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Lange: Myself, The Other

Kerstin Lange contemplates accents as she writes on a German train.

I don’t exactly have a Vermont accent. My first language is German, and even though I started learning English in fifth grade, the accent sticks. It’s not a big deal; I can usually communicate just fine, to the extent that we humans can communicate with words and language – but that’s another story.
Still, my accent marks me as some kind of “other” as soon as I open my mouth around people I haven’t met before. I’ve lived here for more than two decades, worked, paid taxes, made friends, tried to keep my house from falling apart, volunteered for organizations and causes I care about, and generally tried to be a useful member of society. But when I meet someone new and that person asks, often within the first couple of sentences, “And where’s your accent from?” or “And what brings you here?” all at once it seems my “otherness” is the most significant thing about me.

I don’t think these people really intend to reduce me to my ethnic heritage, and I’m quite sure they’d say they asked out of genuine interest. But what I hear between the lines is “You don’t really seem to belong here, and I need to know where you came from and what you’re doing here before we can talk about anything else.” And it feels like a stumbling block to further conversation.

Maybe I’m being entirely too sensitive - but almost everyone else I know who’s audibly from somewhere else tells me they’ve felt pretty much the same way, and that the question makes them feel yanked out of the fabric of their life, ever so subtly.

Still, it’s not a really big deal if you compare it to the kind of exclusion, or worse, other people often experience – non-white people for example, or people with visible disabilities.

How odd to think that one of the paradoxes of human life is that being different is one thing we all have in common. We all have vastly different paths in life, and each of us is ultimately an “other.” I love learning about other people’s lives – especially if we can just let the otherness unfold in the course of the conversation. 

Kerstin Lange is a writer and travel guide.
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