dininghall
Credit: Sammie Yoon

“Hey, can I get cheese, onions, and tomatoes in my omelet please?”

“It’s teh-may-toes, not too-MAHH-toes,” snapped the dining staff. I looked back at him, a little surprised and rather hurt. I had never felt uncomfortable speaking my first language, English, until now. 

I proceeded to spend the first few weeks at Penn repeating myself in nearly every conversation. My Singapore-accented “English” was too fast, too singsong, too confusing — too foreign. It occurred to me that growing up on a staple of Hollywood blockbusters, the Jonas Brothers, reruns and re-reruns of “High School Musical,” the American accent is nothing foreign to Singaporeans. On the other hand, most Americans have, understandably, never come across the Singaporean accent. There are perhaps many perks that come with being a global cultural superpower that exports songs and films — and an accent —  in bulk, all around the world. 

Anxiety soon gripped me each time I had to speak up, whether it was reading a passage in class or participating in discussion in a seminar or praying aloud during church group meetings. Did people understand what I was saying? Were they too nice to say if they didn’t? Do they mind how I sound? I disliked how every time I spoke, the first thing someone hears is my foreignness: the wild, peculiar twang of the Singaporean accent flies out. I see the look on people’s faces. What is this … thing?

The Singaporean accent is a fiery, uncontrollable creature, birthed by the flaming chilies that lace each dish of laksa and grilled crab, the tangy lemongrass that seasons curries, and the sharp gingers that garnish wok-fried noodles, smoked in the mid-afternoon humidity in bustling hawker centers dotting the entire island-country. English is the main language in Singapore, where it has developed its own creole and accent over time. Singapore’s English accent is set to an emphatic symphony; syllables are stressed and allowed to bloom into fullness. We take liberties with our vowels, drawing them out. In the Singaporean accent, one can hear the tongues of its many ancestors: the precise intonations of Chinese, the sing-song cantabile of the Cantonese dialect, the rhythmic articulations of Malay, the coarse grunts of Hokkien, and the rapid-fire arches and curves of Tamil. This is my native song, the cadence of my nation, the contours of home.

What does it even mean to have an “accent”? An accent is only an “accent” because it is different. My “accent” was never an “accent” back in Singapore, but it is an accent here. The word “accent” also seems to imply that an original, standard subject is altered, transformed, accented … adorned by time and history, place and memory — and becomes an “accent.” Our accents are the museums of our life; each inflection and intonation is an exhibit, an artifact we have picked up, accumulated and retained on our journeys. 

Everyone’s accent tells a story — about your family, your community, where you’ve been and where you are. Accents are complex beings, and I’ve come to understand the diversity of “American” accents. You could have moved from Los Angeles, Texas, or even just across the bridge from New Jersey, to Philadelphia and still have an “accent” here. 

I have witnessed some of my friends changing their accents to “fit in” here. One day we are having coffee, chatting and laughing in the familiar embrace of the Singaporean accent, and a few weeks later, I am eating with the same person but a different voice. Some of my other friends have become masters of code-switching, ordering food from the waiter in a perfect “American accent,” (again, if it even is something we can refer to homogeneously) and then continuing our conversation in the ordinary Singapore accent, unscathed. 

I most admire these friends, whose tongues and identities have become fluid, able to switch and morph effortlessly at will, who have embraced straddling two different worlds. And here I am, stuck in the boundaries of my old voice, stuck with my old tongue that refuses to learn, refuses to bend to form new sounds.

Perhaps it was half an inability, half a reluctance, to “pick up” an American accent. What becomes of our identity when we consciously attempt every day to alter and renounce part of it? You cut off a little consonant here, and shave off a tiny stress there, and soon you become a stranger, not just here, but back home too. With everything around me so new, different and constantly changing, my accent, a bastion of home, is something that I can hold on to and remember where I am from and who I am.

Yet, as time wore on, it dawned upon me that whether it was an accent, or an attitude, or a perspective, it is sometimes braver to allow a place to change you a little, than to fight everything in the anthem of “staying true” to “yourself” (whatever that is). I started to smother my accent’s intonations and mute its inflections a little, replacing them with silent “T”s and rolled “R”s. I tried to sound more “American” when I am on the phone ordering tickets, asking for a refund, or finding my Uber driver, to help the person on the other end of the line understand me better. I also picked up a different vocabulary, substituting “elevator” for “lift,” “restroom” for “toilet,” “car trunk” for “boot,” and “line” for “queue.” 

My new voice now reflects new geographies and histories. Penn happened. America happened. New people, new land, new cultures, new sounds, new voices.

There is something beautiful in allowing something to sing its lullaby to your ears and lull your lilt. There is something beautiful in ceding control, and recognizing the power of life and new places to change you. My accent still carries a tropical tenor and sings of a distant home. But it now also reflects the contours of a new place— the intonations of rumbling subways, wailing firetrucks, flickering neon signs, and laughing friends.

SARA MERICAN is a College sophomore from Singapore, studying English and cinema studies. Her email address is smerican@sas.upenn.edu. 

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