It sounds like a trivial concern, but it’s because, sometimes, I mispronounce words.
It started when I was in first grade. Because I grew up in a household with two Vietnamese parents who spoke rough English, mispronunciation was common.
However, we embraced our strange version of speech. I grew up on the streets of Little Saigon in the city of Westminster, a corner of the world where it was appropriate to speak English with a heavy Southern Vietnamese accent (I called it
Viet-glish), drawing out each emphatic syllable so foreign English words flowed recognizably from our mouths. My parents and our neighbors spoke English coated with fresh Vietnamese mannerisms, with misplaced adjectives and incorrect tenses.
I realized that our type of speech was not welcomed, or even understood, when I was about six years old in the aisles of a newly constructed Ralphs. My mother was pushing her shopping cart through the condiments section, reading aloud to me the labels of bottled ketchup and mustard in her imperfectly perfect Viet-glish. She was looking for mayonnaise, but she said it differently: Mayonnaise was shortened, its syllables pronounced distinctly as mah-yoh. Ketchup was gat-chap and mustard sounded like mus-der.
She approached a middle-aged clerk to ask in her thick accent where the mayonnaise was located, and the clerk turned to me, confused.
“I don’t understand what she is saying,” the clerk told me.
“We’re looking for mah-yoh and mus-der,” I said, explaining to her that it was the stuff people put on their hot dogs. It took me several attempts before the clerk finally understood. She clucked her tongue, nodding to me as she walked down the aisle.
“You mean mayonnaise and mustard,” she said in her crisp American accent. Every syllable was clearly enunciated; it was textbook English, the type of English I didn’t grow up speaking, and for once, I felt shame heat up my cheeks — simply because I mispronounced a word.
I was too young to understand the nuances of racial microaggressions in society or even to recognize the “foreigner” label placed on Asian Americans due to cultural stereotypes and obvious physical differences.
I grew up bothered and subconsciously aware of these microaggressions made against my parents who spoke imperfect English. Instead of realizing that these incidents were a byproduct of American society, I blamed my family: their speech habits and their strange mispronunciation of words I grew up accustomed to. I corrected them rudely — cutting into their half-formed sentences with my polished English.
But I, too, was not without fault when it came to speaking English. I desperately wished for my tongue to not trip on complicated, multi-syllabic words. I mumbled words when reading aloud in class if I wasn’t sure of the pronunciation. To this day, I still avoid speaking unfamiliar words; mispronunciation of certain English words becomes a painful, shameful association with the “foreigner” label that comes with the Asian American identity.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in the suburbs of Orange County, surrounded by peers of all colors and cultural backgrounds. Nevertheless, the foreign stigma never escapes any Asian American; these stereotypes prevail through the mockery of Asian immigrant accents, the fetishization of Asian women and the generalization of Asians into homogeneous ethnic categories.
The shame of mispronunciation and Asian accents marks the beginning of my multi-layered struggle for identity and recognition in American society. This shame is caused not only by our accents, but also by our blood and heritage and further stigmatized by the “foreign” characteristics many Asian adolescents struggle with and attempt to repress. I would like to believe that I have shed this layer of shame, replacing it with a strong-willed defiance to these social stereotypes.
However, when I view the FOX Watters’ World segment that racially mocks Chinese Americans or hear of the Kansas shooting that took the life of an Indian American man, I am afflicted by that deeply held shame. We are still perceived as foreigners, I realize, every time a stranger asks me where I’m from or what is the proper way to greet me.
Terry Nguyen is a freshman majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Fémmoirs,” runs every other Monday.