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Stateside With Rosalea: Where You From?

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

Where You From?

I've now lived for almost three years in a land where men have fannies and wear drawers, and I've got so used to the local lingo that it's been a while since "u" muscled its way into the 'hood, behaved badly, and spoiled my sense of fun. These days I consult the Oxford dictionary almost as much as the Websters, checking up on whether I really did use a word differently "back home". Other perceptions have changed too. A month ago I shuddered to see contestants in 'The Great Race' TV show jump into SUVs and roar off across the Canterbury Plains on the wrong side of the road. But they were left, and I was wrong. And of course they were in 4WDs.

As my vacation looms closer, workmates ask if I'm "going home", a question I honestly don't know how to answer. Having grown up in the era when "Home" meant a land I never saw until I was 21 and never thought of as home (England), and feeling strongly that the United States isn't my second home but my new one, I still usually evade the question by answering that, if I have to sit in a plane for 15 hours, I want to end up some place I've never been before.

Sometimes I think it's much harder in this age of telecommunications to leave the country of your birth than it was 100 years ago. But is it? Virtual homelands have always existed - neighbourhoods of families that came from the same country or region or ethnic group, serviced by businesses run by people who speak the homeland language, and kept informed by media using that language. At any one time perhaps millions of people in the US don't speak a word of English but earn their living and get their needs met through the support of those community members who straddle both cultures.

A few people might live here for 40 years without ever learning what the 'New York Times Almanac' calls "the predominant language", but most do, and many face an enormous struggle to do so. At a recent event I met a Mexican woman who cares for a disabled husband and three children and who has to work two full-time, lowly paid cleaning jobs to support them but still finds time to take English language lessons in order to get ahead herself and help her children with their schoolwork. And California is a state where English is very nearly not the predominant language and where the education system is to varying degrees and in various ways bilingual.

All this was brought to mind this week when I was asked to fill out a form stating my "Race/Ethnicity" and I narrowed the choice down to "Asian or Pacific Islander" or "White, non-Hispanic". Since the API category was subdivided into five groups, with only "Filipino" specifying a Pafific Island homeland, then I was obviously WNH. But if I'd been enrolling at the local high school I would have fitted into the second half of their "Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander" choice, since Filipino is a category of its own on that form.

Why, you might wonder, would I consider myself to be an API rather than a WNH? Does the geography of my birth hold more significance than the (Irish-Yorkshire) genealogy of it? There is no doubt in my mind that it does, and one of the reasons I have no doubt of that is because of that trip I took "back Home" when I was 21. Sure there was snow and red-breasted robins, just like on the only Christmas cards we could buy back then; there were bluebells and squirrels, just like in the only story books we could get back then; and there were ancient stone circles and winding Tudor lanes, just like in the only history books we could get back then, but it wasn't "home".

Home was a small bunch of islands in the Pacific, and over the intervening 30 years the implications of that homeland's geographic place in the world have thankfully been put into context, so that a Kiwi's cultural home is where the haka is, no matter what race or ethnic origin they claim. That kind of geographic imperative was sharply brought into focus for me this week in a documentary about the Japanese-Americans who worked in the US Military Intelligence Service during the Second World War. With their families forced to live in internment camps - having been stripped of their homes and businesses, particularly here on the West Coast - the MIS interpreters still had no doubt that their first loyalty was to their new home, the United States.

The documentary was shown on PBS as part of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. As were a couple of documentaries about Australia. Although only public television focuses its entire programming towards the various "months" that the United States celebrates, commercial TV network stations also run short promos showing local people from the relevant communities speaking about the contribution those communities have made to the fabric of this giant tapestry of a nation, with its threads of many languages and cultures. Such variety fascinates me, and I've always loved learning languages.

If only I was younger and a US citizen! I could have applied for the job advertised two weeks ago that said: "Interpreter/Linguist. We train you to learn new languages! $12,000 bonus if qualified. Up to $8,000 more for college credits. Languages include Spanish, Russian, Chinese, French, Arabic, Korean, Vietnamese, Hebrew, and Persian. Learn to translate, interpret, and transcribe foreign languages. Must be ages 17-34..."

I called 1-800-345-6289 to point out that the California Fair Employment Act bans discrimination on the basis of race, religion, colour, national origin, ancestry, physical handicap, medical condition, marital status, sexual orientation, gender or age, and that age preference in help wanted ads violates federal law. A chap from an otherwise unidentified "Job opportunities office" answered, so I first asked if I had to be a US citizen (a requirement for federal jobs). The gruff answer was "Yes." No point in arguing points of law in a time of war, I decided. But it did seem to me more likely that young folks would quickly get bored reading emails and listening to cellphone calls than old folks like me. (Just guessing about what the job entailed, of course!)

Lea Barker


Sunday May 26, 2002

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