Identity Through Accent

Supalak - Washington, District of Columbia
Entered on October 16, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50
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A Clear Identity through My Accent

In June 21, 2005, when I stepped off the plane at JFK Airport, dragging my big refugee bags, full of both Thai and English books, from Thailand, I found in that very first minute that I had lost my voice.

As I speak, my native Thai has been replaced by English. Language and self-identity are always linked. The lack of the first one can lead to the lack of the other. I must use English to negotiate for meaning here. I have a clear idea of my message but the listener often listens to how I deliver it. This leads to several challenges in my struggle to survive in America.

Now, I believe, after all I have been through over three years, that in order to maintain my identity I have to speak English with a clear accent.

Life has its twists and turns. Instead of going to England after getting my Masters Degree, first class honors, in Applied Linguistics, I moved to America with my husband. My first part-time job was as a baker in Burlington, Vermont. I started work every day at 4.30 a.m. In my first month, I was slowly losing my identity.

One day, an old man walked into the shop. I greeted him with my big smile. He returned my smile with a question, “Which part of China are you from?”

“I come from Thailand.” I replied with grin, almost knocked out by his question. I then explained to him about my origins. I responded, for the first time since the airport, with a clear Thai accent.

Now, I am at another turn in my life, in Washington DC, I am a Program Director at a small non-profit called Language ETC, offering English as a Second Language classes to adult immigrants from all over the world. I hear English with beautiful ethnic accents from our ESL classes. It sounds like a song of world peace.

One day, a white woman walked into our school looking for the Program Director. She did not know she was looking for me. We had a long conversation just to find out who the program director was. As soon as she realized that it is me, she paused for a few minutes (to process her thoughts) and exclaimed. “Oh, really, you are. Sorry!”

My accent separates me from being just another immigrant here to something else, an educated Thai woman working in America. I believe the sounds of my accent are their own special background music surrounding the main message.

From Bangkok, Thailand, to Washington D.C, my ears are well-tuned to multilingual accents.

That exposure leads to my belief that my accent reveals the world in me and my perceptions about myself as an immigrant in America. It reflects my roots. My accent is a part of my immigrant experience and I will not have a unique one if I speak English without it.