubble. But over the years such interactions started happening more regularly, and lately they’re happening more frequently than ever before. In time, I learned that these uncomfortable interactions have a name: microaggresions. They are questions, comments, or remarks that on the surface seem harmless, but which are actually rooted in often harmful or unjust assumptions.

Here’s what I mean. Picture this:

I stand at the bus stop, waiting for my bus to arrive. As the first bus approaches, the sweet old lady waiting in the queue asks what service number it is, because she can’t make it out due to her poor eyesight. I oblige. It turns out it isn’t her bus, and it isn’t mine either. But the old lady has noticed something, and she can’t help herself.

“Where are you from?” she asks.

“Originally?” I ask, feeling uncomfortable already.

“Yes!” The old lady seems positively enthusiastic now.

“Originally, I’m from [Eastern European country],” I answer, “but I have lived here for over a decade. What gave me away? Was it my accent?”

“YES, it’s SO exotic!” The old lady delights in the adjective.

A barrage of questions then follows. I see it coming, it’s happened many times before. There’s a list of questions and remarks, almost always the same:

  • Why did you move here?
  • Do you like it here?
  • What do you do now?
  • Your English is really good! (“Thank you,” I always say, “I’ve been living here for a long time.” “But it’s so good!” the person typically insists. “Did you study English in school?” “Yes, I studied English for 12 years before coming to Britain.” “Wow, that’s a long time!” my interlocutor always marvels.)
  • Do you go back home often? (I want to say “this is my home, too” but I have never been able to work up the courage. In the moment, getting interrogated by a stranger, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.)
  • Do you plan to stay here? (Or the more straightforward “You plan to stay here, right?” that doesn’t actually expect an answer.)

The people starting these “conversations” and pursuing them relentlessly are always strangers, people I have never met before and whom, in all likelihood, I will never see again: strangers at the bus stop or coach station, cashiers, taxi drivers. They all feel entitled to my time and to my life history within a 5 to 20 minute span, depending on the wait.

Sometimes, there are more intrusive and bizarre questions or comments, too, like:

  • You don’t look [like a person from your country of origin].
  • You don’t sound [like a person from your country of origin].
  • Did you already speak English when you moved here?
  • Are you here [i.e. in this country] on your own?
  • People in [your country of origin] are really poor, aren’t they?
  • Do you have any family left [in your home country]?

Are these people just curious to find out more about a friendly stranger with an unplaceable accent? Perhaps. But I doubt that they ask their conationals “where they’re really from” and “if they visit home often” while making small talk at the bus stop.

All of these questions are based on assumptions: that I shouldn’t be able to speak the country’s language as well as I do, that I moved here because I had no opportunities in my country of birth, that I want to stay because I want to continue to enjoy opportunities I shouldn’t be entitled to. This is what all these questions and comments read like to me.

Often I try to dodge them, or deflect, or suggest discomfort. So far, none of my strategies have worked. If I ask “why do you ask?”, instead of feeling embarrassed, as I might expect them to, the stranger presses on, asking for more information. If I say “I’m from [local city]”, more often than not they insist: “Were you born there though? You don’t sound like a local.”

If I try to talk about my job, about my studies, or about the weather, the interlocutor always goes back to what actually interests them: “Yes, but, do you plan on going home for Christmas?”

And if I mention that I have three degrees, all in English literature, all pursued in the country, most of these strangers look surprised, baffled even. How could a foreigner complete a degree in English in their country? This is what I hear, in my mind.

These are not isolated incidents. They happen on the regular and, as I mentioned before, more often now than ever. A few months ago I wrote a short performance piece about it, after I had to go through one of these “conversations” for the umpteenth time (at another bus stop, at 6.00 a.m., on a deserted street, with an inistent, talkative man twice my size).

I’m not shy or embarrassed about my trajectory in life. I find it interesting to swap life stories with people, in fact. But these strangers never offer anything about themselves, they only work at uncovering my past and motivations with what seems like a sort of hunger. These strangers aren’t looking to find a different perspective, learn about another culture, or establish a new acquaintance and stay in touch.

Sometimes, I play a guessing game with them. When they ask me where I’m from, I cheekily ask them to guess. They can spend up to 10 minutes trying to guess. It’s fun for them, and unsettling for me.

I am not entertainment when I’m waiting for the bus in the cold, trying to make my way home after a long day at work. I am not entertainment when I’m trying to bag my supermarket purchase. I am not entertainment.

Stranger, I will answer your questions, but let’s make this a fair exchange. Who do you think you are and where is your family? You show me yours, I’ll show you mine.

This Blog post was originally published on Maria’s blog:

https://encyclopaediavanitatum.wordpress.com/2020/07/14/your-english-is-so-good/?fbclid=IwAR2voBHUqn_PXuKNiT6sN1Wa35MRPesJF3tbAc-dc1f6WLOv6aEXfgTl57I

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