Elsewhere, Here

There was a podcast episode on This American Life about immigrants hyper-fixating on their accents. It was recorded in the style of a game show, where the subject claimed to be able to tell when someone immigrated to America based on the way they speak. In particular, how much they over-enunciate. Because “​​the more fluidly they could pronounce certain words or ride out a cadence, the younger they must have been when they arrived”.

It was a particular segment that stuck out to me. It got me thinking about how much I fixate on the way I speak English, and how long I’ve been fixating on it for. There are some days when the words flow out of me effortlessly, my thoughts and my speech patterns following one another sequentially. I’m thinking and articulating all the words and pronouncing them “perfectly”. But more often than not, I trip over the spaces between my words, slurring the syllables and twisting the characters before the sentences end just enough to obscure my intention, demanding repetition. 

There are some words I am more confident in pronouncing, usually words with multiple syllables and “hard edges” — sa-tis-FACT-tion, per-FEC-tion, dict-A-tion. T-sounds are encouraging and friendly, they welcome my tongue with a hard pat on the back when I approach them nervously.

In a class of 26, the R-sounds are definitely troublemakers, sneaky ones poking you in the back only for you to lose sight of them when you were sure you’d catch them. Ru-ral, roll, re-gu-LAR

U & L-sounds don’t usually lay obvious traps for you. They are the masterminds behind chaos, plotting to snicker as you ponder their place within the word structures. SuC-CEss, pub-lic, rest-AUR-ant.

And when they show up altogether like u-Ti-li-ta-Rian? Forget it.

It’s not because I don’t know how to separate the syllables, position my tongue and mimic the sounds with my mouth. It’s the way my otherness jumps out as soon as I do. My accent — the strongest indicator of me not being from here.

What is the shame related to me not being originally from the place I currently reside in?

That I didn’t have tangled roots on the land not ours to settle on?

That my parents didn’t make their immigrating decision twenty years earlier?

That the sense of loss for an alternative reality is greater than the current one I am living through?

Whatever the reason, I felt the slap on my face from others’ expressions as I tried to fit a new language in. The suppression of laughter as I read unfamiliar words in class, the furrowing of brows as I tried to clarify an assignment, the patronizing repetition as I assumed a pronunciation. 

Overtime, I self-reject before others are able to avoid the hurt and shame I feel deep in my chest, mostly in my throat. Mostly a lump that feels like an itch that cannot be scratched, a lump that makes me want to bury all the thoughts rushing to my head while I shrivel in embarrassment with my eyes shut.

I do sound different, even when I’m trying really, really hard not to”, Jiayang says in the podcast. I too spent a lot of time and energy making sure my English is as colloquially understandable as someone that belongs here, worthy of respect. However, I don’t particularly feel the sigh of relief when someone comments on my accent being undetectable, like I’m from here. It feels like a part of me from the past, the heavily-accented immigrant is in some way erased? Though, disagreeing feels like I’m actively denying the hard work I’ve put into crafting a palatable persona. It’s conflicting to feel the tug, especially because I know I sound different.

I’ve been noticing more Cantonese being spoken around me when I commute. Names of familiar Hong Kong places and slangs woven in-between. I remind myself not to stare and put away the impulse to interrupt with a shared identity.

Does simply being from a place dictate your identity? Or is an identity what you take from a place? Is the taking ever justified if you don’t consciously give back?

Maybe how I sound ultimately doesn’t matter, as long as it remains an honest representation of my current self. Maybe the hyper-fixation of my accent was born from the hyper-fixation of self in reality. A self in a space that feels increasingly narrowing. However many tries it takes, & as cringey as I feel as I type these words, I vow to dedicate this year to do it all afraid.

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