The first time I heard the words, they sounded strange. I asked my dad to repeat them a few times and every time he did, I giggled to myself.
So this is the language I will learn to speak over the next few years.
I was sitting at the back of our pink Renault, sandwiched between my siblings. We were on our way to a cottage located in the Northern most part of the country, by the Caspian Sea.
It was during that trip that my father decided to break the news to us.
We are moving to Canada.
Toronto street in autumn | Photo credit: Matthew Wiebe (c)
That was the first time I ever heard about Canada. I never knew such a vast country existed! Our educational system was mainly focused on teaching us about our own country, providing me with little to no knowledge of the world beyond our own borders.
My brother’s eyes lit up. He quickly began throwing questions at my dad:
BABA! (Dad), When are we going? How far is it from here? Are Canadians blonde and blue-eyed? What kind of food do they eat? How does their language sound like?
My dad laughed at his last question, then roared “They speak English!”
“But we don’t speak English, Baba.” I said, disappointed.
“Don’t worry, you will learn it and start speaking like a parrot!” he chuckled, then continued “I think this is the best decision for your future. You’ll love it there. They have this drink called Canada Dry … that’s what they drink there all the time!” he smiled and winked at my mom.
A can of Canada Dry diet | Photo credit: Sheida Azimi (c) 2016
I was ecstatic.
My brother, however, was deep in thought.
“Baba, I want to learn English fast. Teach me something.”
“Okay. How about I teach you how to say ‘I don’t speak English’ in English? it’s a useful sentence. You can use it anytime when we get there, until you’re comfortable enough to speak.”
I locked my eyes on his reflection in the driver’s mirror. His mouth opened, as if about to sigh, then his teeth clenched, tongue pressed at the back of his teeth, lips forming different shapes. With each word, I concentrated hard on getting the pronunciation correctly.
My brother and I began repeating it. I don’t remember how many times I repeated that sentence. It got to the point that it lost its meaning. I didn’t feel any connection with it anymore — the words, what they meant, and what I was actually saying. All I cared about at that time was being able to say something foreign. And I did.
I was standing in line at the grocery story with my dad, a full basket at my feet, waiting to make a purchase.
“Wait here for a minute, I forgot to grab something.” he said out of the blue, and darted off into the isles.
This was our second week in Toronto.
I took a deep breath and looked around.
It’s okay. He’ll come back soon. I don’t need to worry. They’ll understand that I can’t possibly afford to pay for all these things. I’m only eleven years old for god’s sake …
There was a man in front of me paying for his stuff. I was the next person in line. When he was done, he turned to me, smiled, and … spoke.
He spoke directly to me. English. He spoke English.
My eyes popped open.
What? what is he saying? Is he saying that I should pay for my groceries now?
I turned my head away from him. But again, he smiled and repeated what he had said just seconds earlier.
I wanted to cry. Where is Baba?!
Again, he repeated himself. But this time, the store clerk also smiled and said something. She then laughed, lifted up a box of sodas to scan under her machine.
My eyes fell on the box: Canada Dry.
At that moment, it was like my childhood came to the rescue. I straightened my back, stared at him dead in the eye and said, (in the most clear, American accent I could) “I don’t speak English.”
The store clerk and the man roared with laughter. He shook his head, tapped me on the shoulder and said something. I smiled.
I had just communicated with a foreigner and made him laugh. It felt like the biggest accomplishment of my eleven years of existence. I was proud, but also disappointed that I couldn’t understand what they were saying. That I couldn’t talk back, form sentences, and ask questions. I was frustrated and yet, had a gleam of hope that one day, I could fit in with the rest and speak without fear.
When the school bell rang, I remained seated. Other kids began packing their stuff, and while laughing and shouting, walked out of the classroom.
I stared at my class schedule.
Where is everyone going?
Ms. Io walked up to my desk. “Aren’t you going to your next class?” she asked.
This was my first day in Junior High School. I wasn’t familiar with the concept of having a homeroom and walking to your specified class once the bell rang. Back home, teachers came to you— you didn’t go to them.
I stared at her, confused as to what she meant. The only words I picked up from that sentence were “your” and “class”.
So I told her the first thing that I could think of: “My class.” and pointed at the floor.
She laughed, shook her head and walked out of the room.
What was happening?
Fear creeped through me. I felt alone, lost, confused, and extremely scared. I finally found courage to get up and follow her out of the room.
I didn’t see her in the hallway. I didn’t see anyone. The only thing I could hear were noises coming from classrooms down the hall.
That was when I noticed two girls from my homeroom class talking and walking towards me. I approached them a little hesitantly.
“Where class … I go?” I asked them, pointing at my timetable.
They paused, scanned me up and down, and burst with laughter.
I smiled back and waited.
Did I just make new friends?
“Oh my God! She doesn’t know how to speak! she says ‘verrr kelaas’! what a FOB.” one of the girls said, still laughing.
“Verrr kelaass? Verrr!! verrrr!” said the other girl. She then grabbed her friends hand and ran. Her laughter echoed all through the hallway.
That was the first time I felt rejected and embarrassed by my accent.
After that incident, and for a few years, I lost interest in approaching and speaking to strangers. I built a wall around myself and hid my voice from others. I decided to only speak when spoken to, or when I’m around friends. Giving speeches in English class, or doing individual class presentations was a nightmare, and always put me in a complete nervous breakdown. During those events, my mind would fill up with what if they don’t understand me? what if I’m pronouncing words incorrectly? what if they make fun of me?
I absolutely hated my accent and was willing to do whatever it took to get rid of it. So I began watching movies and TV shows, and repeating their words out loud to myself whenever I was home alone.
But I also knew that at some point in life, I’d have to face my fear.
I stand in front of the class room. Twenty five pairs of eyes are fixed on me. I have a few sheets of notes in one hand, and the book I’m presenting in the other.
I take one quick glance at my presentation notes, place them on the table beside me, hold up the book, “Indian Horse”, and begin.
The words and sentences flow easily. I hadn’t quite prepared for the presentation, because I had read the book twice and knew it almost by heart. At some point, I decide to improvise, and talk about a few interesting things that hadn’t occurred to me as I was writing my presentation notes.
"Indian Horse" by Richard Wagamese | Photo credit: Sheida Azimi (c) 2016
Ideas spin around in my head and attach themselves to words, and those words gather into sentences, bounce on my tongue, and spill out of my mouth. I make eye contact with every single person in the room as I speak. I know they understand me. I can read it in their eyes. They are nodding their heads, taking notes, even smiling.
As I finish, I close my eyes and take a deep breath. A quick flash of the car ride with my dad and how he taught us our very first English sentence, passes through my eyes. I have finally overcome my fear.
I do speak English.