Discrimination….I had no idea what the word was until was 14, when my life was turned upside down by my parents’ decision to move across the globe and immigrate to Canada. Frankly, I didn’t have a choice. So I chose to be hopeful, to look at it as an opportunity rather than a struggle.
I still cringe, remembering those few months in the last grade of junior high, when each day I dreaded going to school and being made fun of for the clothes I wore, the “weird” haircut, and basically anything and everything about my appearance. Sitting there in the back row of a science class, knowing all the answers but being afraid to speak so that the kids won’t make fun of my accent, I kept silent. For a long time.
I couldn’t tell my parents because they would never understand. They grew up in the communist times of Soviet Russia, when the whole agenda was about making everyone the same and working together on a common goal. There were no “cool brands” or “popular kids” or “jocks” and cheerleader. Everyone was the same, thus there were no grounds for discrimination. As backwards as it sounds, they actually grew up in a happier time. Sure, there were no supermarkets, shopping malls, fancy trips to Europe, but there was solidarity- in the simple knowing that noone has it better than you (except the communist party, of course,- knowledge of which came at a later date), therefore there is no grounds for jealousy or comparison.
So I kept silent, until an opportunity came to speak to my peer group of other immigrant women through the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association. For the first time I’d felt that I wasn’t alone and there were hundreds and thousands of other women all undergoing the same issues I was, battling both peer pressure and gender issues, on top of being discriminated against.
Sure, to the average onlooker I don’t look any different than the average north american- until I open my mouth. It doesn’t matter where I go, I am always an immigrant, someone who has an accent, someone who sounds different-in Canada, it’s some Eastern European accent they hear, here in the deep south of United States, I sound northern (at my best), when I speak Spanish, I have the gringo accent, when I speak Russian, I have a weird “foreign accent”. .when I meet new people, I almost always get the same response: “wow, you almost don’t have an accent!” Wow, thanks! You don’t think I’m tired of hearing this after 16 years of living in North America?
I’ve been reading English literature since I was 10, completely immersed in Shakespeare when i was 15, I’d read the Russian classics (Chekhov, Doestoevskyi) in English just for fun, just to see if the language intricacies still made sense when translated. I switched to writing/journaling in English when was 16, to make sure my thoughts form in English first and that I am not constructing Russian sentences, then translating them backwards in my mind like so many others do when learning a new language. So do you see how, 15 years later, it truly bothers me when someone is still commenting on my lack/presence of an accent?
Having my own sensitivities on the subject, I never take it upon myself to ask anyone where they’re from based on their accent. Instead, I may ask something like: “you have an interesting name, what is your background?”- but I would never comment on someone’s skin colour or speech. So here is to everyone out there who had ever suffered from discrimination based on their looks/race/speech/etc, I feel your pain. I’ve been there and I still get haunted by memories of being excluded, alone, and misunderstood. What many fail to realize is that behind every aspect of uniqueness usually lies a long history paved with battle wounds. Get to know the person and their story, not their attributes.