The acquired accent

Lost in Translation

“Don’t you dare come back with a fake accent.”

I snorted disdainfully at these emotional parting words from my best friend, skillfully covering up the anguish and self-doubt that was welling up inside me. It’s a true testament to the power of UC Berkeley’s impostor syndrome that I began to experience its effects before even setting foot on the flight to California. I took a deep breath — the familiar smell of air pollution soon to be replaced by that of wafting marijuana — and with a derisive “As if!” in response to their statement, I turned around and walked confidently into the departure lounge at the international airport in Mumbai.

This was two months ago.

And now, here I am, keeping up with the Kardashians, eating mac and cheese by the kilogram (sorry, pound), unironically using slang like “wack” and rolling the shit out of my R’s as though I’ve lived in this country for much longer than 60 days. The only thing that I’ve (fortunately) managed to avoid is the all-consuming love for boba that seems to be the result of some stress-induced mutation in literally every Berkeley student. I’m surprised that loving boba wasn’t a criterion on the application, along with a 1600 on the SAT and a very strong desire to self-destruct.

So I did exactly what I said I would never do — I let myself develop a fake accent. Cue dramatic renderings of Mushu yelling, “Dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow!” because I’m pretty sure that’s what my ancestors must be shouting from heaven.

And it wasn’t just me! All around me, Indian students were adapting, “fitting in,” becoming just a tiny bit more American, and they were using their language, intonation and accent to do that. Day after day, night after night, vowel after vowel, I tried to come up with some kind of an explanation. Why were we trying to be someone we are inherently not? Why were we forcing our vocal chords, which were so used to the rich, sonorous and clear enunciations of every syllable, to brush hastily over R’s and suppress the T’s in a bid to sound like the majority? Why were we consciously increasing our mental strain in order to layer our words with the cadences employed by the Americans in a desperate bid to erase our otherness?

Because it made everything else easy.

Understandably, I hated that conclusion. It only made me double my efforts to seek an alternate theory of rationalization. I have examined reasons and justifications that would point toward some rationalization not revolving around it being the path of least resistance. An explanation that would soothe me and convince me that we weren’t suppressing parts of our identity for mere convenience. But this was the only explanation that I found.

I’m a freshman in a country that is more than 8,000 miles away from home. I might have a few people with me, but for all intents and purposes, I’m here alone. I have a million expectations from myself and a billion things I have to, need to, want to achieve — and these don’t even take into account the unvoiced expectations of my family. Almost everything here is new and unfamiliar, and the cultural gap, though significantly bridged by modern technology, is still an uncomfortable reality. And on top of all of that, society and media have painted a picture of what a “perfect college experience” should look like — a 4.0, a ridiculously diverse circle of friends, wild fraternity parties, finding true love — which only adds to the mental stress of trying to achieve it all.

So why wouldn’t I go that extra mile and do that tiny additional thing that helps me feel welcome in this foreign land? If adopting an American accent means that I don’t have to repeat the same thing I said five times, wording it differently in each instance, trying to relate to the person I’m conversing with, I should be okay with it. If it means that Americans and Indian Americans alike applaud me when I phonate something using the American drawl (which is, of course, considered the “correct pronunciation”), I should be okay with it. If it means that I don’t frequently get interrupted by others who repeat what I just said in their own, debasingly cringe-worthy imitation of an Indian accent followed by “Sorry, I love your accent. It’s so cute!” — I should definitely be fucking okay with it.

Except that if it means that I’m ready to hide parts of my Indian identity or compromise my individuality just to gain the approving nod of a local — I’m not okay with it.

There has to be a way for us to join our multiple identities together. As long as we live in this country, there are parts of our identity that will meld elements of the culture here into our character, but what we should ensure is that at no point is any aspect of our identity suppressed because of another one. We need to reconcile our identities with our changing realities. If you were looking for a definitive solution, I don’t have one. But the way I make it work is that every time I do an American accent and feel particularly out of touch with my Indian side, I gather a group of loud, boisterous, overwhelmingly Indian friends and converse rapidly in Hindi until the pseudo-pretentious fake accent leaks right out of me.

Anusha Subramanian writes the Thursday blog on being an international student. Contact her at [email protected] .