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I won't do what you tell me

English slowly permeated my mind, even before I was a teenager. Those foreign words on the radio were not my own. They didn't bear any meaning, but they were just as easily adopted as those words my brother and I made up for typical household items; we both knew the Trr-pam was the big mechanical alarm clock in the kitchen.

Take those words, shape them, reproduce and incorporate them. Eventually they become your own, even though the words don't carry any emotion or context. On my first trip to England as a teenager, my dad firmly reminded me not to use "shit" as an expression of discontent. Teenagers utter that word all the time, and it doesn't carry any weight because it's foreign. Growing up as a teenager, Big Brother was the ever present baby-sitter that treats you with TV, food, film, and cool clothes.

Oh double-tee eye double-you ee, double-el double-you double-oh dee

It takes only a few months to learn English, but a lifetime to master it. Or any language for that matter. At age twelve, they drill you with English words and grammar. I remember my English teacher complaining that teaching us meant unlearning all the incorrect slang we had already acquired. But the teacher was a darling; she would teach us Her Majesty's English, but would not object to us using any other form as long as we applied it consistently. A moot point for us who couldn't tell the difference anyway.

Language is so much more than simply words. They can teach you the meaning of a word, but they can't make you feel its meaning. They try anyway: our teacher spent at least half an hour on the context and usage of the word "sophisticated" in some English classic novel, but no translation to Dutch would do the original work any justice. It works the other way around as well. I once tried to explain the word "gezellig" to a friend, but my attempts were in vain: "Come with me to Holland, and I'll show you gezelligheid"." You paint a picture of a word in your mind, and associate it with emotions, events, sounds, and smells. Staring at it on a blackboard from a cheap plastic seat won't give you this experience.

I can speak English. I learn it from a book

Opportunities come and it's best to grab those by the horns before they throw you off the playing field. In Holland, your options are rather limited after obtaining a Bachelors. But not in the US. of A., where almost every school from rinky-dink to M.I.T. offer graduate programs. They'll take you as a student and take your money; a LOT of money. unless you are fortunate enough to get funded.

They hired me as a teaching assistant in exchange for a degree, and some money to live on. I had done all the prerequisites: the TOEFL, the GRE, F-1. But nothing can prepare you for the culture shock that all the Study Abroad guides warn you for. It's not one single shock. Culture didn't zap me down to the linoleum as I stepped into the terminal at Logan. It works more like an electric fence that you run into every now and then:

"I'm sorry Sir, your credit history is insufficient for obtaining our Avarice Advantage credit card"

"Then tell me how the
fuck I am supposed to get a credit history without a credit card, hmm?"

Run into that fence enough, and eventually you remember the borders of the pasture. You accept the boundaries that life puts on you, just like you did back home. Things are not better, nor worse: they are different. Accept changes, and changes will accept you.

My assignment at the institute was to assist students with their homework problems, and grade exams. Sometimes the job description fit the actual work. Other times I was lecturing fifteen, twenty kids in front of the blackboard on a topic that I had just mastered a few months ago, in a language that was not entirely mine. Sometimes you fail miserably; other times you win. These kids seemed genuinely embarrassed when the foreign kid tells them they made a dozen grammatical errors in their lab report: "They didn't hire you to correct my English."

Resistance is Futile

Speaking a foreign language can be exhausting, both mentally and physically. Of course I had spoken English on holidays, but not to the same extent. Speaking a foreign language means producing unfamiliar sounds with your vocal chords, throat and mouth. After a full day of speaking English, my jaw and tongue were actually tired from speaking. It is a matter of training those muscles.

The language forces itself into your system very quickly. It must, or your brain becomes overworked from all the translation work. It becomes part of you: you are no longer translating, but expressing in your newly adopted language. Already after a week, I started dreaming in English. It was a strange and somewhat unsettling experience, because it felt as if I lost the ability to express myself in my own language. In reality, you do lose that ability to some degree, but it doesn't happen overnight: only after a few years did I notice that I was searching for Dutch expressions that were transparently replaced by English ones. You lose some flexibility in the first, but gain a lot in the second language.

Not only does the ability to express yourself in a second language advances with leaps and bounds, so does the ability to comprehend. Listening to music becomes a new experience: songs that previously could only be understood by sitting down and focusing now enter the mind unhindered. Mind you, I haven't touched that stuff for fifteen years. Language is a tool. A new tool: pick it up, use it, and it becomes an extension of your self.

Can I Graduate?

You never ever get rid of the accent, though. My grandfather lived in Australia and England for the last 30 years of his life, and never managed to do so: "Those English are too bloody polite. When I just came here, they simply smiled at me when I jumbled together a dozen of grammatical errors." It is not difficult to pick up that I'm a foreigner. Or at least, that I'm not from around here. Not that I am aiming for that. But sometimes it works against you, since people expect that being a damn foreigner, you must be slow on the uptake: "Ma'am. I am not deaf, at least not completely, and certainly not stupid." On the other hand, you cannot measure your own progress in language skills:

"I have an idea..."
"Ohmygod, did you realize what you just said?"
"Uhm, that I came up with something?"
"No, you said idea. You no longer talk about your driver's license when you have an idea."

And then there is l'amour. My first love on this side of the ocean did not have a real language barrier, but like every newcomer she had deal with similar cultural barriers. And with a boyfriend who is trying to express himself in a second language. Sure, day-to-day talk is easy, and conveying basic ideas and needs can be done with perhaps a couple hundred words. When it comes to addressing emotions, I'm on slippery ice. Love, desire, passion, but also hope, expectations, anger, and hate; feelings that are already difficult to emote in one's own language. Saying the right words and saying them at the right time becomes a major challenge. Even though the daily conversation seems so effortless. Especially because it seems so effortless.

Let's not talk about the difficulties of relationships where both are non-native English speakers.

Every day is another school day. Perhaps not consciously but subconsciously you pick up new colloquialisms, polish the accent, and play around with language. In speech and in writing.

Home, sweet home; I'm not sure what that means anymore. Certainly I don't feel at home in Wormtown: this place has always felt as a temporary place to land. It is not Amsterdam either. I have been away for so long that I can hardly recall the sounds, smell and sight of it. Going back is synonymous with an inevitable Reverse culture shock.

I'm not an American, and I will never truly be. But I'm no longer a Dutchman either. Holland-America, and I'm drifting somewhere inbetween.

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