Un-Fluent and Proud

“You can’t write like that. It’s wrong. You’re wrong.” Okay, maybe the teacher wasn’t that harsh, but to me, in middle school, her judgment of my painstakingly designed handwriting font hit me like a blow to my core identity. Middle-school-me thought that curly-cue letters and “I”s dotted with stars were the height of cool, and signifiers of my individuality. I even gave myself a nickname that year, because my given name wasn’t special enough. As you can imagine, I bristled when anyone stepped on my painstakingly-curated self concept, even if they technically had authority over me as a teacher. Somehow, this worked for me at middle school in the United States. I did well in all my classes, and the teachers didn’t seem to mind when I answered questions without raising my hand. Socially, I couldn’t complain. Kids gathered round me at recess to hear the latest raunchy joke I had looked up on my parent’s desktop computer the night before and memorized. At that age, I didn’t recognize how much I didn’t know.

Dunedin, New Zealand. My home for the next six months. Image c/o grownups.co.nz.

When I was twelve, my father received a Fulbright research grant to compare how medical residency programs taught their students about patient suffering in New Zealand versus the United States. He had been funded for six months of research, and when my mother considered him traveling abroad without us for half a year, she decided the future for all of us. The whole family went. And, as my brother and I were both school aged, we couldn’t just be truant for six months. So we enrolled in school.

* * *

In his essay entitled “Discourses and Literacies,” James Paul Gee offers a helpful lens through which to view my cultural transition from the US to New Zealand. Each person grows up indoctrinated in their primary Discourse, or “culturally distinctive way of being an ‘everyday person’”. My primary Discourse, the WASP-y American middle class, looked like church on Sundays (whether we liked it or not), reading before bed, and family dinners every night where I was expected to regale my family with stories of my day. This Discourse, or way of “speaking/listening, and often, too, writing/reading coupled with ways of acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, thinking, [and] believing”, had thus far assured my success in interacting with others. Gee’s definition has a lot to unpack, but basically, a Discourse is a way that you can recognize and be recognized as a member of a specific group. But when I moved to New Zealand, I found myself, for the first time, neither recognizing nor recognized by the dominant discourse.

WASP stands for White Anglo Saxon Protestant. Image c/o envisioningtheamericandream.com.

Culturally, I didn’t expect that New Zealand would be very different from the United States. I thought it was mainly like Canada; after all, both countries used to be British colonies, and then gained independence. The Canadian Discourse wasn’t altogether unfamiliar for me. At ten, I had been to Vancouver twice, and the people there just used funny plastic money and measured stuff in kilograms and kilometers. So indoctrinated in my primary American Discourse, I couldn’t imagine a place that did things differently.

As I packed a suitcase large enough to curl up inside of, I chose things that made me think of home. Part of Discourse inclusion means that you can’t see that Discourse’s shortcomings, merely because of the fact that to be inside the Discourse you must believe its thinking. I distinctly remember choosing to pack my American Girl dolls, because they were popular with my friends, and your doll acted as a sort of personality test. I was friends with girls who had Samanthas and Felicities, but if you owned Molly, you were boring (She’s now been discontinued, so I assume the doll execs agree with my childish assessment). I wondered if my new friends would have a favorite doll, not realizing from inside my American Discourse that it was probably unlikely that a Kiwi child would own an American Girl doll.

Knowing the types of dolls, a kind of social language, is a secondary Discourse that I learned beyond my primary. Gee describes a secondary Discourse as any Discourse acquired “later in life, beyond our primary Discourse”. Like most people, I belonged to multiple secondary Discourses beyond what my parents taught me. For me, these were primarily my social and academic Discourses. My parents, unknowingly, incorporated parts of these Discourses into my primary Discourse, in what Gee calls “early borrowing”. Early borrowing often facilitates the transition from primary to secondary Discourses, and for me that certainly was the case. For my parents, reading together before bed was a normal aspect of parenting, but it also had the effect of sharpening my reading skills to ease my transition into the student Discourse. Likewise, asking me my opinions and encouraging me to share my thoughts made it seem natural that I should speak up independently in social situations, enabling me to confidently enter my social Discourse. One thing to note, that I did not realize at the time, was that both of my secondary Discourses were American.

* * *

The New Zealand school system, like their seasons, is flipped from the Northern Hemisphere, and when we arrived in January, summer break was almost over. I was shocked to see Christmas trees being burned in February as an end-of-summer campfire. Having never before left the comfort of my primary and secondary Discourses, in fact having no idea at that time what a Discourse even was, I was ill prepared for the social and cultural adjustment that a New Zealand middle school required of me.

Unbeknownst to me, I was about to suffer from an acute lack of what Gee calls “mushfaking”. Mushfaking describes the times in your life when you are outside of the Discourse, but you want to be seen as a part of it, so you imitate. For example, when you use a slang word without really knowing what it means, just to try and fit in (think adults calling things “fire,” or “lit”). Successful mushfaking relies on an astute recognition of the right thing to do.

On the first day of school in New Zealand, I didn’t know how to mushfake. I didn’t even know how much of the Discourse I didn’t know. I was suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which the novice wildly overestimates their ability in a newly acquired task. According to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, I was at the height of what some researchers colloquially call “Mount Stupid.” That is, the peak of self-confidence after you get a little bit of experience in a subject. Actually, I was worse off than those at Mount Stupid, because I didn’t even know how much of the Discourse I didn’t know! With zero knowledge, I assumed 100% competence. I wasn’t worried about adapting to school, because, blinded my own Discourses, I couldn’t realize that school could even be different.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect. Image c/o digitalwellbeing.com.

