Unequivocally Ambiguous

Humorous Stories on Parenting, Culture and Life

Hunting for Black Caulk

by | Jan 16, 2022 | Society | 0 comments

“Your presentation skills are great, and you have deep product knowledge. But you have an accent.” My new sales manager told me after he tagged along on all my Sacramento sales presentations.

Okay… what do I do with that bit of feedback? Yes, I have an accent. Very likely, I will forever have an accent. If we are trying to get meta, we all have an accent. But he was probably referring to my accent as a speaker of ESL or English as a Second Language. 

Yes, I have been in the US longer than in Colombia and have had my happiest days here. I met and married the woman of my dreams, I witnessed the birth of both of my daughters, and here I experienced the unexpected extasis of my first bite of avocado toast.

But I still have an accent. My accent is a reminder that I grew up somewhere else; that I learned a different language before I learned English, that I learned first how to pronounce something as intimate as my first name “Carlos” before I learned how to pronounce so people here would understand what I was saying, “Carlos”.

He then told me how, at least, it wasn’t as bad as this one Irish man he had met. He said, “Irish people speak like they have potatoes in their mouth.”

I stopped him, “before you keep going, I think you should know my wife is half-Irish.” 

Am I the only one who finds this offensive?

I’m not talking about the accent bit. That happens to people with accents all the time. I’m talking about his choice of tuber. From all the root vegetables he could’ve chosen from, he went with potatoes.

Didn’t he know about the potato famine?

Many Irish people wished they had actual potatoes in their mouths when they died of starvation in the famine.

Experiences like this one have taught me to coach myself through these conversations. I tell myself “people are highlighting my accent because they like it,” or “I speak two and a half languages, and while it would be nice not to have an accent, I still have a lot of Italian to learn.” Or, if people are particularly mean, I think, “there are more smart people that do not speak English than there are native English speakers.”

Isn’t that a bewildering thought?

It challenges an imperialistic expectation that we all need to speak perfect English to succeed in life. It was an assumption that was maybe true fifty years ago, but it doesn’t hold anymore because having an accent is not a crime. The crime is discounting people with one without realizing everything they could bring to the table.

I don’t let it get me down. I have fun with it. Like when I told my colleagues we should go to Maggiano’s when we were in Las Vegas, and I used the proper Italian pronunciation. I was corrected by English speakers telling me how they would pronounce it so they could understand it.

I apologized, “I’m sorry for pronouncing right. I forgot that knowing only one language is the true American National pastime.”

It doesn’t mean all people with accents have fun with it. 

When you ask an ESL speaker to repeat with a ‘huh?’, it triggers insecurities of belonging. At the root of it, they are wondering, “am I being understood?” or “will I ever be understood here in the way I was understood back home?”

So when you say “huh?”, ESL speakers don’t think:

“This person is hard of hearing,”
“I mumbled,”
“My statement was outrageous.”


They think:


This person is making fun of my accent!

It happened to my mom once.

My mom called me one afternoon. She was remodeling her house, and she was at a hardware store buying caulking. She was confused by the many options, and she didn’t know what to do.

At that time, I was a construction manager, so I used my expertise to point her in the right direction.

I told her, “mom, the guys in my crew swear by this new brand called The Big Black Caulk.”

Now, caulk sounds like cock–especially in the mouth of an ESL speaker. The cock, of course, doesn’t care the mouth has an accent.

Now, Stop! Let’s stop right here!

Okay, I made this joke because somebody was going to, and I needed to get ahead of it. It is low-hanging fruit, and if someone else made it, I’d have to be upset with them. That’s not fair since I thought of the joke first.

But don’t forget, we are talking about my mom. So, please, show some respect, and let’s stay on track with what’s important, which is that I sent my mom on the hunt for a good deal on big black caulk.

I thought she would immediately tort back, “you are an idiot, Carlos. That’s a distasteful joke, and I’m your mother.” End of conversation. Click.

I’d have blamed my dad because he wasn’t around whenever I made jokes like these. No one ever snapped at me and said, “Hey, that’s your mom. Show some respect.”

Instead, my mom approached a clerk.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you know where I can find The Big Black Caulk?”

I heard the “huh?” of confusion the clerk made.

“Do you know where is The Big Black Caulk?”

“Huh?!”

My mom whispered into the phone in Spanish, “este imbécil cree que porque tengo acento se va a hacer el que no me entiende.””This imbecile is acting like he doesn’t understand what I’m asking him because of my accent.”

I should’ve stopped her.

But I didn’t want to.

Then she proceeded to shout, “Take Me! to: THE BIG BLACK CAULK!!”

She hung up the phone and called me 30 minutes later. She finally figured out what I did and she was pissed!! But by then, it didn’t matter because that moment would go down in history as the best prank I ever played on my mom and possibly as one of the happiest days of my life.

I feel bad for that man. He will never know that he wasn’t being sexually harassed by a Hispanic woman with a heavy accent. But it is slightly better than being told you speak like you have a potato in your mouth. Or at least, I tell myself that.

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