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Davis, California

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Column: Can you hear me now?

I was furiously wiping the crotch of my jeans to clean a fresh coffee stain when my friend Yu Kyung interrupted. She told me to stop, because it looked like I was masturbating in public. After ordering her own coffee, she also told me to tell her honestly whether her Korean-accented English was difficult to understand.

I stopped and reassured her that she was perfectly intelligible. Her fears of being discriminated against were unfounded, I said with gusto, because the American people were generally patient and accepting of foreign accents.

Little did I know that I was both a hypocrite and wrong.

As the day passed and I walked around campus with a brown stain on my crotch, I recollected several contradictions: my dread of a TA with a foreign accent, my surprisingly high tolerance of classmates mocking a professor’s accent…

The patience and sympathy of the American people I had extolled to Yu Kyung clearly didn’t exist in me. I was ashamed and surprised – how could I feel this way when I myself was but a generation away from having an accent? Fuck, what was wrong with me?

Indeed, prejudices against foreign accents exist and they’re tolerated, not only within my psyche but in the U.S. as a whole.

One needs to look no further for evidence than the most recent Metro PCS commercial, featuring Ranjit and Chad, two Indian tech support employees speaking in heavy Indian-accented English. Why didn’t Metro PCS feature Adrian and Jacques instead, speaking in French accents? “No, that’d be different. That’s sexy,” some of you may be thinking.

But why, and how?

A quick Google search later (“Asian vs. European accents,” “Asian accents,” “puppies”), I discovered that Asian, and within the past decade, Middle-Eastern, accents are seemingly less “desirable” and more discriminated against.

With further consultation from my housemates, I came to the following consensus: If you’ve got a European accent, keep it. It’s sexy, and if you’re a straight guy, you’re probably swimming in pussy. If you’ve got an Asian accent, lose it and lose it fast. But pull it out on occasion to get a laugh (a la Russell Brand and Peter Chao).

This brought to mind three questions: first, who decides which accents are sexy or tolerable? Second, on what basis do such judgments exist? Lastly, how much pussy exactly are men with “sexy” accents swimming in? (I mean, really?)

Fortunately, I’ve found explanations to the first two questions.

There is belief in the U.S., shared by native and non-native English speakers alike, that true American English is spoken without a trace of an accent. “Real” American English is spoken with no previous geographical or cultural marker, absent of personality and family history. English spoken with a foreign accent is inherently wrong – any variation is a lesser variation.

However, within our country itself exist numerous regional accents (Southern, Boston, New Jersey, etc.) that deviate from the American English standard. Herein lies the ultimate irony: standard American English is an accent.

You’d think now that a foreign accent would actually be the more appropriate standard. After all, Americans often boast of our “multicultural salad” of a society, with differing cultures acting as different ingredients, providing unlike tastes and textures. And yet, many of us cling to a standard accent of American English that asks tomatoes and cucumbers to taste more like lettuce.

This attachment can lead to prejudice that is as prevalent as it is subtle. A cashier may be more frustrated and impatient with a customer with a foreign accent, or an older student in an ESL class may be neglected, assumed to be past their prime to learn.

Discrimination based on language barriers on a larger scale doesn’t just hurt people’s feelings or create a false sense of nativist superiority, but also prevents people from getting adequate health care and from speaking out about inhumane living conditions.

In the face of this, what many seldom realize, and what I failed to understand with Yu Kyung, is that it takes a certain level of nerve to speak English with an accent. Each attempt opens the possibility of misinterpretation, patronization and sometimes ridicule.

And despite what the standard American accent implies, foreign accents aren’t “un-American.” Accents are but audible maps of one’s family and individual history, a part of one’s cultural identity.

Yu Kyung’s accent is a part of her, and it takes balls for her to order coffee in English. I wish I’d told her years ago when she still lived in the U.S. that I’d noticed her accent. I wish even more that I had told her that I always heard her, loud and clear.

KATHERINE TANG NGO ‘s grandparents think she speaks adorable Mandarin Chinese, even with her American accent. Tell her the ugly truth at kthngo@ucdavis.edu.

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