The Sorest Thumb in the Room

I think we all like to have a collection of stock stories that we can fall back on at interviews and cocktail parties. These are the old reliable anecdotes that serve as stopgaps between awkward pauses, or warm-ups to more important conversations. Perhaps it seems a little phony for me to say it, but in truth there is something comforting about turning a unpredictable encounter into a quasi-formulaic exchange you’ve had thousands of times before.

Considering that I’ve spent the majority of my life with somewhat of a minority background, it’s easy for me to steer an uneasy conversation into a more familiar arena. “You know you can’t chew gum in Singapore? I know that because I lived there for 8 years. Oh, what I haven’t mentioned that? Well…” There. Easy.

Many friends and acquaintances reading this may be familiar with some of my old favourites. Others may never have met me but may do one day in the future, and at the risk of giving away or spoiling any of the ammunition I might one day use to segue myself into our burgeoning friendship, I won’t spoil any surprises. There is one particular story, however, that has been so heavily used that it may soon need to be retired, and to give it a proper sending-off, allow me to employ it one final time.

When I was 11, my family and I moved to hot, tropical Singapore from temperate, waspy Connecticut. I’d spent most of my important growing-up years at a public elementary school and when I left in the winter of 2001, I didn’t bring any chewing gum or other contraband (except maybe about a million Pokemon cards) but I did manage to import a very strong, very nasal American accent.

There are videos of me when we were still in America alighting from a big yellow school bus, complaining about something my principle at my elementary school had said that afternoon. “Mr Rechi,” I complain to the camera, curling my vowels and tapdancing across consonants. “Mr Rechi didn’t tell the students to have a good weekend.” My siblings find endless joy in this clip. Not in the red, wire-framed glasses. Not in the vibrant bowl haircut, billowing in the wind. Rather, my brother and sisters laugh and laugh and do imitations and generally don’t let me forget, the very strong, very nasal American accent.

I wouldn’t strictly say I was bullied for the way I spoke when I arrived at my new international school in Singapore, not least because my ‘tormentors’ eventually became my best friends (in fact, the same best friends I Skype with now every week). Instead, it was perhaps a form of very influential teasing, that eventually convinced me things would have to change. Carefully, I studied the accents I heard around me. The cafeteria at my school was probably fairly similar to the one at the United Nations, with hundreds of different flavours of English bouncing around ever corner. Anyone who has ever spent time in an ‘expat’ community will know that the effect of all these translated mother tongues, these human filters transmitting Australian and Korean and British and Indian and Kiwi and German intonations and pronunciations, is an amalgamated, universal Overseas Accent.

To the layman ear, it sounds pretty British. But linguistic connoisseurs will detect rhotic consonants and stunted vowels, lazy “t’s” and curvy “er’s”. When I moved to England I was told I was Australian, when I travelled through Melbourne I was told I was South African. At the age of 11, teased for having a voice reminiscent of Spongebob Squarepants, none of this mattered as long as I didn’t sound American.

This is the part of the story where, depending on how much you seem to be enjoying our conversation, I would add that interestingly enough, my twin sister still has an American accent. As long as you didn’t laugh politely and search around the room for somebody more exciting to talk to, I would tell you how my twin, unpressured by spotty adolescents to drop her American pronunciations, talks now like she spent most of her life growing up with a Beverly Hills postcode. Her accent has remained, a relic of her New England childhood, so that when my mother introduces us to her friends at parties she has to quickly chime in to explain that we are in fact twins, though we don’t necessarily sound like we are.

This is usually a good point for me to start telling my story.

Keen readers will notice that for the past year or so, this blog has been written the same way it would have been spoken aloud: Englishly. My “favours” and “neighbours” are stuffed with redundant vowels, I avoid filling my “recognise”s with exciting z’s, I fly “aeroplanes” and put suitcases in the “boot”. However, once again, it seems, the time has come for me to change. Like my 11 year-old self did so many years ago, I am feeling the pressures to amalgamate, to homogenise, to blend in. Now, however, rather than coming from a troupe of boys in a humid South East Asian locker room, the pressure comes from within.

Everyday, I begin my lecture by putting the date in the top right-hand corner of the page. And everyday, a crisis strikes. Today is February 17th, I think to myself. What comes first? The month or the day? In my sociology classes back at university, we would learn about hybridised and multiple identities, British-Asians, for instance, who oscillate between cultural personas, British one minute, Asian the next. When I am deciding whether or not I should put write a 2 or 17 first, a little mini argument erupts in brain. But it always ends the same way.

I travelled 5,000 miles from family, friends and a first-class degree to start all over again in city where nobody, except maybe my sister, knows me. I remind myself of this, and then I then I pick up my pen and majestically write 2/17/12 at the top of my paper. Of course the problem with this particular method of cultural identification is that by the time my internal conflict has been resolved, the class is already three slides deep into the Powerpoint presentation.

Now don’t get me wrong. I haven’t sold my soul and my British heritage for a slice of the American dream. I’m far from becoming an anonymous member of the Greatest Nation on Earth, and in fact I still stick out like a sore thumb at parties. Despite my attempts to blend in, I still ask for the temperature in Celsius and am always momentarily stunned when people tell me they like my ‘pants’. It is more for consistency and convenience that I have decided to slowly Americanize (did you see that?) how I write and type. In the end I’ll never be happy unless I’m just a little bit strange.

And in case you were wondering, I won’t be losing the accent any time soon. It’s way too popular with the ladies.


So it’s been a while since I’ve posted, and you know what? I’m not gonna apologise! That’s right. I’m not.

Well, okay. Maybe I will. A little.

Okay, okay, I’m really really really sorry. It’s just I’ve had midterms, and coursework, and medicine stuff, and… and to say sorry properly, I’ll provide you with something gorgeous today.

A couple years ago, Deer Tick’s John J. McCauley III, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez got together and informally formed Middle Brother. Their 2011 self-titled album took a fat chunk of all three members, resulting in a crunchy folky album that drifts along and does what it likes. The album is a whole mix of different stuff, but Million Dollar Bill stuck out for me for a number of reasons, not least because each member gets his own verse, before harmonising together in a swooning trio at each chorus. I think you’re going to like it too.

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4 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. PHB says:

    Excellent piece (and the music ain’t bad either. Chorus sounds very CSNY. Whole song sounds Y.)

    In case your readers are wondering – that picture? You haven’t changed a bit!

  2. Anu says:

    Awesome! Will look out for it. :)On a side note…I’m hoping to dress as Merida from Brave at Comic Con next sumemr…is there any detail on the bottom of her dress that I should be aware of? Oh, and shoes. I can’t make them out from any of the stills I’ve seen online, or in the official trailer. My thanks in advance (and I can’t wait for this movie!!!).

  3. Grace says:

    This is SO great. Perfectly summarizes the third culture kid accent dilemma. Even though it seems you haven’t been active on here for a while, I just felt the need to say that I loved this piece. Like yourself I joined the expat community aged 5, moving from New Zealand to The Netherlands, from which I have gone to uni in the UK and now find myself having a med-life crisis in the US. It is really great to read about how you went about getting into med school in the US, so thank you. Hope everything works out for you!

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