Me and S visited Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin last month for her birthday. It’s about three hours’ drive from Madison. We reserved a room in a bed & breakfast fifteen miles from the bay itself. When we called to make the reservation, we were really impressed by the owner’s thick upper Midwestern accent.
Conversation between Door County bed & breakfast hosts and guests, July, 2009
During our stay, we ended up talking to her and her husband for quite a long time. (In the recording, they talk about their next-door neighbor, a musician who’s planning to lift a piano to the top of his grain silo to play when he retires.) His family immigrated from Belgium and hers from Ireland, both in the mid 19th century. Both families have been in and around Door County ever since. The b&b house itself is about that old as well. It’s built on a farm where the couple used to raise cattle, and where they now grow corn, hay, and soy beans, They run their b&b, I think, mainly for company.
In the previous post, I took for granted that “Thai” and “American” ears were absolutely distinct, but our experience in Door County should cast at least some doubt on the assumption that national citizenship can be uncritically mobilized as an anthropological category. While we obviously spoke the same language, the couple’s accents were for us a pretty profound marker of difference. As soon as we first heard the hostess’ voice on the phone, we had the sense that our trip would take us pretty far out of our normal environment. And when we sat down and talked, our differences were a primary subject of conversation. America, like Thailand, and probably like any nation in the world, is a place of significant internal difference rather than homogeneity. It is also a place whose contours have been shaped by patterns of migration and exchange. Spend a couple hours in Bangkok, and you’ll hear embodied residues of the same sorts of migratory histories – Chinese immigrants, farang (foreign) ex-pats, migrant laborers from Isaan, etc.
In language classes, we might well notice that native Thais tend to speak English with particular intonations, or that Americans tend to do the same with Thai. But at least in anthropology, these surface-level observations can’t substitute for an awareness of the ways that nations – all nations – are internally fragmented. Accent can be a useful clue to this fragmentation, as it was for us when we made our reservations.