Off the beat: Have I been converted?

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Before I left London for California five months ago, I was given specific instructions: Do not come back American. Words of warning from various friends and family members ranged from pleas for me to not come back with an accent to prayers that I do not return with an American husband (that one was specifically from my mother). Knowing that I haven’t changed since I was about 12 years old, I assured the voices of doubt that I could never, ever change. How were they so sure I would change? And anyway, so what if I did? Surely they were just scared I would come back insanely awesome. On my 11-hour flight to the land of “hella” Americans, I prepared myself for the experience of a lifetime, armed with the advice of my dear friends back home.

There are four tell-tale signs that you have been indoctrinated into the culture of your host country, even without you realizing it. The first is when you stop seeing your host country as a holiday destination and start to see it as home. As an inhabitant of a country that has a summer of about two weeks, arriving to warmth of the hot Californian sun was incredible. For most Brits, your only method of finding any sun is for you to personally go and seek it out on holiday, so naturally, for the first few months of my study abroad, I treated my time in Berkeley as such. Everything was completely new to me — the accents, the relaxed atmosphere, the people, the food. Looking back, it seems ridiculous for me to have regarded Berkeley as a holiday destination, but I was so caught up in its novelty that I was conveniently able to ignore the fact that I’d actually come to Berkeley for an education. The day came, however, when the novelty wore off and my brain finally began to process the situation. This was demonstrated in none other than the “home” slip — a situation rather similar to that awkward moment when you refer to your teacher as “mom” or mix up your friends’ names. I was speaking to my mother about my return to England for winter break and told her, “I’ll be coming back to England for three weeks, and then I go back home on the 12th of January.” There was a pause. “G, you just called California ‘home.’” Alas, the conversion had begun.

Once I had established California as home, I found myself slowly neglecting the speech I came with. Nobody knew what a “jumper” was, no one called the restroom “the loo,” and I was repeatedly told that it was “fries” not “chips.” Tired of the looks of confusion I was getting, I agreed to abandon my own way of speaking in favor of actually being understood. At first, it was a conscious decision. I adjusted my pronunciations, reluctantly agreed to say “sweater” and spoke largely in acronyms, just to fit in. But a chat with a friend at home told me that there had been a change to my voice that I wasn’t so aware of. Apparently, the tone of my voice was different.

“Why do you keep talking like that?” she asked.

“Talking like what?”

“Why does your voice keep going up like that?”

The “going up” she was referring to was the upward inflection that is common in American English and a stark opposite to any accent you would find in London. Indeed, the day I said “hella” without being ironic was the day I knew my transformation was well underway. I was pretty much a Berkeley native.

Okay, so maybe I had changed, but surely it will all go back to normal as soon as I return to England, right? My trip home for Christmas was the ultimate test. For a while, my American-ness went unnoticed. I went straight back to my old vocabulary, comfortable with the fact that everyone would understand me, and no one mentioned a weird tone to my voice. But as I spoke to the bus drivers, the cashiers and the waitresses, something seemed different. I felt strange. Was I … nicer? I remember first coming to Berkeley and being shocked at how nice everybody was. The tones of some people’s voices were so starkly different than anything that I was used to; a simple, “Hi, how are you?” sounded to me as happy as telling someone you had won the lottery. Now that I was back in England, it seemed I was that happy-go-lucky, lottery-winning person. I found myself wishing sales assistants a good day before they could even tell me the same and thanking bus drivers every time I got on and off the bus. I was a new woman! But of course, not everything had changed. I continued to walk down the street with a solemn face, and I was still another soulless face on the tube, engrossed in the music blaring from my headphones. I was, however, definitely more prepared to show the kindness in me to strangers.

One last thing would determine whether I had been truly converted. Imagine this situation: You are at a restaurant. Having just indulged in an average meal with a friend, served by a waitress who spoke to you only to ask for your order, the bill comes. On the bill, there is a section marked “tip”. Do you put a tip down? Of course, there is a tipping culture in America that pretty much declares that anyone who does not tip is an asshole. In England, this does not exist. You do not have to tip. And it’s not like in America, where you “technically” don’t have to, but you all know you secretly do. In England, you actually don’t. Tipping is usually done after a big meal or exceptional service, not for a sandwich at a café or a drink at a bar. Due to the different culture, constantly tipping is a hard concept for many Brits to get their head around. No one wants to think they are paying a certain amount of money, only to be told they have to pay more once they get the bill. Throughout my first semester at Cal I had been reluctantly tipping, grumbling under my breath about how broke it was making me, but there I was a few months later, sitting after a meal in London, tipping without a second thought. “Gena, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you tip in my life,” my friend exclaimed. Way to remind me how much of a cheap-ass I am, I thought. Yet, even I was shocked. The new me was a tip-giving, big-grinning softie.

I guess then, my friends were partially right. Whilst I did not come back “American” as they so boldly anticipated, I had definitely changed in a way that I would assume just meant I was less miserable. Sitting at my laptop in England now, I do still occasionally spout the odd “hella” and yearn for Berkeley as my home away from home as the British rain does its usual thing of pouring whenever possible. For that reason, maybe I have been converted to the American way… and California, if you’re still giving me sunny weather and sunny people, I am perfectly happy to go!

“Off the Beat” guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.

Contact Gena-mour Barrett at [email protected].