This is part three in Haiyun Lu’s Little Things Matter Series.
Just a few weeks ago, Licorice Pizza began showing in selective theaters. While the movie has been receiving positive reviews, there are a couple of scenes in which a white restaurant owner speaks with a fake Asian accent and has a replaceable Japanese wife hanging on to his arm. Many Asian people found this offensive. The producer was called out by Asian communities for incorporating racist stereotypes in an otherwise well-done movie. This whole experience reminds me of a memory, which I have been subconsciously suppressing.
21 years ago, when I first landed at the Milwaukee airport, a friend asked my first ever American neighbor to pick me up. Since they were running late, I sat on a bench outside waiting for them. In my mind, I rehearsed two lines of English that I was confident I could say: What’s your name, and how are you?
When my friend and the neighbor arrived, I saw a 6’7” giant loom over my head who stretched out his enormous, long arm. I began to panic. Then he said: “Hello, my name is Andy. Nice to meet you.” That sentence froze me for a few reasons. First, he stole my lines to inquire about his name. Second, I did not learn the phrase “nice to meet you” from my textbooks, so I did not understand him. Third, he spoke too fast for me.
Although I knew a lot of English vocabulary, the traditional language instruction based on thematic units and vocabulary lists turned out to be quite useless in prompting authentic communication. My first encounter with a native English speaker silenced me for months. Initially, I only smiled, nodded, and pointed to express myself. After a long “silent period” and many hours of watching television, I consciously began to speak English with people who were patient and had previously dealt with non-English speakers.
However, communication was often slow, painful, and unsatisfying due to my heavy Chinese accent, especially if people often asked me to repeat myself. My desire to talk could be shuttered in an instant. A year later, I found a subletting opportunity with three other American roommates. I hoped that by living with them, I could develop English proficiency in leaps and bounds and acquire an American accent.
A week before I moved in, I received a call from one of the roommates, K, who asked about furniture arrangements. I was so excited to be living with her. I told her in a high-pitched voice that I did not have any furniture besides a bed and a desk. I also shared that I love to cook and make excellent Chinese food. I added in a typical Chinese hospitable way that I’ll cook for you. Through K’s American lens, I was weird and almost scared her away.
Later, after we became friends, this encounter became a must-tell story for her. K has a theatrical talent in impersonation. She could mimic my voice and accent authentically. She also happens to be a big jokester. She would pretend to be me calling her friends and family and making a fool of them. One day, she asked me to call her grandfather. During the whole conversation, grandpa refused to believe it was me calling. He refused to be fooled by K, so he insisted on calling me K the whole time.
Over the years, as my English has become more fluent, my accent has become better also. As Dr. Stephen Krashen, a world-renowned linguist, often says: “The perfect accent is inside of you.” The perfect accent comes when one is not feeling threatened or does not have a strong desire to belong to a certain social group.
Since Mandarin is a tonal language, newcomers from China often speak English in a high pitch as if we are speaking English in tones. Eventually, this tendency will decrease and our English-speaking voice will lower.
However, traces of my Chinese accent are always present. Sometimes, I view it with pride. On other occasions, I view my accent as a curse. Especially, during a serious conversation when someone unexpectedly comments on how well I speak English and questions whether I was born in this country. Suddenly, I am reminded of my immigration status. My English fluency and American accent fall apart immediately as I become self-conscious.
But the worst experience is when people quickly write me off after they hear my accent. If they do not turn their attention away immediately, then they suddenly stop understanding me and start second-guessing what I am saying. I know they begin to think that I am unintelligent, which is belittling.
Interestingly, from talking with other international friends, our experience of speaking with an accent is not universal. Often, it differs by race. For many white European immigrants in the U.S, their accents are frequently viewed as “cute.” Although they might feel occasionally dismissed by some snubs because of their accents, it is rare in my experience for Americans to think my accent is “cute.”
To be fair, Americans are not the only people who are obsessed over a perfect accent. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, speaks fairly fluent Mandarin. However, when his speech at Tsinghua University was released back in 2015, many Chinese did not appreciate his effort as much as they should. On the contrary, the majority thought his Mandarin was not that good. Mainly, because his accent was strong.
This reminds me of an interview I had with a popular Canadian comedian and television personality in China, Mark Rowswell, Or Dashan — his Chinese stage name. During the interview, he said that Chinese people always commented on how perfect his tones and pronunciation were. It was frustrating for him as they missed the substance of his words.
Paradoxically, an accent can serve as a rite of passage into a different social class or identity. There are people holding on to their accents with pride even when they cannot communicate effectively. There are people frustrated by being dismissed because it alienates them and limits their sense of belonging.
A few months ago, I had K and her husband over for dinner. After 20 years, K and I are still connected. K is a proud progressive feminist. She is a white ally for people of color. Since George Floyd, K has dived deeply into anti-racism work. During our conversation, she sincerely apologized for making fun of my accent and could not fathom why she thought it was “funny” back then.
I looked into her eyes with such appreciation because K is authentic and real. She always speaks her truth. We don’t know what we don’t know. Only when we surrender to our vulnerability and are willing to remain open and curious, can we collectively advance as a society. Only then will one’s accent become a sign of strength, globalization, and diversity.