Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Guest blogger Grant McKenzie
Grunt goes to Canada
By Grant McKenzie
It was likely the strong, undiluted accent, but it could have been shyness or the overwhelming heaviness of being suddenly different.
Whatever it was, to their Canadian ears, my name sounded like Grunt.
You can imagine the laughter — and the sound effects.
There I was, as Scottish as can be: orange hair so bright it practically glowed, the McKenzie nose, freckles (masses of them since it was a hot summer) and the pale white skin that comes after painful lessons learned on the sandy beaches of Troon.
Most people believe there shouldn't be any language barriers when one emigrates between English-speaking countries, but they're wrong.
This was 1976. I was thirteen years old. And I didn't speak English, I spoke Glaswegian with an East Kilbridian burr.
My working-class brogue had erased the "th" sound from my vocabulary, so words like "think" and “thought” became "fink" and “fought”. I also used such foreign phrasing as "Aye" for "Yes" and "Ta" in place of "thanks". There were even times when you would have thought I was speaking Gaelic rather than just trying to ask a teacher for permission to go to the washroom. “I’m burstin’, miss. Canna no use the loo?”
This language barrier became even more impenetrable when I attended French class at A.E. Cross Junior High. As an official bilingual country, Canada tries to place an emphasis on its second national language. Fortunately, I had a year of French at Claremont High School before leaving Scotland, and so I believed I was in with a shot. I was a good student and knew how to ask for the time, close the door and hang up my hat, all in French.
The teacher, however, thought I had been sent by Candid Camera. She was from Quebec (a province that speaks a different variety of French from France, just to confuse matters) and to her, I sounded like a tractor ripping her language up by the roots and shredding it to tatters before her ears.
My ability to master the written portion of the exams seemed to only frustrate her further as I believe she thought I was actually speaking some form of Scandinavian.
Scotland has changed dramatically since I left, but in 1976, we only had three television channels (although BBC2 barely counted) and the only American shows I can remember were a few cartoons, occasional John Wayne movie and Wizard of Oz every Christmas.
Canada didn't look or sound like any of them, even though my family landed in Calgary, the cowboy capital of the country. This wasn’t Cowboys and Indians (although there were plenty of both), this was oil country with belt buckles the size of your face and ¾-ton, extended-cab pickup trucks larger than a council flat. The city was clean and noticeably graffiti free with large blue skies and powerful Chinook winds that could pick up a small dog and carry it off to Saskatchewan.
It was like nothing I had ever seen or imagined. The city sprawled, stretching itself across hills and valleys, spacing everything out so that people didn’t walk ¾ they drove. And they drove a lot. In Canada, but especially in the prairie provinces, people think nothing of driving hundreds of kilometers to find a nice spot for lunch.
But although Calgary was newer and shinier than the city I left, it still had problems that wouldn’t arrive in Scotland for several more years.
I discovered this on my first week of school when my English teacher gave the class an essay assignment to write about a “pot party”. The other students thought this was hilarious, but I was completely befuddled. The only pot party I could imagine was one where a group of people brought over their fat-blackened chip pots and made a huge load of steaming, hot chips.
Now, although that sounded like a fun time to me as I loved a good poke of vinegar-soaked chips, the teacher went on to say that our story should end with the police arriving at the door and the consequences that would entail.
I had to raise my hand.
What the heck could the criminal charges be? Too much hot fat bubbling on top of a stove at the same time?
I was clueless. Drugs just hadn’t entered the mainstream of Scottish education at that time. We had alcohol and violence ¾ I knew all about that. You would be hard pressed to find any schoolboy or girl who hadn’t been a victim and/or witness to some horrific thuggery, but drugs weren’t part of that ¾ not yet.
In Canada, however, every teenager was well versed about cannabis and all its various and colorful aliases.
It sounds horribly naive, but I didn’t even know what you did with it.
The teacher seemed dumbfounded when she had to explain to the foreign kid ¾ who, with the exception of his bright ginger hair, looked just like everyone else in class ¾ that pot was an illegal plant that grew all over Canada (but especially in British Columbia) that people dried and smoked to get high.
As you can imagine, the other students loved this and my status quickly dropped from unusual but kinda cute foreign kid to weird loser who no one could understand.
I further cemented my weird reputation when the school announced that the first theme day of the year was Greaser Day. Naturally, I once again had no clue what a greaser was, but I was determined to find out.
No one sticks out further on theme day than the kid without a costume ¾ or so I thought.
In my research of greaserdom, I discovered it was a term used to describe a 1950s-style rocker. No problem. My dad, a joiner from Burnbank, and my mum, a Glasgow seamstress, had met at the big city dancehalls that were all the rage in the ’50s and ’60s. My dad was so cool back then that he spent his carpentry paycheques on handmade suits from an Italian tailor and had even won a contest to meet Bill Haley and His Comets on their first visit to the UK.
I told my parents that I wanted to look like a ’50s rocker, and they did their best. Unfortunately, the ’50s in Glasgow was an entirely different beast from the ’50s in Canada. Canada basically stole its ’50s memories from America, or more specifically from American TV shows and movies that glamorized that era.
So while every other kid looked like The Fonz from Happy Days in black leather jacket, white T-shirt, blue jeans and greased hair, I arrived looking dapper in a collared shirt and skinny tie, suit jacket borrowed from my mum, and my unruly hair blow-dried into a giant, orange pompadour.
After that disaster, even the really weird kids started ostracizing me.
Fortunately, I switched schools at the end of that year and was given a chance to start again. This time my accent was not quite as broad (although I still cling to it even to this day); I knew what the traditional teenage delicacies of Slurpees, Hoagies and Big Macs were; I could use cool words like “keen” and “keen-o”; I had a cowboy hat for the summer and a toque for the winter; I became an avid downhill skier and I even learned how to roller-skate.
I never stopped being proud of my heritage, but I also became equally proud of growing to be more than I was, a citizen of two countries with memories in each that make me the person I am today: the weird adult with the ginger hair and a stubborn perseverance that refuses to give in even when the odds seem stacked against me.
Without that indefatigability, I would have used all those numerous rejection slips of my early work as an excuse to stop writing. Instead, they became stepping stones to become a better writer and signposts that to my stubborn, Celtic blue eyes read: Never Give Up.
Grant McKenzie is the author of SWITCH, an edge-of-your-seat thriller, available in Canada from Penguin on Aug. 3. SWITCH is already a bestseller in the UK and Germany. You can visit the author’s website