How do you travel halfway around the world and still feel connected to home? For WPR’s Carina Abrego-Koch of Green Bay, she listened to the sound of her own voice — and the voice of someone she loves — while on a trip to London.
She shares her story as part of the “Home Is Here” project, which amplifies the voices of the growing number of Black, Asian, Native American and Hispanic residents who call northeastern Wisconsin home. The project is part of the NEW News Lab – a local news collaboration in northeastern Wisconsin made up of six news organizations.
Two things about me that you need to know for this story: I have always been loud and proud about my family’s background and where I come from. Also, I am an Anglophile, meaning I’m obsessed with British culture. It started with my love of Tears for Fears when I was 3-years-old, and then The Beatles in my teen years!
Growing up, I was always forthcoming about my heritage. My family moved from Kenosha to Green Bay in 1987, and there weren’t many people who looked anything like me in Northeast Wisconsin. So people often flat out asked me:
“What are you?”
“I’m half Mexican, a quarter Japanese, and an eighth Irish and an eighth Norwegian!”
I’d joke that “I’m diverse within myself!” Or, I would make a new term, calling myself “Hispasian!” or “tri-racial.”
I remember one time when I was 12, I was talking about our family background and my dad said, “Yeah, but if you travel outside the country, you aren’t going to say that. You’re going to tell them you’re American.”
That’s stuck with me my entire life.
I had to wait another 12 years to leave the country to see how an exchange with someone from outside the country might go. My friend, Shawn, asked me to join him in London for his spring break. It was the trip of a lifetime.
While there, we dined with a group of Romanian college students. My family background eventually came up in conversation. Their jaws dropped. They had never met someone with such a diverse background. In a way, that was a new experience for me, too. As Americans, we’re used to people having ancestors from more than one country.
My trip to London not only got me thinking about my tri-racial identity, but also my Wisconsin accent. You know the accent with its long vowels. Once I had a job in a call center and they’d ask, “Where are you from? You sound like people in that movie ‘Fargo.’”
Now, something strange happened in my short time in London. As the week progressed, my friend and I noticed my accent changing. One morning at a coffee shop, I ordered an Americano and I didn’t recognize the voice that came out of my mouth. I didn’t sound like my Wisconsin self, I sounded a little British. I was in London for less than a week and I was taking on bits of their accent. I was not totally surprised though, I have always been able to imitate or mimic others easily. But this time, it was a subconscious mimicking. Was it because I wanted to be British? Not for the food, but for the music and culture, of course!
Later that week, we went to the loudest Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day and I struck up a conversation with a guy from Australia. I am not sure how he could even hear it, but he said I sounded like I was from Canada! I laughed and told him I was not far from there! So, my Wisconsin accent wasn’t completely gone.
The next day was the moment I was really looking forward to during the whole trip. It was a visit to Abbey Road Studios!! After doing all the touristy Beatles things and posing for photos, I couldn’t wait to tell my dad about my adventure. After all, he bought me my first Beatles CD, “Rubber Soul.” Incidentally, it was also the first Beatles album he had.
I found one of those iconic, red British phone booths to call my musician dad who always fostered my love of music. After he answered, I told him how I walked across Abbey Road barefoot like Paul McCartney and peeped through the studio’s iron gates. And it was at that moment, my friend said, that my Northeast Wisconsin accent completely came back. It’s because I was talking to my dad in Green Bay.
Wherever my dad is, that’s home.
My name is Carina. I’m half Mexican, a quarter Japanese, an eighth Irish, and an eighth Norwegian. I call Green Bay home, and you can hear it in my Wisconsin-accented voice.
Carina Abrego-Koch is an Outreach Specialist with Wisconsin Public Radio and lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin.