It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m eating Chinese food with a Jewish Mardi Gras krewe in New Orleans. I’m wearing a princess’s crown and a peach silk dress from the ‘70s, handpicked for me by two sisters who run a vintage store I frequent in the weeks I am supposed to write.
“It’s the common accent,” says an older man, a years-long Burner with a lot of cred, it seems. Other people sway to his and his partner’s words.
“No, I hear some Midwestern in there,” says his partner.
Everyone’s debating what accent I have. I could not have lived abroad for so long and sound so local. I could not speak so many languages, even in half-assed ways, and not have difficulty with phonemes. I could not be brown and be local.
They land on my accent being the average of all North American accents, which it is. It was cobbled together over time through classmates and television and conversations with shop owners.
My aunty lounges on a black leather sofa in a kaftan in Brooklyn, her mehndi hair a shiny, warm ochre.
“Americans are a funny people,” she says in her famously lilting way. She is a sociology professor who talks in quips and aphorisms, all quotable, all pithy. We—the bacche log, the child people—call her a quotable quote. “They always remark on my accent, as if they don’t have one,” she says. “If you talk, you have an accent.”
I laugh, agreeing, but also knowing that I have worked on my own speech, massaging jagged bits into a smooth, even tone, masking any roundness of tongue with a drawl. Cassius Green, in the film Sorry to Bother You, takes on the white voice and achieves Power Caller status. He had a goal, however ignoble.
My friend U tells me that they sense hostility from newer immigrants who have desi accents. U code-switches with Americans, they tell me. They saw firsthand how their father was treated years ago, they masked their accent to protect themselves. The fashionable first-gen desi people of the New York art scene don’t know what it was to grow up in Ohio.
So why did I pursue my own white voice?
For friends—yes—so I wouldn’t have to translate my experience to near strangers. But also, because of what voices said about your milieu. White voices, like clean clothes.
It’s just so incredibly nice not to have to explain yourself. It’s also incredibly nice to let yourself off the hook.
It is not desire but shame that led me here. Who wants to be seen as someone fresh off the boat, if they had a choice? Especially if that boat was headed to a place where the dream was to cast off your immigrant status, mask your settler sympathies, and benefit from classism?
My professor tells me she trained in front of a mirror to perfect her speech when she moved here as a child. I realize I did that, too, reading passages out of books to get it just right.
Boats take you from one place you could call home to another where nobody wants you. They’re usually one-way trips because the place you came from ceases to exist once you set sail.
And planes! Planes are an illusion. Just because they’re fast doesn’t mean you can go back and forth whenever.
The immigrant hears a foreign voice echo at them in the vastness of the dominant country, and they recognize themselves as foreign. I see my homeland in my own self and feel shame for its presence. Foreign soil, foreign rules.
I can’t code-switch anymore, not convincingly. I only soften or harden my intonation. I was never great shakes at impressions. Cassius’s white voice bleeds into everything.
Will I ever be home? I’ve occupied the liminal space in many cultures, always an immigrant of some sort, regardless of what country. They used to call me firangi in Gujarat, a different color, literally, but a different voice is what they meant. I never had a local accent nor did I have a clearly Indian one.
“Whatever you do, don’t lose your American accent,” says my mother to me on the KLM flight back to Bombay. We’re not even in India yet, and I already have an accent, but one that’s desirable, to be kept. She presses her index finger into the speckled pulp of her lipstick; she always uses lipsticks till the very end, when they lie loose in her purse, bereft of their caps, coated in crumbs.
I nod my head at her bidding as she dabs the rouge onto the Cupid’s bow of her perfectly formed lips that speak perfect English in her lifelong lilt of a voice. Did she want an American accent for herself? Is that why she moved there, is that why she was so sad to “go back”?
The dominant requires the assimilant to eliminate semblance of difference. Difference angers the dominant. It implies reach beyond its rule.
“How did you land up here?” asks the older man, eyeing me beadily. We’re stuck together in a thronging room full of alumni and students of Wesleyan.
I look around. We’re in cold, brittle Connecticut, where he is a teacher, in a glitzy environmentally friendly brand new career services building. I don’t know how I landed up here.
“I applied,” I say, biting my brown, spotted tongue. I have dark splotches on the tip and the sides. “Kala jeeb,” black tongue, my family used to say: never anger Aditi; what she says comes true. I wish ill on this man but say nothing.
I make small talk: my mother is a teacher, too.
“What does she teach? Where?”
“English, in India,” I say, reluctantly. Neither of us want to be in this conversation. His eyes glimmer at the mention of India—the impenetrable Orient to this very discerning man, surely. He knows the reason for the space between us, he thinks.
“Is that why your English is so good?” asks the man, confusing “good” with “doesn’t sound different.”
“Being born in Pittsburgh will do that to you,” I say, envisioning hitting him in the face with my blue passport.
What do I say in this alternate universe? That we’re both oppressors? That I too can be folded into dominance?
English is my stepmother tongue and requires me to love nobody but her. I speak no other language half as well, and all with an American accent. My real mother tongue, Konkani, has atrophied, a mere ghost in my mouth.
“You have an accent and he doesn’t,” says the Gujarati (American) girl to me, wondering if my aunty’s son is my brother when he drops me off to my first college in New York.
For a flash I feel held, as if I did keep part of my childhood manner because I can hear his mother’s lilt in his every phrase; it’s almost thoughtful-sounding. Maybe I did listen to my mother after all.
The crushing, hot-faced embarrassment when I realize the other students are calling me fresh off the boat, an “FOB,” is now curious. “You shouldn’t act so comfortable for someone who just got here.”
It’s subtle, the violence of language. For immigrants who do not speak the dominant language, jobs and doors and belonging close, forcing the non-assimilable immigrant to create small clusters of community. For the more privileged immigrant who speaks the dialect/accented dominant language, they are required to choose between their privilege or the promise of assimilation. The dark-skinned immigrant, the Black and Indigenous, are measured harshly, on multiple axes of foreignness.
The out-group is where inequity grows in abundance, a cushion for those on the inside.
“You have an advantage,” says someone who moved here after secondary school to me bitterly. “You learned how to say these sounds at a young age. It won’t ever be native to me.”
You either buck under the pressure of the dominant’s hand, or you choose to live farther into the margins. I find myself in the grip of the dominant.
I go back to India and correct my mother’s pronunciation of things. It’s not al-I-as, it’s al-ee-us. It’s not our English, it’s theirs.
I throw out DVDs of speeches I gave in secondary school that won awards; my tongue sounds thick and like it’s about to fall out of my mouth. I don’t want to remember that I spoke like that and thought I sounded cosmopolitan, even Westernized.
My face is round in those videos, my lips fleshy, turned outward as if in surprise though simply in speech. I’ve always had a strange mouth. Jagged teeth like a gash across my face. I never stick my tongue out.
In this arena of the dominant’s hand, I found more than just “white people,” as we so love to say abstractly. “Asian” is a nonsense word, and may just be a quick-and-ready replacement for the now passé “Oriental.”
Whiteness need not enact the story of its own power when it has others to do its bidding.
Like those in the diaspora. Those who will turn the violence of immigration against the freshest off the boat, as if asking the dominant: recognize me for yours, and not like them.
“You have a strong Indian accent,” says my friend, who spent more years in India than I have. I protest at first: Nobody else tells me this. But then how do I hear his accent?
We hear each other’s accents keenly, as if we’re searching for it, detectives looking for bits of home we secretly think we have lost. We are assimilants, the fizzy aspirin that bubbles your water, the diluted alcohol in your well drink, the smoke rings that billow into nothing.
Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.