Casi nunca hablo con un acento correcto. I don’t speak like a normal Singaporean; my accent for much of my life was wrong, strange, not necessarily foreign but distinctively not local. My r-s and s-s were wrong, I could never make the right sound, my lisp wrapping around every word and snaking into every conversation to mark mi acento incorrecto. Once, speaking up in class, I got a sharp rebuke; my Music teacher told me I would never be any good as a debater unless I went for speech training with her (didn’t quite stop me from 7 years on the circuit). How strange it is, then, to start speaking and be recognized as distinctly Singaporean halfway across the world.
你讲一声就知道你是个angmohkia, the Head of Chinese told me back when I was 16, preparing for the oral component of the national Mandarin Chinese examinations; even now my Mandarin fails me, and I need to reach for Singlish, for angmohkia or jiakkantang or even banana, a Western boy in Chinese skin, to take the place of what she actually said. My relationship with my accent has always been strange, at best ambivalent, at worst hate; in neither language I spoke growing up did I sound correct, local, speaking Mandarin with an English accent and grammar and speaking English...well, the way I spoke English, lisp both there and not there, to be picked up on or ignored.
It doesn’t help that I don’t look like Singaporean. My face blends into an indistinguishably generic Asian template; back home, the makcik at the school I was interning at whispered to me, “Ah-boy ah, you don’t look Chinese Chinese; are you...Peranakan? Mixed-race?”, while for Racial Harmony Day a fellow teacher thought I was showing off a non-existent Thai heritage. Once, 15 and frustrated with recurringly being mistaken for from being from mainland China and having to then reveal a complete lack of competence in Mandarin, I snapped back at a teacher who asked if I was local, “Why did you think I was from China?” “Oh, no, I thought you were Cambodian.”
In some ways it has almost become a game. “Guess where I’m from”, and people will place me anywhere and everywhere (but Singapore); I am Korean, Japanese, Thai (this was once because “you speak with a Thai accent”), Hongkonger (an acquaintance was once surprised that I even knew Mandarin, because “I thought you spoke Cantonese”), vaguely from somewhere in Asia that is elsewhere from home. Yet, I also manage to look like everyone; teaching a tenth-grade class, I was apparently the carbon-copy of everyone’s neighbour/brother/cousin, simultaneously ubiquitously Singaporean and distinctly not.
So imagine my surprise when, first day of Spanish 3, la profesora exclamó: “¡No! ¡Hablas con un acento español! ¿Hablaste en España?” I rarely passed for a native accent in either English or Mandarin back home, 可是现在我的西班牙腔是对的？I joke, half-seriously, that my ancestors must be rolling in their graves back in Hainan; me, their descendant, with a far better command of two gwailo languages than I have ever mustered with Mandarin, must be a poor show of ancestral heritage to whoever might be watching up there. But this is the way I speak.
A while back, there was a quote making its rounds on my Facebook wall: “Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery.” But what does it mean if you don’t have a native accent to begin with? To say it is a sign of bravery is to speak of two things at once: that one has a choice between accents, and that there is something to fear. But do we have a choice? After all this time, I’ve learnt to modulate my voice, drop to a coarser Singlish to prove my roots; my sentences shorter, sharper, I go wah bojio sia, I go eh good things must share, but Singlish is a mirror pressed against your face that refuses to break. My Mandarin shaky, my dialect near non-existent, my Singlish is still, ultimately, English-inflected in a way that outlines history like nothing else; no puedo hablar con un acento correcto por siempre.
If an accent marks your voice, then it must also be part of your linguistic DNA; it is a marker of history, of personal narrative, of the pieces that have come together to make us us. So must there be something to fear? I don’t want a world where speaking with an accent is a sign of bravery; I want a world where speaking with an accent is like the sound the river makes as runs over the earth, I want it to be like the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, I want an accent to be as natural as the way the world moves around the sun. My accents make me me, the way my voice changes to match in conversation, like water running its first fingers over the ground. If there are foreign accents, it is only because we are all foreign, all our individual histories wrapped up and parceled into conversations; why should we have to turn to remaking and recasting these sounds as strength instead of weakness, when they are fundamentally neither? My voice then my voice; simi bravery?