The struggle is real

This week’s book chapter reminded me of my experience in China. I recalled how I was treated differently just because of my noticeable accent.

In China, some people tend to have the stereotype that people who come from certain cities, namely Beijing and Shanghai, are more likely to enjoy privileges than people in other parts of the country. These people hold the view that people who are from Beijing and Shanghai are situating on the top of the class ladder. Unfortunately, born and raised in a middle-class family in Beijing, when I went to university in Nanjing, the southern part of China, I got the stereotype due to the recognizable feature, which further led me to more trouble concerning social class. They stated that I enjoyed the privilege.

Going to Nanjing was my first time leaving home. In Beijing, I was surrounded by my local community, where people around me were talking in the similar, if not, the same way. It was in Nanjing that I first realized that I was “discriminated” by people who were not from the same place. I felt isolated finding that I did not belong to there. For example, I inevitably pronounced words with “r” sound, and I could distinguish well between “s” and “sh”, which were very different from the way people spoke in the south. Many people laughed at my pronunciation and mimicked my way of speaking. I was sad. Was there anything wrong in pronouncing each word correctly even though it was different?

I remembered there was a time when my university was looking for a commencement speaker. I was one of the two candidates who still left after three rounds of the try-out. However, at the final phase of the try-out, when I was given tests, one of the judges asked me, “Were you from Beijing”? I said yes. He pointed out that I pronounced one word wrong. However, I was not wrong. I pronounced in a standard way. It was simply because people in the south never pronounced it in the way it was supposed to be pronounced. The next thing I knew, was that I failed to get the position of commencement speaker. Instead, the other girl who were from the south was the speaker. That was the second time that I realized where I was from and how I talked were problematic.

Since then, in Nanjing, when I talked to people, I learned how to avoid my Beijing accent. For example, I hid the “r” sound most of the times. I tried to not let others figure out where I was from. Otherwise, they would start the same conversation such as, “You were from Beijing? Beijing was much better than here. Why came to our city? You enjoyed the privilege and came here to belittle us?” Those mean words stung me until today. I did not know what I did wrong. I was happened to born in the capital of the country. I happened to have the “r” sound, which people from the south thought it was the mark of being “privileged” and I thought it was cute. It is my identity and who I am. I do not want to hide my way of speech.

My four years in Nanjing was a nightmare. I did not realize that Beijing was where I belonged to until I stayed in Nanjing. I never knew that social class and stereotype would cause trouble and I was one of the victims because of it. There are so many things that I do not know. However, there is one thing that I am sure about: I am proud of my identity and the way I speak. I respect the way I speak, and I wish everybody would eliminate the stereotype and respect the difference in other people’s speech.

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4 thoughts on “The struggle is real”

  1. Thank you for sharing this beautiful and honest post. This experience, of being positioned as something (an identity) that you do not claim for yourself, is a common one for people who move away from home. It is often in contrasts that we come to know ourselves and others. You are not alone in wishing we could get rid of stereotypes. I’m not sure we can do that, though, but, we should be able to talk about them and become aware of what they are (social constructions that not always and necessarily aligned with an individual’s own claims to identities).

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  2. Thank you so much for your feedback, Alison. Yes, I know that it takes time to lower the extent of stereotypes. I do not see the possibility to really get rid of stereotypes. However, what we can do now is to raise the awareness of stereotypes and do our best to avoid it.

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  3. Hello,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. As a person born and study in northern China, I have never thought that having a northern accent would have so much trouble. Actually, I do not have an accent, and I got trainings from a radio station when I was about 12 years old. To be honest, I’m always proud of myself speaking standard Mandarin. When I got a job as a language teacher or as an English-Chinese translator, I always think that speaking standard Mandarin is one of my advantages. However, I also envy people like you, who have an accent because it sounds beautifully. When I hear an accent, I know that this person is from another place, thus we could share our various geographical features and different opinions about the accents and we could learn from each other. However, when I read your stories, I felt really sorry for you. It seems that having an accent brought you lots of trouble. And I want to know when you travel to northern places in China, would people treat you like you in southern China? Do you think your accent make a difference when you live in Beijing, let’s say, do you feel close if a person has the same accent as you? I think that having an accent can be treated as one of the language identities. Northern people love northern accents and so do the southern people. Do not feel unconfident or be ashamed of your accent. Be proud of it!

    Here is a website that I find interesting and I would like to share it with you. the author is a Scottish. And we all know that the Scottish accent is not easy for us to understand. However, she is proud of her accent. Meanwhile, here is a podcast about accent. It’s very interesting. The podcast tells that having an accent could lead to some problems and how we can do to deal with the accent. Hope it helps your understandings about accent.
    Be proud of your accent
    http://studentlanguageexaminer.org/2014/02/27/be-proud-of-your-accent-2/
    Episode 1: Accents in the workplace
    http://www.cbc.ca/babel/episodes/2012/06/25/accents-in-the-workplace-episode-1/

    Meanwhile, I am sure that we also have Chinese accent when speaking English, however, it’s also a part of my identity. I admit that some people would frown when they hear the accent, but I’d be really happy to introduce them that why do I have the accent and how it exemplifies that I’m trying to be a bridge between China and the Western world. It’s ok to have an accent.

    —-Monica

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    1. Thank you Monica! Sorry I haven’t seen your reply until today. Thanks for sharing the links and gave me pep talk. I feel much better right now! And to answer your question, when I traveled to North China, since our accent sounded alike, I did not need to worry or to fake my accent at all. (phew!) Actually I used to be very proud of my accent until my unpleasant experience. I really hope that everyone would respect others’ accent(s) because what attached were identities and the culture.

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