Cawfee Talk

At the end of December, the NYT website posted a test about dialect. By answering 25 questions based on how you pronounce or refer to certain words, the test analyzes your “personal dialect map”; in other words, show you where on the map of the US your linguistic tendencies tend to situate you. After spending a few days in Seattle, I realized that a majority of the people with whom I interacted were commenting on my accent: “Oh, YOU’RE obviously from the East Coast.” I remembered this NTY test, and hit the Net. The results let me know that the three cities whose dialects are most similar to mine are:

  1. New York City
  2. Yonkers
  3. Jersey City

I found this insane. Obviously, no one would mistake me for a Californian or a Hoosier, but I guess I didn’t realize how distinctly from New York my way of speaking is. More than NYC, though, is Yonkers – for a program to be able to pinpoint the way I speak to a zip code thirty seconds from the town in which I grew up is not just mind-boggling and impressive, but eye-opening.

We inhabit and embody the places we’re from; we adopt behaviors and attitudes that are particular to the circles in which we move and the places in which we live. Surrounded by similar individuals, we have no idea what is normal and what’s not. With nothing to compare it to except itself, everything simply is what it is. Not until we step outside of our worlds can we truly know ourselves, and come to terms with our ways of living and who we are in the world. This is no shocker; indeed, this is why we travel and what the main goal of travel should be: Know Thyself. Exploration of other cultures and places should be about learning the whos whats, whens, wheres, and whys of You. Only once you do that can you know if you’re building orphanages in El Salvador because you have a desire to aid the world, or if you’re doing it because you want to put pictures of you holding a hammer and the hand of a brown child on your OK Cupid profile. But that’s a different blog altogether.

When thrust out of our element, we get on the defensive, and as a reaction – perhaps subconsciously – decide to BE those stereotypes that are ascribed to us. It allows us to unite with similar people when we’re alone and far from home. Additionally, self-deprecating humor is the quickest way to popularity. But as someone from New York, I’ve never had to justify anything when I’ve been abroad. Simply being from here is a conversation starter.  I’ve drawn countless maps of the suburbs, the Metro North, the subway , and the boroughs on cocktail napkins and paper placemats. 

In the US, though, that doesn’t work. People aren’t awestruck so much as automatically dismissive, as though their interest in a city that’s not their own is a form of selling out. Or there’s a sense of superiority, like not living in New York is choosing the high road.  Half-jokingly, I said that I should just start walking up to people and saying “Hi, I’m Lily. I’m from New York” as a way to explain away all ridiculous actions that I might subsequently perform. Garnering stares after talking and laughing too loudly in a bar filled with men and couples, but no women alone or in groups? Hi, I’m Lily; I’m from New York. Wearing high waisted pleater leggings and a fox fur sweater in a sea of REI jackets and cargo pants? Hi, I’m Lily; I’m from New York.

When you live in a city where you’re fighting for everything – a seat on the subway, a table in a restaurant, a job, money, a spot in a race, for god’s sakes – you start to act a certain way. I’ve seen all these lists online of “Ways You Know You’ve Become A New Yorker,” written by and for people who’ve hit the two-year mark and are comfortable edging their way to a bar to order a craft beer. But when New York is your baseline for normal urban behavior, where does that leave you in terms of normalcy or potential to assimilate anywhere else?

United we stand, they say. As far as I could tell during my week in Washington, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Perhaps I’ve been wrong all these years, traveling to different countries. Perhaps the best way to Know Myself is right here in my backyard. Kansas, here I come? Maybe. Until then, I’m going to bask in my comfort zone, talking about race because it does exist, dropping F bombs with strangers who won’t get offended, ordering dinner after eleven, and dressing like a drag queen – because that’s how we do.





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