Stepping into a foreign land, I felt naked. Countless months spent googling about the great expanse of the USA - its culture, its political system, its history - did not prepare me for my first “hello”.
“Welcome to the Cornell Outdoor Odyssey Orientation Program, are you ready to meet your group?” said a bubbly blonde decked in neon outdoor gear. It was a warm welcome, but when intonated in an entirely unfamiliar accent, had the effect of an awakening jolt. As I stammered a shy “hi”, I noticed the jarring difference in accent. She sounded so spritely, and confident, while I sounded crude, and unsure. As I proceeded to haul my luggage off the car, it hit me that I was miles away from home.
The beginning of my college journey also marked the beginning of my internal battle with keeping my own roots while embracing the western culture. I vividly recall a conversation I had with an Asian American graduate student I’d met at an event during the first few weeks of school, where he exclaimed with much astonishment, “Wow, I couldn’t tell at all that you’re from Singapore! It’s a relief that you don’t carry that unattractive accent.” This conversation left me with a bitter taste that impacted the way I carried myself throughout freshman year. Consequentially, I spent my time almost exclusively with another male Singaporean student, with whom I could speak comfortably, and avoided meeting new people. In class, I feared speaking up. I listened, and took notes on how words are now pronounced - waTER, is now WAter, the queue is no longer a queue but now called a line. It took me about two months or so before I broke out of my shell to willingly carry a conversation with someone local. The fear of being called an ‘unattractive Singaporean’ made me especially shy of speaking. Singapore is home, and I missed it fiercely; yet in this new environment, I became lost, and confused about my pride for my country. I wanted to fit in, I wanted to join in the conversations. Yet, I was conscious of the way I spoke, and to change that would feel like a huge sacrifice of my identity.
Hesitantly, I tried shedding the Singaporean accent and adopting an American one. It started with a single conversation, and surprisingly enough, the transition was smoother than I expected, and more importantly, I realised that this did not diminish my pride for Singapore, or alter my identity as a Singaporean. I taught myself to see this as a survival skill in adapting to a new culture, rather than a sacrifice of my identity. My fears of losing my roots were therefore unfounded. Adopting the American accent in place of my Singaporean one in fact strengthened my love for my country as it gave me more opportunities and confidence in sharing my culture with my professors, classmates, and even at parties. The pride shines through with every self-introduction I make – “Hi, my name is Clarie and I am an international student from Singapore”. I realised I did not have to speak in an accent to prove my love for my country. Rather, adapting my accent further cemented my confidence in who I am.
My thoughts about my country are no longer as muddled with embarrassment as they once were. Looking back, it was an understandable dilemma, and one that every Singaporean who goes abroad will likely face.
Today, even though I speak fluent American English, slangs and all with my western peers, at the end of the day, I realise, I still hold that tone of home close to heart.
When you hang out with your Singaporean friends abroad, that automatic transition back to the Singaporean accent still brings comfort, and familiarity. On the streets of a foreign country, our familiar accent rings loud and clear amongst the crowd. An irrational pride from hearing the familiar “lah”, or “waTER”, or someone calling a line a queue now overshadows any embarrassment I’d initially felt when I first came to America. You find yourself turning around to put a face to that voice. You realise that even a complete stranger sharing the same tongue can bring you a pang of warmth that suffuses your entire body. You realise that there is a place, and family waiting for you at the end of these lonely 6 months. Returning home to friends and family makes me realise that there is a part of me that is untouchable. The bonds with my loved ones remain unchanged, and it continually reminds me of who I am.
Visited one of the first friends I made in freshman year in his home in San Jose. Born and raised in California, Andres Montes studies Industrial Labor relations and has been an important friend to me. I went to his home, and enjoyed traditional Mexican tamales made by his mum.
My gym squad that I can always rely on to make school a brighter place. These friends are part of Cornell barbell club, and we all share the same passion for lifting.
Do people still comment on how funny our accent sounds? Of course, they do, and I have had my fair share of that. However, it does not limit me. My embarrassment has been replaced by a candid embrace of this ‘unattractive accent’. A person wouldn’t be who they are without the home that nurtured them. Loving myself, and embracing the vernacular I grew up speaking is instrumental in strengthening my pride for my country. Just as any other language, our accent is our culture, and is the way we communicate. More importantly, hearing it is a reminder of home. An important lesson I learnt growing into myself in a foreign place is that dropping one’s accent does not change one’s identity. Our identities cannot be quantified, even if they are woven into our lingo. Adopting another accent to adapt to new surroundings is a survival trait that enabled me to share my own culture and country with those I love, in turn reinforcing my own identity. For no matter how much my accent changes, it does not change who I am.
And then there are those who remind me of my Singaporean-ness everyday - the ones that make FaceTime calls to home comfortable, and even more so, the ones that I can see myself taking home to Singapore. After all, the home that made you is like the holdfast a seaweed latches onto, without it you will never have achieved the growth you had today.