When I was 8, my parents decided it would be good for our family to move to South Africa. We were living in England at the time, in the mid-70s, and times were tough.
We were what you would call a working class family. We lived in a tiny 2-up, 2-down end of terrace house. Prospects for my parents were not good, which statistically meant that prospects for us children weren’t good either.
So when an opportunity presented itself to move themselves and their three young children half way across the world, away from friends and family and everything they knew, but with a promise of a better, brighter future for all concerned, they took it.
My dad moved three months before us to pave the way for our new adventure, our new lives. He would send back post cards of African women standing outside rondavels (round thatched huts) adorned with beautiful bright beaded jewellery. At night my mind would fill with images of the African savanna and I would worry myself sick wondering how on earth they kept the rain out of those huts.
When we touched down at Jan Smuts Airport, as it was then known, in Johannesburg, all I could feel was the warm sun beating down on the dark, thick clothes my mom had put us in. A new adventure awaited me and I couldn’t wait.
My mom duly enrolled me, the only school going child, in my new school. I had grown up surrounded by family and friends, my confidence was good. Whilst I was a natural introvert, I wasn’t particularly shy. This would soon change.
“You’ve got a funny accent,” one of the boys said to me, in a very thick South African accent, “It’s posh.”
Now, for anyone that knows about the class system in the England, you will know that those of the working class persuasion do not have a posh accent at all. Far from it. We tend to drop the end of our words and have our own slang. Unless you grew up in the area in which the slang is spoken, it is quite difficult to understand us. So, it was with some amazement that this little boy had called me posh.
“No, it ain’,” I said.
“You think you’re better than us,” he said.
“No, I don’,” I protested.
And there it was, right there on the school playground, my first taste of how our accents define where we belong.
Years later, after the rightful collapse of apartheid and the predictable unsettling time of turmoil that is bound to happen when a majority population of people have been oppressed for so long, my husband and I had to make a decision for our children. Violence had increased to an untenable extent; we had been robbed 9 times in 18 months, our next door neighbour had been shot, and a number of friends on farms had been killed. South Africa felt to us like a land that had lost its way. We felt terribly unsafe and feared for our children. We made the decision to return to England, the country of our birth.
I personally could not wait. South Africa had never really felt like home to me. I seemed to always be on the outside looking in. I had no history in this country, I had no sense of belonging. And I spoke funny. Even when I tried to blend in, my accent would give me away.
Belonging was important to me. We moved around a lot too, so making and keeping friends proved difficult. As happens in a lot of countries, expats also tend to stick together. I grew up yearning for the mother land.
As I waved South Africa goodbye, I couldn’t wait to see my parents who had made the journey home a few months before us. I couldn’t wait to see my aunts, uncles and cousins. I couldn’t wait to return home.
I got off the plane and hugged my family whom I had not seen in such a long time.
“Oh, Jane, it is so good to see you,” I said, hugging her deeply.
“Oh my goodness, John, haven’t you grown up?” I said to my cousin’s not-so-baby boy.
“You speak funny,” he said.
“Sorry? I speak funny?”
“Yes, you sound, well, you sound so posh.”
It had not occurred to me that after 21 years of living in South Africa, my accent had changed. I knew it had, of course, but I hadn’t realised it would be so defining. Gone was my slang; I no longer dropped the end of my words for that had quite literally been beaten out of me by Mrs Smith and her big fat ruler that came down on my palm with startling regularity. I clipped my words and there was a drawl to them as well. My accent, whilst milder than most, was unmistakably South African.
Months later, trying to buy a car, the salesman said to me, “I don’ know ‘ow they do i’ where you’re from luv, but ‘ere we do i’ differen’.” The only clue that singled me out as foreign was my accent.
People constantly asked me where I was from. Often they would guess. New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, America. Occasionally someone would guess correctly. “It’s the way you say your yes’,” they would offer, like it was a dead give away of my lack of sovereignty.
I would get asked if I was allowed to vote, if I was eligible to work, how long I had been in the country, if I had any family. Explaining myself became a lengthy process. Yes, I was allowed to vote and work, and by the way I can trace my English family back to 1780.
And so it was that I really was stateless. Because I spoke funny. Because I spoke “posh.”
10 years ago, we moved to Australia. I still speak posh, like it is its own language. People still try to guess my accent. A lot of people weirdly ask me to speak because they love it so much. I admit, I oblige. I accept my difference now, embrace it even.
We have no family here, pioneers on our own journey of adventure. My accent sets me apart, but I relish that now. It is soft, with a hint of English, South African and now Australian. I like that. It is a map of where I have been and the life I have lived. I have found my own belonging, in a world that is increasingly small, with many accents.
I have, in fact, found me.