Like a Game of Pinball

I don’t know what I’ve mispronounced. I’ve tried to remember but I just can’t. I also don’t know how I’ve mispronounced it. Or maybe I’ve just said something in a funny manner, like ‘third grade’ instead of ‘grade three’. Tom and I lay on a large round swing, the kind I imagine look like odd spider webs from above. I stare at the stars and wonder if they think we look like spiders. I wonder what they think of me. I bring the mispronunciation up. It’s been on my mind lately. It always is after he laughs and says I sound American. Every time he says it, I feel strangely unworthy. I feel foreign. 

My mum once told me that we use different muscles for each language we speak. This information is far from ground-breaking, yet it took me by surprise. As silly as it may sound, I had never truly thought of language as a complex, physical process. Of course, it makes perfect sense; the somersaulting shapes of vowels, the emphasis on otherwise modest consonants, the wisdom of a single hiatus. There is so much that goes into language, the margin of error is as long as it is wide, both infinite in measure. In that moment, I felt I had gained insight into my family’s English, their somewhat flawed appropriation of the language. 

For many years I have watched my parents at dinner tables, recognizing their muletillas; default words; language crutches; linguistic mannerisms. It saddens me to know that their capacities are hindered by language, their wisdom cut short. I focus also on the manner they construct sentences; I notice their pauses and their gestures, recognising what it is they want to say as they mechanically translate their thoughts. Unintentionally, they forget to rearrange their words. They stumble through verse and prose alike, as if it were a game of pinball in an old arcade; the aim is in sight, but the flippers are rusty and their technique is off. 

My mum doesn’t always understand me when I read what I wrote to her. Neither of my parents do. I bend and mould my English in the hope that my words will reach them, but they don’t. I imagine it might sound like gibberish. Like listening to the news in a foreign place and only picking up a handful of words. I know what gibberish sounds like too.

I was four, or maybe five, when we moved to Brisbane. A long way away from Puerto Varas, the small town in the South of Chile which, in another life, I might’ve called home. I have few memories from before we moved, most of them based off of old photos. Mum says that during our first year in Brisbane, I barely said a word. She says the first day I spoke in preschool all the other kids were surprised. I don’t remember. I only remember the important things of preschool, like holding Matthew’s hand during nap time, and the ladybug game that Emily liked. I remember The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Possum Magic. All I knew then was that I liked Charlie and Lola, and milo cups, and straws that made milk taste like chocolate. 

No one in Puerto Varas knew those things. They’d never heard of Cadbury chocolate or the Aeroplane Jelly jingle. I know because when we moved back years later, my childhood seemed so different from that of my classmates. I had never felt like a foreigner before. In Australia, I never once felt like my skin colour was out of place. And yet, after my new peers were told that an Australian classmate would soon arrive, they were disappointed at the sight of me. They had been expecting a tanned, blond gringa; an exotic English-speaking foreigner. I wasn’t what they were hoping for. They didn’t care about my documentation or my memories. They didn’t care that I barely spoke Spanish and that, for the next couple of years, I would struggle to learn how to read and write. I wasn’t what they saw in the movies, therefore, to them I wasn’t Australian. Looking back, I think that’s when this all started.

My brother talks about us being third culture kids a lot. Children who spent their formative years growing up in cultures different to those of their parents. Children who fit in neither here nor there. He says we don’t belong to a single place or culture; that we roam the world seeking a sense of belonging. If we don’t belong, I wonder, does that not imply that we are always foreigners? Even to ourselves. Foreigner. I cannot see where that word begins or where it ends. All I know is that it is big and ever-looming on my mind. I’m not sure whether I am a part of it or whether it is a part of me. I am not sure whether it is a burden I lug or a paper boat that carries my story. 

I was twelve when I was made aware I had a pinball game of my own. Unlike my parents, my arcade was new. It was a friend’s older brother who told me one day after school. We were in their kitchen where I had politely asked for a glass so I could pour myself something to drink. I didn’t know I had said anything wrong. He said I spoke English even when trying to speak Spanish. I didn’t fully understand what he meant until I had an English test years later. I sat staring at the fourth and final page blankly. The page had six black lines. At the beginning of each line, there were four words separated by three slashes. The instructions were clear yet ridiculous for a fluent English speaker: ‘Construct a sentence by using the words given and changing the verbs to the correct tense’.

