I have often been able to navigate the peculiar feeling of not being able to totally, or at all, understand the conversation. Growing up in Hong Kong somewhat solidified this experience.
I’ve stopped asking, “What?” or “Can you repeat that?” and instead developed my own way of figuring things out. Or, at the very least, subtly looking up an approximation of what they had said after the fact.
Hong Kong is a uniquely multicultural place, and due to European influence, my home has retained semblances of British culture. So, no, not everything was fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese, and thus, I didn’t really have to try too hard to learn Mandarin or Cantonese, or both, to get by. As such, I’m no stranger to not knowing the subtleties of a conversation.
I probably should’ve paid better attention in Mandarin class, though.
However, my c’est la vie attitude to language and conversation has been quite violently flipped on its head since coming back to the United States.
The story goes back to a common beginning, the absolute chaos that is three roommates getting ready to go out. It’s the typical flurry of discarded clothes on the floor, half-closed makeup products piling on desks and the air of adrenaline but also nerves.
The conversation is backed by a pulsing bass trap song: Pitbull’s “Hotel Room Service.”
“Hotel, motel — Oh, blue is so your color!” A roommate gushes.
“Be done in five!”
“Meet the rest at Chi Psi?”
“Do you think they’ll get in?”
It’s only when the rest of the group files into the shoebox that is the dorm that I realize with sinking realization that I could not keep up with the conversation. It was my first and most jarring interaction with slang that still sticks with me today.
I, for one reason or another, cannot subscribe to this particular slang my American friends were using. Maybe it’s the almost slurred and rushed execution of the phrase that sets me on edge. Now, as I write this, it’s subsided more into a dull grating on my nerves. Like the pain that accompanies picking at a nail bed, it hurts — but you can’t seem to stop. This analogy sums up how everyone says it, constantly, that I can’t escape the nail-picking annoyance.
If asked why I am so exasperated by this one term, I honestly wouldn’t be able to tell you. All I know is that I have resolved, perhaps out of sheer pettiness, to never use it.
That’s not to say I will never talk to people again if they use this “slang,” — if we can even call it that — but I’m going to be hyper aware of it. Another embarrassing subpoint to my hatred of this phrase is that, for the longest time, I had no idea what people were saying. I call over the base, asking if we’re ready to leave, a chorus of “For sure-s” reply. The speed and cadence of when it’s delivered has a fluidity to it that an “outsider” like me simply could not keep up.
I resolve to file the phrase away, as another word to look up on Google later on, and grab my keys.
I think this interaction, which I could most accurately place as similar to the “stomach-sinking dread” at potentially being back in my “home” and not knowing what people were saying is rival to the feeling when you open a pop quiz. It’s a strange, liminal space very few kids acknowledge. Because it’s hard to say, “I don’t understand,” or “No, I don’t get the joke.” This new identity, which I have quickly tried on and am still learning to adjust to, is trying and incredibly difficult to fit into sometimes as if there’s a script, in which my delivery is always just a little off.
But it does feel like I had just sat down to take a test on my American-ness and was immediately reminded that I was failing, that I am not as American as I thought I was.
This one menial interaction in the dorm frankly showcased to me just how divorced I was from my American peers — bringing me back to the familiar sense of disorientation that accompanies all freshmen.
I think in that first month alone, I was constantly reminded — and perhaps chided — on how “polite” and “proper” I sounded. I think this stems from me attending a British international school, met with bewildered gazes when I’d say “pardon” here in Berkeley. But it was more likely that the person thought I was alien — in that endearingly foreign way — and decided to move on, rather than having an existential crisis like I am now.
British slang utilizes words with dual meanings, not whole phrases strung together when, with little context, give you nothing. “Safe” and “calm” virtually meant the same thing but were vocalized with a slight pseudo-British-“international accent.” Both are normally used to signify agreement with a plan, whereas the go-to American equivalent is “bet” — or so I’ve come to both learn and loath.
“I think England and the United States just decided to go 50/50 on the phrase.”
And as a way of studying for any future American-ness tests, I’ve gone around asking all of the people I interact with to brief me — in a SparkNotes-esque way — on some examples of American slang. To my shock, it was like pulling teeth.
These multiple interactions taught me that this slang is just so integrated into the average American lexicon that I had little hope at forcefully pulling it out of them. I just have to keep an open ear and wait for it to come out organically.
I guess my incessant search of American slang also made my friends hyperconscious of what they said, effectively giving all my friends a complex on how they spoke.
But there haven been plenty of other international and even actual British students who knew exactly what I was saying and vice versa. If there’s one comfort I can offer, it’s that not everyone knows what “bussin” means, and that alone gave me some solace in the fact that “oh my days” and “fit” still meant something to someone — even if that someone was just my best friend back from home who’s more than 5,000 miles away.