Fiction · 07/27/2011

Stamped

There’s only so much you can do to prevent it from happening to you. Sooner or later they will take that which you value the most; they will take your accent and there will be no marker on you anymore, no stamp to say you are from somewhere else. You don’t want to be like them, loud and intrusive, bossy, corn-fed, thoughtless and arrogant. You know, now that you live here, that these are stereotypes; you know now that most Americans aren’t like that, but you are afraid you will become that way if you lose the way you say your vowels. All Americans look different — your dark hair and oval eyes could be American of Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern or Italian descent — and without that shortening of the vowels, the slurring of certain words, the accenting of different syllables, you could be from anywhere, and that terrifies you.

So you stop listening to American radio, you get your news only through newspapers because you can control the voice in your head and make sure it is speaking your accent. Before you go to sleep, you listen to books on tape in your native language. These books would be sold in every book store at home, but now you have to special order them at the library. You listen every night to these rare books telling stories in your common language, the one you once used to buy cigarettes and milk at the corner store every day. You fall asleep listening to the rhythm of your first tongue because you think that when you start to dream in your second language, you no longer have a first.

You go to great expense to find imported plum rakia, thinking that passing brandy from home through your lips and over your teeth and tongue will fool your lips, teeth and tongue into thinking they are home, and they will begin to speak again with your accent. If you eat only gra_ak from a heavy wooden spoon, chewing the beef slowly, savoring each pea one by one, inhaling the aroma of it as you bring the bowl to your lips, your hair and nails will be made with native protein — your hair and nails won’t be American.

You have started to be less specific when people ask you where you are from, which is happening less and less these days now that you no longer drop your vowels. But they do ask still, the curious at the grocery store, they ask, and you now say, “Europe.” You let them fill it in with pictures from their vacations, you let them imagine baguettes and canals, espresso in tiny cups, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona. But you are from a place that no one has heard of and you’re tired of saying “It’s near Russia.”

Despite your best efforts, your accent is now no longer yours but still not quite American — people know something’s not quite right, but they ask where you are from less and less, not hearing the mark of the stranger in your voice anymore. It has finally happened. You have been away so long, you could be from anywhere.

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Cat Ennis Sears received her MFA from Emerson College, where she taught freshman composition and research writing. Her stories have recently appeared in Fringe Magazine, Corium Magazine, Bateau and the Printer’s Devil Review and been nominated for the 2011 AWP Intro Journal Awards.