Fresh Off The Boat
When I first moved to America nine months ago, I was perplexed by a never-ending list of things. They were not the ‘big’ ones, like having to learn a scary new language. We already spoke English. We’d seen enough movies. Our accents, we were told, were non-existent! You sound Californian!!! You have no accent! (Didn’t that mean we had a Californian accent?) But the little things started to add up.
Nowhere was this clearer than when my wife and I stood in a Bed Bath & Beyond, overwhelmed by nearly everything. Not because we were from developing countries (we were not) and all of this was shiny and new and amazing, but because we just didn’t get it. First, we gawked at the escalator that was purpose-built for one’s shopping cart to ride up at the same time as you, the person, riding the other escalators. Then, we found ourselves in surrounded by bed-linen, utterly and completely lost.
“What are comforters? What are duvet covers? What is a quilt? What is a flat sheet? Do people in this country really need so many pillows?”
I ran to the nearest human who was not my wife, saying, “Hey I need to buy a bolster, you know the type you cuddle between your body, and I have no idea what it’s called in this country.” He scratched his head, then his beard, before finally saying, “well I’m from the UK and I just moved here…”
I still don’t understand bed-linen in this country. Across our studio (I very nearly said ‘flat’), we are treated to full-glass windows into our neighbors' bedrooms. Every last one of them has a bed that looks like a hotel bed; like it would take twenty minutes to peel the multiple layers of ribbons, throws, miscellaneous sheets, and other types of softness, before one could have a good night’s sleep. I felt anxious looking at them. I felt more anxious thinking about having to make up such a bed.
Voicemail is another American practice that strikes fear in my heart. Perhaps it’s because I have never lived in a society where voicemail was actively used (and I have lived in many countries), or maybe it’s due to my general levels of social anxiety relating to being on the autism spectrum, but hearing a chirpy person say “hey leave me a voicemail” makes me want to hang up, even if I originally had something to say.
I came to America after four years in Indonesia. My conversations in Indonesia inevitably ended with “hey, add me on LINE, Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, what else do you use?” This was true when I hung out mostly with rural housewives for work; this was also true when female teenagers would come up to me to ask me for my Instagram account because “I want to know a woman who has tattoos”. This was true of every motorcycle taxi driver I met, who sent me “what’s your closest landmark” in Indonesian short form internet slang to multiple apps and also SMS, in just four or five letters small caps no spaces, even though the pickup location was always on the damned app.
In America, there are just three texting camps. Blue, green, and don’t-text. Leave me a voicemail… nope, no, never.
You have no accent, has both been a blessing and a curse. It’s certainly perplexing, for everyone around me, when I forget which words are British and which words are American.
It’s hard for me to say “restroom”, when “toilet” has sufficed in every other context I’ve lived in. Concepts that exist for me in one English don’t seem to exist here. Prepaid-anything, like in phones, are ‘pay as you gos’, which seem so inefficient. A Clipper card is to be reloaded, or have value added to it, not recharged or topped up. Telling someone you don’t know know how to drive, have never driven in your life, is like telling them you’re from a different galaxy (I was indeed, from a galaxy with good public infrastructure).
Mostly, I’m so fresh off the boat I don’t even know that it’s an insult. I’m so far-removed from the pains of the Asian-American community: their pains are not my pains, I have not been a minority for long enough; and nope, I have absolutely no qualms bringing my own chilli sauce to restaurants because I cannot abide sriracha. Team spicy forever, no sour.
I’m still figuring out what it means to be here. Mostly, I like that nobody ever asks where I’m from, because everybody is from somewhere else.
Until I tell them I still don’t know how to drive.
Then they exclaim, “you’re from Manhattan!”