Daniel Ferri Shares His Immigrant Experience
My grandmother never really learned to speak English.
As the years went by she forgot most of her Italian and ended up speaking her own hybrid MediterraMilwaukee hand gesture dialect that was understood only by the other neighborhood ladies, and half of them were Polish. I've been thinking of my grandmother a fair bit this year.
That's because my wife wanted to raise our children in her native Australia, so that's which is where we now livewhere we now are. It's as far away from Chicago as you can get you can get and still be on the planet.
If you took your shovel to Grant Park and dug a hole straight and deep enough you'd pop out somewhere near Perth.
Before we emigrated we had visited Meriel's family in Australia a number of times. I found the place beautiful, dry high desert, marsupial and marsupially exotic, and dry; you can't believe how dry.
Visiting Tazmania, we flew on one of those trips we flew into Hobart, the capital of Tazmania. We banked low over the Derwent Estuary to land then walked toward the terminal. A man in a brown uniform held up his palm and asked me, “Awtneefruwt?”
I looked at him; he repeated, “Awt nee fruwt?” I kept looking.
Meriel touched my shoulder and said. “He wants to know if you have any fruit?”
“Oh…. no… I don't have any fruit.”
The man looked puzzled. Meriel nodded toward me and said, “He doesn't have any fruit.”
The man smiled, “Roit moit!” as Meriel towed me away, and I tossed a most touristy wave in our wake.
Last year as we were packing boxes prepared for the move, Meriel said to me “You know, now you are going to you'll be the one with the cute accent.”
I thought she was teasing me, but wasn't, she was warning me, warning me about something she'd learned through hard experience. Tourists and emigrants travel, but immigrants, immigrants stay.
Once we moved, I am longer an emigrant from my land, I am an immigrant in someone else' land. When I was a visitor I couldn't understand half of what people were saying but that was fine.
If I smiled and nodded my head people were just as happy as if I really could understand what they were saying. But once here, smiling and nodding are not enough because now now I have the accent and understanding had becomeis a matter of survival.
I have to understand what people are saying, at the bank, at job interviews, when people yell at me that I'm driving down the wrong side of the road. Aussies are pretty easy going, but when asked to please repeat themselves too many times they do get a bit shirty because, “After all mate, YOU came HERE.”
What would I do, keep irritating the natives, or just smile and nod then go ask someone else, hoping I'd understand them? Then I learned to stop thinking like an emigrant and start thinking like an immigrant.
Now, if I can't understand what people say I don't ask them to repeat. I just hold my hand by my ear and say, “Sorry, I don't hear very well.” They smile and repeat themselves, but more slowly, avoiding words I might not know. It's my fault not theirs, fair dinkum.
I haven't made much progress learning to talk Aussie, but I have learned something about being an immigrant. The first thing you lose is not your accent. The first thing you lose is your pride.
And so I will become my grandmother.
My children will indulge me when I prattle on in my quaint dialect, when I insist that there is an “R” at the end of water, that it's a computer not a computa, and that I am their father; not their fatha. There's an “R” at the end of this father, and there always will be.