  It was a trick question and I willed its disappearance, but to no avail. There are hundreds of ways to construct sentences but there was only one way they deemed proper. I realised then that I wrote and spoke by nature. I didn’t think like my parents. I didn’t learn English like my classmates. And sometimes, I constructed sentences in English even when speaking Spanish. My intuition was a risk in those tests. My mind ran laps, frustrated by the short-sighted vision of what the language was and all that it could be. But I am a good student. And eventually, I played by the rules. 

During my time in Chile, I allowed my English to become plain. I lost the Australian accent that my teachers didn’t understand. I learnt their rules and changed my spelling. I let it become just another skill. A skill that helped me understand American movies, American YA books, and my American-styled English curriculum. 

Not long ago, I sat in a classroom full of strangers and studied creative writing. Grade elevens weren’t allowed in that subject, but they must not have noticed that the new student from South America was enrolled. At the beginning of each lesson we’d have a writing activity. Just pen on paper for 10 minutes, no distractions. On the first day, I asked if I could use my phone so I could translate a word or two. By Mrs Gunn’s expression, it was clear no one had ever asked her that before. She must not have thought much of my writing skills that day. I couldn’t hide my foreignness even if I wanted to. I imagine by the end of the year I had surpassed all expectations she had created in her mind after that first interaction. Sometime, well into our last term, someone asked me what language I thought in. I smiled and noticed Gunny smile too. 

I remember hating Spanish in grade six, but I know that I learnt it, and I eventually mastered it. I watched a TED talk once about how language changes your perspective. Bilingual children’s brains are simply wired differently. It’s difficult to explain that the voice in my head is neither Spanish nor English, and yet, it is both. Often, I translate words out of perfectionism; a desire to use impeccable language. I don’t translate words because I don’t know language; I translate words because I know language better; I know it differently. My mind approaches language from different perspectives. It’s a bittersweet gift. My pinball machine is wired differently. The flippers don’t always work as they should, and there are too many holes for my thoughts to aim without staggering. It’s a foreigner’s kind of game, third culture kid edition.  

It’s been just under three years since we’ve been back. The muddled languages inside my head make me question words almost daily. It’s the very small things that get me. Like, when I remember the saying ‘potato, potato; tomato, tomato’, and suddenly I doubt myself and wonder, what’s the Australian way of saying it? As if I were learning the words for the first time and I needed to get them right. Because I do. Because even though my foreignness is never far, I want nothing less than full assimilation. 

I am a trained gymnast who’s mastered the most difficult somersaults that elitist vowels demand. I have had tea with all of the consonants and assured them, they are nothing less than grandiose. I have patiently meditated to the quiet wisdoms of the hiatus. And yet, proficiency lies in the arch of my tongue and the aperture of my lips.

It’s been just under three years since we’ve been back, and language will forever be muddled. I remind myself that it is a good thing. That I turn words upside down and inside out led by desire rather than frustration. That I rearrange my words for experimentation rather than lack of expertise. That a pinball game does not have to be daunting and that I can master anything, because I am a good student. I tell myself that my Australianness is not measured by language. That I have nothing to prove. 

The ocean breeze is cold on my skin as I openly question my sense of belonging. Tom hums in agreement beside me and occasionally answers questions directed at him. He knows I’m trying to measure my Australianness and my Foreignness, and failing at both. I tell him about my old school and the way my English was systematically rewritten. I realise he’s never heard these stories before. I let him into my arcade. 

I think it might’ve been ‘tomato’, the word I mispronounced. I said it wrong the other day while I was serving a customer and I’ve been doubting how to pronounce it ever since. I think I said it at the shack, when we were eating lunch or maybe planning dinner. It doesn’t matter anymore though. Soon, we’ll get back to messing around and I’ll imitate Kath or Kim or Sharon and I’ll do it naturally, like I’d never lost my accent, and I’ll hope it’s enough to distract him from the tomatoes.

K. Marie is a second-year creative writing student with a strong passion for visual arts. She hopes to one day publish YA visual novels along with her poetry. Her work delves into the essence of growing up as a woman as well as exploring her experience as a ‘third culture kid’.