I was with a friend at a bubble tea store once, and gave my order in English. While waiting for our drinks, we debated the name of the singer of the Chinese song playing through the sound system, and I overheard the cashier on the other side of the counter triumphantly tell her coworker (in Mandarin), “I told you she could speak Mandarin.”
I am often hyperaware of what language I order my drink in at a bubble tea place. Nowadays, if I can remember to, I will always order in Mandarin. In fact, every time I forget to do so, there is a tension evoked upon hearing my English words, a seed of doubt growing: does the cashier lady think me a whitewashed, cultureless chinese person? Am I???
Harsh, unintelligent and over simplistic as that personal judgement may sound, it is very much a reflection of the internal dialogues both within Chinese communities, and within Chinese persons.
These fears are a projection of my inner conflict onto other people, learned through repeated exposure to these ways of thinking.
I don’t remember when I first began adopting the sound of Canadian english, with its nasally A’s, and clipped punctuation. Yet, I still feel the way the accent sits in my throat if I’m at an event where monolingual communication is my only option. It lingers in my words after I have left, an uncomfortable testament to my chameleon habits. But I know this accent serves the purpose I intend it, to blend my voice in so that the focus of communication stays with content, and structure, and not in voice and delivery.
I grew up speaking Singlish, a creole language extremely recognizable through sound, and the subject of many parody videos online. This first accent – the Singaporean accent, has, throughout my life become a performative moment for many people, akin to a party trick pulled at social events to keep people entertained.
I often find myself being asked to say something in my accent, because it “sounds cool”, because it’s “funny”, because “I’ve never heard it before!” As though framing a response (usually laughter, or marvel) as a positive reaction, justifies this entitlement other people often seem to assume toward my speak.
My experiences speaking Singlish socially in settings where there are predominantly non-Singaporeans are of being ridiculed, belittled, mocked or corrected. I remember the burning shame, as a student, of being laughed at for saying a word differently, and my subsequent determination to not stick out like a sore thumb the moment I opened my mouth.
Internalized racism includes the way we understand the inflections of our voice, and what has determined which sounds are ‘civilized’.
As a fluent bilingual, the presence of my other first language, Mandarin, is even more nuanced and difficult to integrate.
I do not remember a time in my life where I did not speak both English and Chinese. Admittedly, my academic learning has predominantly been in English, but much of my own personal self-expression, and interests have unfolded within the medium of the Chinese language. I strongly identify with the language, and consider it a lodestone in my navigation through identity politics.
In the light of the bubble tea moment, the fear of being seen as someone who has lost this language is testament to the way I’ve come to identify my ‘Chineseness’ with speaking a language – not entirely unfounded, but also extremely problematic. It means that to be Chinese and not be a Chinese-speaker is to exist in conflict. It is the way we have drawn boundaries and lines in reaction to how diasporic movements have affected us, and our understanding of culture, language and identity..
There are many different reasons why people choose to or not to speak Chinese. There are even more reasons why people can or cannot speak Chinese. There is no singular narrative for explaining these effects, but to consciously acknowledge those many possibilities has to be a learned, intentional decision.
The loss of language is often a colonial process. It manifests in institutionalizing a language over others, as a form of privilege for those who speak it. It creates inclusion and exclusion, access and barriers.
As a listener, when I identify a strong Chinese accent in someone speaking English, I still catch myself making the exact same judgment forced on me and my Singlish accent – knowing amusement, a desire to correct them, or even overtones of condescension.
Even as I know and understand that the hierarchy of accent is a tool of the colonizer. Even as I know that my Canadian-ized English accent is a coping strategy, and reinforced racism.
There is a strong habit in Chinese communities to value a ‘neutral accent’ form of English – the accent of the colonizer. There is also a strong habit of privileging those who retain mastery of the Chinese language.
It is an oscillating desire to have succeeded within the system while simultaneously not losing the outsider or origin language – a language that has its own inside. It is a tension I find in myself, and in many of the Chinese people I know. To be able to do both, seems to be a moment where we have cheated the system.
Yet in upholding this way of thinking, we enforce and internalize the system of language privilege that we struggled so hard to rise above.
It is hard to unlearn oppression. It is even harder to contextualize and navigate multiple rings of oppression that hit each other and ripple out differently in individuals, circumstances and effect.
As I continue to navigate the way language works in my life, both as a poet, and as a human who lives and communicates socially, the important questions to me are the ones regarding value, and privilege:
What is lost when this language is lost, found, re-contextualized?
How can we avoid essentialist demarcations and labels of a spectrum of experience?
What about and why does this accent make me uncomfortable or uncultured?
I do not admit to having all the answers. But at the very least, my recognition of what language is to me, and my growing boldness of and love for the accent I was born into, are steps I am proud to footprint in my journey.