Written by Karen Gwee (12A01C), this article was originally posted on Huffington Post. Karen was the chairperson of Raffles Press in her year and is currently studying journalism at Northwestern University.
People always say college is a time of great change. College, especially in the United States, is marketed as a time to plunge into new experiences, to shed old skins, to write new drafts of yourself. If I had a dime for every time I heard “step out of your comfort zone” in my first quarter at Northwestern University, I wouldn’t have to worry about tuition.
These ideas are no doubt cliched — but that also means they are truths, albeit scrubbed of novelty. There is so much to gain by trying new things in an environment where you can fail with fewer consequences. But it didn’t take long for these exhortations to wear me down because simply by being in the United States, I was already out of my comfort zone every single day.
It’s not like I wasn’t prepared to be a fish out of water. I was an 18-year-old from Singapore who had always lived in her parents’ house, kept the same friends for years and had personally never been good at adapting to new environments. Of course going to college in the United States would be difficult. What I didn’t expect, however, was how thoroughly I would have to change myself to stay afloat.
Early on in my first quarter here, I was waiting with an American girl in my orientation group for what I knew as a lift. I suggested that we take the stairs. She asked why, and I responded, “Well, the lift in this building takes forever.” She laughed and said, “Haha, a ‘lift’!” She was probably just amused at my quaint language, but at that moment I felt like I had been slapped in the face. I said quickly, firmly, rather savagely, “I meant, elevator.”
I haven’t had someone correct my language since then, mostly because I haven’t allowed it to happen.
By imitating friends, by picking up their slang, by simply immersing myself in the sheer American-ness of the speech around me, I’ve cobbled together for myself a second voice. To any American, my speech is no doubt still accented. There are some patterns and pronunciations I’ll never erase from the way I speak — I cannot bring myself to pronounce “aunt” as “ant,” using the word “hella” is too much for me, and calling it “boba tea” instead of “bubble tea” is just plain wrong. But I think I do a passing American voice well enough.
Sometime in my first quarter, someone else in my orientation group told me I didn’t really have an accent. At first, I took it as some much-needed assurance that I was doing well at this code-switching business. A score of 7 out of 10, perhaps. Thank god, one more part of the elaborate American social script down pat. Then as I slipped into the social justice sphere that thrives at many an American college, I realized what that person said could very well be construed as a microaggression. That comment, in noting my surprising lack of otherness, in fact entrenched it. Months on, I’d think about what my friend said and be annoyed in retrospect.
Like my attitude towards that single comment, my feelings towards my second voice have varied. Having taken two years of linguistic classes before college, I knew changing the way I spoke was completely natural. Assuming two interlocutors desire to communicate with each other, a phenomenon known as linguistic convergence can happen — where the speakers adapt to the way the other speaks. Being in an environment where American speech patterns reigned, of course I was going to converge to the norm. If I had gone to school in England, I would probably be aping Received Pronunciation in no time.
But my linguistic classes had also taught me that dialects encode location and history. For many people, their dialects are a proud badge of their identities. I know this to hold true beyond theory. I’m immensely proud of Singaporean English, or Singlish, for numerous reasons — the way it reflects Singapore’s multiculturalism, the way it flourishes despite the government’s sustained disapproval, the way it seems so crude and malformed but in fact functions in complex and beautifully nuanced ways (just ask any Singaporean about the words “lah,” “leh” and “lor.”) But if I was so proud of Singlish, why couldn’t I bring myself to speak it — even in a non-colloquial form — openly to Americans?
I had a lightbulb moment when I realized many, if not all, of the friends I had made here have never heard my first, natural speaking voice. The way I’d so cleanly and definitively bisected my identity bowled me over and led me to worry: was I being inauthentic?
During my freshman year, I had periods where I dwelled intensely on these questions and worries. But you can’t contemplate existential questions of authenticity and identity when the mundane constantly calls for your attention and energy. I needed to be able to order my coffee at Starbucks without plunging into despair about my sense of self. Eventually, these worries slipped to the back of my mind, only arising when I accidentally pronounced something strangely in class or code-switched fluidly when mixing with both Americans and Singaporeans. I also surrounded myself with friends who do not point out or make fun of my enduring linguistic idiosyncrasies. More importantly, they value what I say more than how I say it.
It took me months, but I became more comfortable with my second voice. I speak with more confidence and I now embrace most American slang (I still can’t do “hella”, but my friends can tell you I use “yasss” on a daily basis). I’ve made peace with code-switching as a social survival strategy. Switching fluidly between voices doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned my old identity, it just means I’ve found a way to expand it. In a world where moving into different environments, real and virtual, is easier and more commonplace than ever, I’ve realized that changing your identity isn’t a traitorous or inauthentic act. On the other hand, it’s liberating and exciting to realize the different kinds of person you can be.