As an expat, I’ve always had a soft spot for those who left everything and everyone behind to start a new life in a new country. Sometimes, the decision to move is entirely voluntary, but often, people are forced to leave their familiar land, and flee to safety.
Think of the people who had to get out of Afghanistan, the Ukraine, and the many that are waiting at the Mexican border. The refugees, the persecuted, the desperate.
Imagine what they are going through when they’re stepping into a new and strange land. There’s the predictable culture shock, and in many cases a language barrier.
I am one of the lucky ones. I chose to leave the Netherlands and start a new life. At the beginning of my American story in 1999, every day was an exciting and surprising adventure. But as I started to settle in, I quickly discovered that my dream of living in a new place did not resemble reality in any way, shape, or form.
To some people in my adopted country, I was an unwelcome foreigner trying to steal their jobs. To others, I was an exotic outsider with weird manners and a strange way of speaking.
As I was gradually settling in, I came to the following realization:
Living, loving, and working far away from home, I never felt more connected to where I came from.
The longer I was gone, the stronger this feeling got. Until I went back for a quick visit after a few years had passed, and I noticed how much had changed in my absence. And for the first time in my life, I felt like I was no longer fitting in at home either.
I remember coming back to the Netherlands, and finding out that all the money had changed from guilders to euros. It’s only money, but it’s something valuable you use every day. It’s a symbol of a nation’s history, identity, and pride.
I also observed that people had started speaking differently. The familiar Dutch was increasingly interspersed with English words and expressions. And when I spoke, I saw some raised eyebrows because -as I learned later- I was using words that had gone out of fashion.
So, sooner or later I had to face the questions all of us are asking ourselves at one point in our life:
Where and how do I fit in?
Do I even want to fit in?
Let me answer these questions by sharing an experience I had when I was just getting started as a voice over in the United States. I was as green as grass and wondered how I should position myself in the already crowded market of voice talent.
I vividly remember getting very contradictory advice from people who knew the business inside out. One of them told me that the first thing I should do to make myself more marketable, was to sign up for an accent-reduction training.
“Paul, you need to sound more American if you want to sell your services in the US of A.”
The other person said:
“The last thing you should do is change your accent so you sound more American. There are thousands of voice talents with an American accent. There is only one person who speaks like you, with this sort of northern-European accent. It’s clear you’re not from here, but it’s hard to tell where you’re actually from. Use that to your advantage.”
The real issue behind this issue was this: “Do I want to blend in, or not?”
If you know me just a little bit, you already know what choice I made. I decided I wasn’t going to be a fake American, but to be my European self with an ambiguous accent. That decision turned out to be the difference between having a sustainable voice over career, or no VO career at all.
The thing is: You can’t stand out if you’re trying to fit in.
Clients and agents aren’t listening for more of the same (unless they need a soundalike). That’s why I warn young talent about sending in demos where they’re impersonating famous people.
First of all, they’re usually not very good. Secondly, you need to showcase YOU if you’re going to impress someone who has seen everything and heard everything.
Tom Kenny didn’t land the part of Spongebob Squarepants by imitating Bugs Bunny. John McEnroe didn’t become the narrator of “Never Have I Ever” by sounding like Anthony Mendez (“Jane the Virgin”).
Always keep these two letters in mind:
PS On an even more personal note, you may have seen on social media that my wife is recovering from COVID. After almost a week in the hospital she was discharged, and is now at home. I was supposed to take care of her, ánd of my 91-year old father-in-law who lives with us. However, this morning my COVID test came back positive, and I now have to isolate in my studio.
For now, my symptoms are very mild. It feels more like a cold than anything else, and I hope it stays that way. I’m taking Paxlovid. Paxlovid is an oral antiviral pill that can be taken at home to help keep high-risk patients from getting so sick that they need to be hospitalized.
My message to you is this: our family has taken all the available precautions to keep COVID away. We all are double boosted and have been staying away from crowds. We have been wearing masks since the beginning of the pandemic, and Vermont (where we live), is considered to be a low-risk state. AND YET… we got the virus. My wife said she never felt as miserable in her entire life. She thought she was going to die.
Please take this to heart, and do everything you can to keep yourself and others safe. Don’t think for a minute that this is over, or that COVID is a hoax. Thinking like that could kill you and/or those around you. It’s a terrible, lonely death you don’t want to wish upon your worst enemies.
Stay healthy, and do what you can to help others stay healthy too!