As you can probably guess, the first day of school wasn’t my best ever. I came in well versed in my American academic and social Discourses. I spoke out in class, but the teacher didn’t appreciate my contributions. My extroverted social Discourse didn’t immediately make me popular with the Kiwi children, either. Every time I made a loud joke, they seemed to react in astonishment, and laughed more at the fact that I thought the anecdote was appropriate to tell, rather than at the joke itself. I fit right in to their assumptions about the stereotypical brash and loud American. It took a while to realize, but finally I realized that somehow in this city, it was the kids who were most reserved, polite, and shy that were actually the most popular. I had stumbled into a nation of introverts, and I didn’t know the Discourse.

* * *

In 1987, E.D. Hirsch first published his divisive 5000-item list of the “basic information” what Americans need to possess “to thrive in the modern world”. The list he proposed included entries as archaic as the phrase “Shoot, if you must, this old grey head…,” of which, to be honest, I’m still not sure of the origin or significance, and have assuredly never heard in everyday conversation. When I moved to New Zealand, I wish that someone had shown me a similar list. Just as I had, all of the other children had acquired through early borrowing from their parents the way to do and be a good Kiwi student. By contrast, I had to test through trial and error what would and wouldn’t fly by my schoolmates, something that I really wasn’t equipped to do as a twelve year old.

One of the items on the list would have been the spelling bee. Like every child, I had heard of spelling bees, but I mainly thought of them in terms of a historical practice. In other words, my academic Discourse didn’t include them. So when my New Zealand teacher announced that the entire year six class would participate in a spelling bee, I figured I would do pretty well. Note, again, my Dunning-Kruger “novice” confidence. I had never actually participated in a spelling bee before.

I did well in the first round. My voracious reading had gifted me with a wide vocabulary, so I recognized all of the words. Finally: a competition, and one at which I was excelling. A situation in which my classmates might praise me for standing out, instead of ridicule me. It came down to the last three. I don’t remember what the final word of that round was, but I remember confidently spelling it out, looking out over the class. I finished the word, and was ready to advance to the final round. But as the last letter left my mouth, I could see the faces of my classmates fall. I had misspelled it. The teacher corrected my spelling, pointing out that I had failed to include a “u.” New Zealand uses the British spelling. My blindness from being immersed in the American academic Discourse had made me view the spelling of the word as objective truth, while in reality I had to realize that the academic rules, just like social ones, were different here.

* * *

I’ve mislead you. This story was supposed to describe a transition between two Discourses. I could tell you that I took a step back, reflected on the ways that my behavior didn’t match up with Kiwi expectations, and changed for the better. I could tell you that in fact, I became supremely popular in my short time there, and even started an American culture club. But that wasn’t true. As a twelve-year-old, I lacked the insight to self-criticize and self-reflect. I didn’t know anything about Gee’s Discourses, or Hirsch’s theory of cultural literacy, and I certainly didn’t realize that some situations call for mushfaking. If I had, I might have recognized the cultural differences and not fallen so hard on my primary and secondary Discourses. I might have made friends.

Instead, this story describes my confusion and failure when I blindly tried to impose my Discourses in a culture where they didn’t fit. However painfully awkward the experience was at the time, I’m glad that I made a fool of myself then. After all, what is middle school for? It’s a period where we make bold and glorious mistakes. What’s more, we learn from them. So, later, when in college I heard about cultural literacy and Discourses, the theories spoke to me on a deep level, because of this intensely awkward period of my life.

When we got on the plane to leave New Zealand, I cried. I had made two close friends outside of school, my neighbors William and James, and their family had come to see us off. As the aircraft taxied down the runway, I could see their hands furiously waving from the departures hall, and the boys’ faces pressed up against the glass. I felt mixed emotions. I was sad to leave them, but on the other hand, I was relieved to go back home. I missed the American Discourse.

As I look back on my experience years later, I realize that I’ve been too harsh on myself. Yes, I acted foolishly. But, I was a child, who had never before spent an extended period of time in another culture. I was a little socially awkward, and lacked the self-awareness to know when things were getting out of hand.

Actually, this experience helped me develop skills of intercultural communication. The next time I traveled abroad I knew from experience to hold back a little and take time to notice what others did and how they acted. In university, I chose to study abroad and live for half an academic year in Spain. There, I would never be 100% Spanish, just as I would never have been 100% Kiwi, but this time I wasn’t trying to be. I knew that if I didn’t want to subsume the Discourse completely, or hold out on my American Discourse, I still could participate to the level I chose. I could retain my American-ness without coming across as brashly as I had in New Zealand. In Spain, instead of expecting the Spanish Discourse would make room for my American Discourse, I mushfaked a little, falling into a new American-in-Spain Discourse that combined aspects of both the Spanish and American Discourses.

When I felt the conflict between Discourses in New Zealand, I tried to cover it up as best as I could. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned the skill of leaning into and growing from that conflict. Being outside the Discourse might be awkward at times, but it helped me develop meta knowledge — the Discourse of Discourses — which makes me comfortable being un-fluent.

In terms of personal growth, comfort is overrated.