I recently had my first encounter with a white expat who has adopted a fake local accent. At first, I thought my ears were playing tricks on me. Perhaps she has a speech impediment? But no, I have known this person for three months and surely I would have picked up on a stutter or stammer by now.
Up until last week, all I ever heard out of her mouth was a standard, region-less North American accent. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, it was like she was possessed by a Tortolan spirit and started speaking like she was born and raised in the Caribbean.
If you’ve never heard a Virgin Islands accent before, here is a funny example to give you an idea:
In its inception, the accent’s offbeat head would only appear if we were talking to a local West Indian. My initial thought was that maybe this was simply her attempt to fit in. It was like we were back in secondary school and the locals are the cool kids and here she is, shamelessly mimicking their ways in an effort to be a part of the gang. But now, this accent has become part and parcel of her everyday speech, even when it’s just us expats.
In a mere week, the situation progressed to the point where I began to feel like I needed a translator to understand her. When I’m in a good mood and have patience to spare, I just sit there, nod along, and smile when she speaks even though I have no clue what she is saying. Other times, I feel the need to contribute to the conversation, otherwise I’m pretty sure all the smiling and nodding makes her wonder if there is nothing but air between my ears.
As a self-confessed chatter box, I find it hard to just sit there and not participate. Though I am completely lost in the conversation, I still want to contribute and talk to this nutter. So I was finally left with no choice but to fess up and admit that since Operation: Accent Transformation, I can no longer understand a word she says.
I was surprised to find that this was not cause for embarrassment on her end, her excuse being that she has a lot of local friends and had Haitian friends when she was in college…a quarter of a century ago. While that may be the case, I had Italian-American friends while I was growing up that sounded like cast members of the Sopranos. Applying her logic, does that mean that twenty years later I should sound something like Snooki from MTV’s Jersey Shore? Oh my gawd… no.
Part of me is hoping that this is just a phase and that eventually she will revert back to her natural accent. In the meantime, I’m trying my best to see the funny side of the situation, but it’s unfortunately become more of a pet peeve rather than a source of entertainment. I can only imagine where this cool kid wannabe act may lead – at this point I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she decided to shun her straight white girl hair and opt for corn rows.
On the plus side, I am starting to find her local immersion to be slightly educational. This week I learned the word “chupsing”. Unworldly me thought she said “stooping” and was lost in conversation once again. Was she talking about sitting on a stoop? Was she stooping down low? I was grasping at straws.
Once translated for my Irish-American ear, I learned that chupsing is the act of sucking one’s teeth, usually always in disgust or disdain. I have never witnessed anyone sucking their teeth before but have been told it’s a common, but not very polite, West Indian thing to do. I guess it’s the equivalent of rolling your eyes in the Western world, though slightly more subtle.
While I am unable to come close to imitating a proper Caribbean accent, to keep an open mind, I decided to give chupsing a try. And…it was probably the most unnatural thing I have ever done. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but it sounds just awful – only slightly less grating on the ears than the sound of scratching a chalkboard with your nails.
In my opinion, this woman is a cultural voyeur to the highest degree. She does not simply observe and soak up the local culture, she must emulate what she sees. People say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so I guess her cultural identity crisis is a pretty big compliment to Tortola. Personally, while I’m a fan of island life, I think I’ll remain firmly grounded in my Irish and American roots for now – at least when it comes to my speech.