Issue 5: Independent vs. Representative Voice
A Publication of the USF MFA in Writing Program

Second Language

Nina Basica Finci

 
 
It wasn't my fault that English had so many words. The fact that I confused my articles, said fingers instead of toes, chicken instead of kitchen, or replaced desk for a table made no difference. They could understand me, they just chose not to. To make me feel stupid, without language, ignorant, un-American.   
 
In those first weeks in America, I spent my days soaking up language, counting days in new words. I religiously wrote them in the green mini-pad that I bought at Sav-On: rooster, multiply, refill, etcetera, due, enclosure, burgundy, obvious, picket fence. Simple words I didn't know the meaning of gave me bad grades in science word problems, when I was told not to use a dictionary. Simple phrases prevented me from turning in my Algebra homework: "homework is due" sounded like "do your homework" and I did it, but kept it neatly in my three-ring binder. Mr. Smith didn't seem to mind. I was his token white immigrant and I scored a 100% on all his quizzes. Everyday he asked me to put a chair next to his desk and correct classmates' homework with his bold red pen. The red pen gave me special powers, yet left me feeling ever more different, separate and alone.  
 
For three classes a day - PE, Algebra and Life Science - I could interact with the regular school population that spoke in perfectly round Californian vowels and ate up all the right consonants. I still couldn't get over the shock of having to change my shirt in PE around all the other girls, whose round curvy bodies made me feel so young and undeveloped. I began considering stuffing my bra and shaving my legs, too.   
 
PE was the only class where I got to talk to the blond American girls. They would tell the teacher, "We are on our period." When Mr. Shultz asked, "What about you?" I just nodded in agreement, unsure of what he was asking. What was wrong with him, didn't he see that I was there, attending my 4th period? So, I sat on the curb with the American girls, talking about sex and someplace called the "mall." After a few weeks, I realized that Mr. Shultz had no time to fight with my muteness and explain to me all the new words - black top, tether ball, lap, softball, home base.   
 
There were many words that I could not find in the dictionary: blue flame, dude, hick, third base.  There were other names that I heard people calling me: basket case, mute chick, FOB. I wrote them in my mini-pad and smiled at the speaker, with the smile that said, "You are so sweet to talk to me, thank you, please be my friend." Betsy, a girl who sat next to me in Life Science, sang "Nina Basketcase, Basketcase Basica" every time she saw me. I sat down next to her and smiled, glowing with the attention.  
 
I wanted to become friends with all the supermodels in my Life Science class. These girls were popular, tanned and giggly, dating senior guys. All they did for the fifty dreadful minutes of the period was brush their long silky hair and apply strawberry-mango lotion to their freshly-shaven legs. I stared at them with envy and amazement. I wrote the new English words in my mini-pad as they rolled off their vanilla-flavored lips: tube-socks, moisturizer, scent, comb, applicator, chapstick, lip gloss.... I needed to remember these words for my next trip to Costco so I, too, could transform myself into one of them.  
 
On some days, these pretty, floral-scented divas approached my desk to learn how to say "Kiss my ass" or "Fuck you" in my language, but I taught them the more original Yugoslav sayings that actually made sense. I annunciated slowly "Puši kurac" and "Ajde u pičku materinu" without offering the translation. When they went around the class, saying "Smoke my penis" and "Return to your mother's vagina," I proudly listened, giggling inside, wondering if they were capable of ever losing their American accents or did they just keep eating their "r"s because they didn't want to learn?    
 
On those days when I, the shorthaired, unshaven girl with an accent, got this kind of attention, I thought they liked me, that I was in. I fantasized that my days of sitting by myself during lunch, in the back of the school, eating the big cafeteria cookie were over. I actually tried to answer their redundant questions with more than a dumb yes or no. I wanted to show them that I was more than a girl with a nice smile, that I had a personality and talents and history. I wanted them to know that I had traveled to national tennis tournaments and had even earned a 3rd place finish in last year's Dalmatia Cup. I wanted them to know that I had represented my school in the Yugoslav Brotherhood and Unity convention two years earlier, that many boys used to like me, that I could dive into the sea, head-first, from the highest cliff in Makarska.    
 
But, all they wanted to know was what kind of food we ate "back there." When I said, "green vegetables, fish, meat," they just stared at me bored and unimpressed.   
 
"You don't eat snakes and dogs, do you?" they needed to know. I wanted to sound different, unique and exotic so I racked my brain to remember our biggest delicacy. My thoughts spun quickly: roasted lamb, pig, musaka, liver, sarma, stuffed peppers, octopus or squid, but I couldn't find anything worth their wide-eyed stares and undivided attention.   
 
Then, I had it.   
 
"We eat brains," I finally said.   
 
"WHAAAAT?"  
 
"Ah…no, no, not rrreal brain, cow brain," I said trying to stop them from backing away from me as if I were contagious. "They're friiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiied," I yelled after them.  
 
But they practically ran to the other side of the room and pointed in my direction. From that day on, they stopped coming by my desk or meeting my eyes. I ruined any chance I might have had of ever being seen with my pretty American friends.  
 
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