In New Orleans, the questions "Are you from here?" and "Where did you go to high school?" typically are friendly and innocuous. But conversation tends to go smoother when the responses are, "Yes," and the name of a school.
People are still friendly when I answer, "No," but there is an amusing chain of inquiry that often follows.
The next question usually is, "How long have you been here?"
Also a harmless question, but it's the next part that I love: "Well, you're going to find ..."
When I first moved here 20 years ago, that seemed generous. A native was helping me understand. I was getting facts and perspective — exactly what I needed to acclimate myself.
But as the tally of my years in New Orleans climbed, the phrase, or some version of it, never went away. I can remember saying I'd lived in New Orleans for a decade or a dozen-plus years, and still I'd hear, "Well, you're going to see..."
I know I can never become a native, and I am not going back to high school, but I am curious about when my understanding of this place won't be suspect.
My feelings are not hurt; I am not insulted. I just want to know how many years natives think it takes to "get it."
It's definitely more than one. Count me among those who are annoyed when the latest arrival from Brooklyn or San Francisco, or somewhere else via stints in Austin, Texas, or Portland, Ore., deigns to explain (loudly) what a second line is or how to peel crawfish.
I thought a decade was a nice round number, a good foundation. And I don't think credibility comes just from time served. I didn't go to high school here, but isn't there some sort of cultural GED we outsiders could earn? What do I have to do? Make a roux for some sanctioning board? Assemble a costume from $20 in thrift store junk and dollar-store raw materials?
I have been through this before. I lived in Japan for a year working as an English teacher. It's a world leader in letting you know you are not a native. I don't have jet-black hair, and yet no one ever asked me if I was from there.
Among the many gracious hosts and students I met, it was a commonly held presumption that foreigners couldn't possibly master the language or understand Japanese culture. This led to well-intended though ridiculous compliments about things like being able to use chopsticks. Yes, 5-year-old Japanese children are handy with them, and so was I.
I didn't speak a word of Japanese when I arrived in Tokyo, but by the end of my stay, I could entertain people with my caveman-level fluency in Japanese and order off an untranslated menu. I don't know how long one has to live here to be considered a full-fledged New Orleanian, and I am not sure just what else I need to master, but I have a question for all those natives who've acquired a taste for sushi: How long did it take you to learn to use chopsticks?