An elegy for all the R’s I rolled

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I was celebrating yet another Zoom birthday last Saturday. I sang an uncoordinated happy birthday with seven faces on the screen in front of me, and we watched my friend, who had just turned 21, take a large swig from a bottle of champagne that we delivered to her house. Having finished all possible birthday traditions feasible over video call and realizing just how old we were, we switched to laughing over our fondest college memories as nostalgia took control.

Most of this group had been friends since freshman year, and soon enough, we started to poke light fun at each other. In the midst of this, an Indian American friend imitated me using a highly exaggerated Indian accent — the kind you hear from Apu from “The Simpsons,” the kind that is untrue especially of Indians coming from backgrounds where English is their first language. I was guilty of giggling it off with everyone else on the call, but given the additional time to reflect during lockdown, I thought about that moment for a while after the call ended.

The color of my skin and where I’m from are significant parts of my identity. The one thing I do consider myself a hypocrite about is my accent, however. I absolutely despise repeating myself, and unknowingly, I began changing my speech as soon as I started to hear “Can you repeat that?” more than the usual “Are you from India? But you speak such good English!” from Americans who weren’t used to foreign accents. I stopped rolling my R’s, started using “like” mid-sentence more than usual and began rounding the L’s at the end of words. I became less confident when I spoke, even though I once prided myself on being a good public speaker. I started talking less and listening more.

As soon as I started to realize just how much my accent changed around Americans, I tried to switch back to my regular, Indian accent — it felt wrong to debate about the country I am from and talk about my experiences as an Indian from India in an accent that wasn’t mine. I was left with a weird mix of both accents, and I don’t really know how to talk to an American without it anymore.

Despite my complex journey with my accent, it frustrates me to continue to be stereotyped by people of my own ethnicity, just as it frustrates me to see comedian Lilly Singh caricature her parents in her YouTube videos. I used to justify these stereotypes perpetuated by my Indian American friends and celebrities like Singh by considering their parents’ backgrounds — ones with little exposure to Western media, and even ones that didn’t mandate learning English. I used to tell myself that the accents Indian Americans stereotyped were the ones they heard at home. As I am becoming more comfortable being an Indian international student in an environment that is relentlessly American, I have started to understand that it isn’t my responsibility to defend my own experiences and identity — I shouldn’t have to correct the people I talk to, most of whom are also students at one of the best public universities in the world. I learned how to differentiate between a New York accent and one from the Valley solely through social and mass media. Since India is not a recently excavated archaeological site, more people could become similarly aware of various regional accents in the world’s second-most-populous country — if they wanted to.

I have always been quick to criticize my country. Yet a college friend once advised me to internalize my audience before talking to them about India. This advice encouraged me to understand the dangers of highlighting the flaws of the country I’m from, given the unfavorable opinion of and ignorance about it — and of most other developing countries — that most of the world has already. I want to extend this advice to all readers: In this lockdown, watch some movies from different parts of your parents’ countries — or even your friends’.

Teach yourself about their cultures before fixating on the only thing you might be familiar with because the rest of the world doesn’t need more fodder to amplify any negative, inaccurate preconceived notions about non-Western countries. I know it makes for a good joke, but we’ve suffered more than our fair share of mockery from the rest of the world. Transitioning out of COVID-19 measures is predicted to reshape the power dynamics of the world from west to east. Let’s make sure we don’t play into regressive, demeaning attitudes toward and about the non-Western world.

Anoushka Agrawal writes the Wednesday column on her experiences as an international student from India. Contact her at [email protected]