I don’t sound American. Contrary to appearances, English is my first language. I might pass for naturalized, but my friends back in Malaysia would probably disown me if I converted to a complete American twang – they certainly derived hours of mirth from the few occasions last summer when I code-switched from Malaysian English – Manglish – to what they called “ditzy Valley girl.”
Conversely, I’ve observed varying reactions when I code-switch into a Malaysian accent here at the College; the median falls somewhere at, “What language were you speaking?” when I get off the phone with my sister. Given that prevailing imitations of me sound either Swedish or Minnesotan, I decided to conduct an experiment to demystify that enigma: what people really think of the way I talk and, by extrapolation, me. The study, performed last Thursday, was randomized to the extent that I run into my friends in a Brownian, or random, fashion.
My morning begins inauspiciously: I forget that it is Accent Day, and unthinkingly do the ditzy Valley girl thing to both a suitemate in the bathroom and the guy I hold the door for. My omission is irksome, but hardly unexpected: The way I speak fluctuates depending on who I’m talking to; for example, I tend to say “like” far more frequently to SoCal friends.
So Manglish Day actually begins at morning prayer in Paresky. Memory catches up with me mid-conversation and I say, “Oh darn!” and switch to Malaysian. Luckily only one other person is at prayer that morning; unluckily, he has a ways to go with repenting and speaking the truth: “Why are you talking like that?” he asks. “Don’t. It’s weird.” He hastens to assure me that the weirdness stems from the novelty, not my accent, but is sniggering too hard to be convincing. I retaliate by making him read the Bible passage aloud, then concede to praying in my default quasi-American.
After that I head to Hopkins to check in with my work study boss. She doesn’t bat an eyelash, neither when I start speaking with a Malaysian accent nor when I tell her about my project. Her sophistication unnerves me: I realize that I have been expecting dramatic reactions.
But then again, I was speaking standard English with Chinese-Malaysian inflections, and not full-bodied Manglish, because if like that, confirm no one can understand. (You understood that, right?) My only born-and-bred Malaysian peer on campus informs me at lunch that I need to try harder, so we discuss a selection of distinctly Malaysian but still comprehensible expressions (vetoing “boot” for trunk and “rubber” for eraser), all of which I promptly forget.
Forgetfulness, it turns out, is today’s theme: I forget to Malaysianize to approximately half of the people I encounter, sometimes out of squeamishness, sometimes for contingency, but mostly because it just slips my mind. At one point I psych myself up and answer a call with, “Harlow?” only to hear an electronic voice tell me that my Delta flight will be departing Albany, June 16, at 4:28 p.m., and not 4:26.
Naturally, the reactions that I enjoy most are the rudest ones, like from a former entrymate: “Aren’t you the one who’s writing the article? You’re writing an article about yourself? How pretentious.” Another friend (I use the term generously) at first ignores me because he assumed I was speaking on the phone; he later insists that I recite Betty Boughter’s better butter deal – that is, “batteh bhuhteh” and not “bedder budder.” And then there are my lovely suitemates, who break into Japanese and British accents to accompany mine.
Fortunately, I soon get accustomed to people saying, “What? Say that again?” and sporadically dissolving into giggles while I’m speaking at meetings. Unfortunately, journalistic integrity binds me to confess that neither the confusion nor the giggles are all that unusual.
I do not, however, stop getting annoyed at my inability to sustain my Malaysian accent on campus. Not only because the memory lapses do not bode well for finals, but also because I really shouldn’t be caring about whether a random lady, with whom I discuss the weather, thinks I belong to this country or that country. More often than not, I’m bashful about how much I love my country; I never quite know how to deal with the moments when I just want to blend into the twilight’s last gleaming.
It’s clear, however, that part of me doesn’t want to melt into the woodwork, as evidenced by the dearth of pretty woodwork in my dorm, my knee-jerk surprise when my boss does not react to the accent, my swaggering Malaysian manifesto before Arabic class and this article. Aiya. I dunno lah.