It is my life’s work to make sure my children do not say “pop.” The right word is “soda,” of course.
But it is their life’s work to make me learn to say “orange” correctly.
“Mom, say orange.”
“No, no. Say ‘or.’ ”
“Say ‘ange.’ ”
“OK, now say ‘orange.’ ”
I know how to say “orange” the Ohio way. I just want to keep saying it the New Jersey way. Sometimes it’s just easier not to have to think about whether I’m saying something the “wrong” way. Sometimes I just want to still be the person I’ve always been, and still am, even after many moves and life changes. Plus, some New Jerseyisms are just better. “Tennis shoes?” Come on, that’s just silly. I don’t play tennis, and you probably don’t, either. They will always be “sneakers” to me.
I’m a reasonable person. In New Jersey, there is no word for that strip of lawn between the sidewalk and the street. “Tree lawn” is brilliant, and I’m an enthusiastic user of this excellent phrase. For that one, I can almost forgive Cleveland for not having a proper New Jersey diner.
Twenty years ago, I gave up single life and changed my last name. I hung onto my maiden name as my middle name. It is something just for me, a cherished piece of the person I still am. What I didn’t anticipate is that my first name would change, too. But it did, just a few months after I got married, when I moved to Ohio.
My name was still Sharon. On paper, nothing changed. But if you’re from Ohio, you say the first syllable as “Share.” Jersey people say, “Sha,” like the short “a” in “cap.” Sometimes when I would introduce myself in Ohio, people didn’t understand what name I was saying. They still don’t.
That sort of thing, together with the four Ohioans in my house who tease me about the way I say mall (“mawl”) and dog (“dawg”), remind me regularly that I’ll never be quite from here. (Why the Browns have a Dawg Pound I’ll never understand. Clevelanders don’t even say “dawg.”)
Despite all that joking, I’m pretty much a naturalized Ohioan now. One of my children has a short “a” name similar to mine. Most of the time I pronounce it the Ohio way without thinking about it. I drive more like a polite Midwesterner, except when I head back to the New York-New Jersey area and shift into everybody-for-themselves-hang-on-for-dear-life survival mode. I don’t miss constant highway (not freeway, mind you) driving. Cleveland’s slower pace of life has become part of me. I cherish my neighbors here, who borrow the proverbial cup of sugar and everything else from each other with comfortable intimacy that baffles my Jersey mom.
Moving from the East Coast to Cleveland doesn’t exactly make me an immigrant. But it reminds me why people emigrate and what we hold onto. We’re coming for love or a better life, and, especially at first, we might be a little different. We might hold fast to our old language, because our roots matter.
But inevitably, we seep into each other. We might first bond over food, pierogies or pho or antipasto or empanadas or schmarrn. We might be co-workers, classmates, neighbors, spouses. Inevitably, no matter where we’re originally from, our children become locals. Our vowels drop. Our sneakers become tennis shoes.
It’s cliche to speak of America as a melting pot. But as with most cliches, it is based in truth. We are the sum of each other, multiplied by our time together. We can still be ourselves while we also learn from and love each other. Something new is in the making, just by virtue of time spent together.
Over and over, I’ve seen how well Cleveland can welcome those of us who are new, including those who come from foreign countries, ones a lot farther away than New Jersey. I’ve seen my own church and other places of worship reach out to refugees who have fled with nothing from unthinkable conditions. I’ve seen my kids’ teachers, year after year, patiently teach kids newly arrived from Libya, Mexico and Sri Lanka with the help of Google Translate.
I’ve attended the naturalization ceremonies at the federal courthouse downtown. They are always moving, as judges, elected representatives and a network of nonprofits step up to welcome our newest citizens, hailing from dozens of countries. I’ve seen how our libraries reach out to new families to help with English and the acclimation process. And I’ve made my own friends who are immigrants, for whom I am so grateful. Where else would our paths cross but Cleveland?
Compared to them, of course, my assimilation story is a big yawn. It’s not nothing, though. I feel at home in Cleveland, as I hope all newcomers do. But I will always be from somewhere else. And I will always have the accent to prove it.