The Secret Life of a Nerd Girl: Indubitably American
a blogumn by Gudrun Cram-Drach
Once at CalArts a fellow student asked me if I was European. It was during a 9 am class and I was sipping Irish Breakfast tea from the white porcelain mug I brought from home every day. I said “no, why?” And she said “well, you drink tea. And you have a very European sounding name. And I could have sworn I heard an accent.”
Okay, in my experience, “Europeans” on the whole drink more coffee than tea, and though it might contain the occasional mispronounced word as a result of a New England upbringing, my accent is as flatly American as the next girl’s. But about the name, she had a point.
I’ve spent my whole life explaining my name. My mother always said “you’re lucky we didn’t name you Rainbow, it was the 70s after all.” Rainbow would have been easier. People would have just accepted that I had a funny name without demanding to know my complete biography on first meeting. It’s really too much information for a cocktail party. I don’t know how many times I have said “my first name is Swedish but I’m American, I grew up in Maine, no my ancestry is not Swedish, yes my parents are American, yes my Grandparents are American, it comes from Women in Love, yes it’s also in a Wagner opera, there’s a Valkyrie…”
I complain about it a lot, but I also appreciate that it makes me unique and perhaps casts a more interesting light on me than I actually deserve. I’m curious too and if I were to meet me at a cocktail party I would no doubt ask the same questions (after complimenting me on my good looks and pretty dress of course).
For a while I blindly looked forward to living in Europe because I knew I would be relieved of the daily name-explanation task. I was right. Outside of my French class I hardly ever have to detail my heritage to strangers anymore. Now, living the simple life in France, I am simply “American.” While Americans might identify me by what states and cities I’ve lived in (in addition to the foreignness and hyphenation of my name), here in France, I’m just American. Blanket American. And what’s worse is, it’s the “American” they see on TV, and not, uh, “real” American. Whatever that means.
In French class the other day we practiced cause and effect. In response to the sentence, “because I want to learn about the culture, I will stay with inhabitants of the town,” the Vietnamese girl asked what exactly was an “inhabitant.” She asked if we, the foreigners* in this French class, were inhabitants of Paris? Prof Tony said yes, you are inhabitants of Paris, but you are also foreigners. The Iranian girl chimed in with a flat, “we will always be foreigners, that will never change.”
She has reason.
I know I will never be able to shake my American accent. I’ve had 2 French teachers who spoke American English so well that when I first met I didn’t know they were French. But after a while, I heard the subtle faults, a funny “r” or an “a” that was too strong. So, even if I lived here the rest of my life, if I “became French,” I would always give away the fact that I’m not. If I had kids here, the other moms would say “little Jean-Pierre Cram-Drach has an American mom, he speaks both French and American* at home.” It will always be a point of identification, separation, and interest. Just like my name. But we are what we are. No matter where we are we relate to our environments with whatever sense of belonging we can muster. My name has always been a part of me, as well as my personality, my hopes and my abilities. Now I have another distinguishing characteristic, an accent and choppy language skills. They will improve with time, but will always say something about me whether I want them to or not. I’ll always be foreign here, and I’ll always be me, what does it really matter? Je m’en fiche. I never really fit in before, why start now?
*According to the French, the language you are currently reading is American. Not English. They are considered two different languages here, and I’ve had several French people who don’t speak either one argue with me about how different they are. As I understand it, when French kids learn English in school, they learn British English all the way until their last year of high school (because it’s, you know, more correct), then they have one year of “American.” French students are so intellectually superior that they can learn a whole new language in just one year.