Sunday, September 22, 2013

Where Is Your Accent From Again?

When we were still in primary school, we had a slightly eccentric schoolmate return from a holiday to Australia. Somehow in that one week where he was away, he caught something while he was overseas which he brought back home to Malaysia - the Australian accent.

He would walk past us, smile brightly, and greet us with his slight lisp - G'day!. None of us, having ever been to Singapore, much less Australia stared at him weirdly and walked quickly away, before he finally explained to us that it was a customary greeting there, replacing our well known Good Morning, Good Afternoon, Good Evening greetings.

We did what all caring, considerate, thoughtful twelve-year-olds would do - we teased him no end. From that day forth, he was Sir G'day to us.

'Oi, G'day lei le! Fai tit chao ah!' (G'day's walking this way! Let's run away!) or 'G'day, G'day, hei sei le lei!' (G'day, G'day. Go and die lah you!)

It was almost this tribal cry of twelve-year-olds who could no longer identify the scent of one of their own - he looked like one of us but no longer sounded like one of us, and we quickly distanced him from the pack.

Not until he came off his high Westernised horse and joined us again in the Malaysian-English world of lahs, where gots, dowans and How I knows would we be his friend once more.


I absolutely love this video from dmingthing, a popular Malaysian Youtuber who, together with the team from Wah Banana in Singapore, collaborated to show us that this is a problem common to both our countries. This video eloquently captures with wit what I am trying to explain here better than my words will ever do. 


How many Tiffanys do we know? How many people who are seemingly ashamed of our own localised versions of English (Manglish or Malaysian English or Singlish, Singaporean English) have resorted to coming up with some indistinguishable version of Westernised English (American, British or Australian) just to sound more sophisticated and impress others?

There are some who handle it quite well, and perhaps have spent a significant amount of time overseas in a Western country (ie. longer than four days) and then I have met some who have never really been overseas, whose accents are so put on and jarring, and would even dissociate themselves from being Singaporean or Malaysian completely. These people make me sad, and wonder what traumatic experience would have happened to make them want to so badly be identified with a whole different country altogether.

This phenomenon is unique, as far as I know, to Malaysians and Singaporeans but I am certain that it is true of any country that has been previously colonised before.

My friend refers to this phenomenon as the Pinkerton syndrome - a reference to Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini's Madame Butterfly where it describes the tendency of some Asians to consider the Caucasians to be superior in every aspect, and to be biased towards them and to despise our own.

Blame it on our post-colonial masters heritage, or blame it on all the American cartoons and sitcoms that stream through our television and Hollywood dominating our silver screens - there was a distinct group among us who thought the world of the white person, and wanted to join that group, sometimes to the exclusion of our own local friends.

We were affectionately (or derogatorily) known as bananas (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) or Oreos (the Indian version) while the Singaporean version - 'ciak kantang one' [Hokkien for 'one who eats potatoes' because obviously all Westerners are Irish. :)].

Interestingly enough, this phenomenon is quite rare among my Malay friends, as far as I know. Their sense of community and identity is so strong, and their ties to their religion so deep-rooted that there are fewer of them who I know belong to this group, although times are changing that as well.

You could tell these people by a few features:

1. Speaks English only, or mainly English
2. Speaks little to completely decimated Cantonese, Mandarin or Tamil and are in no rush to rectify that
3. Grew up listening to English radio stations mainly, secretly loves boybands
4. Devoured Enid Blyton books and all other form of English literature growing up
5. Were more likely to be Christian or Catholic (the 'Western' religions)
6. Tended to have friends who did 1-5.

Oops, guilty on all six counts as charged.

I speak in some kind of indistinguishable accent of English myself, but I believe I am a product of my upbringing. My family spoke mainly English at home, I went to a school that used to be run by religious brothers, listened to Radio 4, the only English radio station in my time, watched He-Man and Friends on TV, went to church, and read all of The Secret Seven, The Famous Five and The Magic Faraway Tree. And I secretly loved boybands. (Okay, love, not loved.)

It's not like I thought the world of the Western society necessarily - it's just what I was exposed to. I know I am Malaysian through and through still - I love food so much I want to marry it, eat at hawker centres and mamak stalls, I am easygoing and friendly, I turn up late to almost everything, everyone older than me is my 'uncle' or 'auntie' and all my Indian friends are my 'macha's and I support an English Premier League soccer team.

Having been in Australia for nearly a decade now (has it been that long already?) I find that I still gravitate towards Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian friends as we share somewhat similar values and culture. (We all take Instagram pictures of our food).

Being away from home has made us even more acutely aware of what we really miss from home and we seek solace in familiar faces all these miles away from our tanahair (motherland).

What I do find myself and friends like me doing is what Karen describes as code-switching - our grammar and accents change depending on whether we are at work with a mostly Australian group or at a Malaysian restaurant with our friends. I think we do this chameleon-like transition not necessarily to be accepted but because we care for who we talk to and want to communicate as effectively as possible.

As the world becomes more and more globalised, I wonder what our children's futures would look like one day, and who would they truly identify with, and whether we can really pick from their accents where they come from.


JoeyC said...

Banana na na na na.... And the potato tried to blend in by singing in the same tune. Po ta to naaaAAa

Anonymous said...

Who is this boy from mbs? Give us some hints lah! ;-)


mellowdramatic said...

Fellow 30-er - I don't remember his name actually. He actually went elsewhere for secondary school - Chinese guy, spiky hair, silly smile and sang Phil Collins' 'Groovy Kind of Love' during one of our English Days.