I'm Tired Of People Making Fun Of The Way I Talk

I'm the linguistic equivalent of discount buffet.
Publish date:
April 15, 2014

"Wait, wait, say V-A-N-C-O-U-V-E-R. Say that word."

Eye roll. "Vancouver."

"Okay, say S-T-O-M-A-C-H."

No, I'm not playing this game.

"Come on, how do you say it? Stom-? Say it!"

Annoyed laughter. Come on you guys, I'm not saying it. I don't talk weird.

"Oh, come on, just say it, I want them to hear how you say it. Come on, (points to belly) how do you say THIS?"


And on and on it sometimes goes.

No, this is not a flashback to some bizarre playground teasing from when I was in elementary school, this is the corner I get backed into often in my adult life.

People -- some friends, some of my extended family even, sometimes my husband -- think I say certain words in a particularly unusual way. In a particularly hilarious way. And though I can laugh it off sometimes, or if I'm in a good mood even play along a little bit, being repeatedly asked, "Why do you say it like THAT?" can test even the patience of the most good-natured weirdo.

Apparently, I'm told, I put the emPHASIS on odd syllABLES with certain words. For instance, "Vancouver," the place my family and I used to pile into a big blue Suburban and drive to for weekend Chinese food gorge-fests, I'm told I say strangely. Something like I hold the "ouver" part too long and make it sound like "Van-cooooooovrrrr".

Imitations of my pronunciation are HILARIOUS.

Same goes for "stomach." That's a fan favorite. "Sto-MOCK," "stow-MOCK," "staaaah-maaaahhhhk" -- people like to repeat it so many times it's like that scene from "Arrested Development" where all the Bluths are badly impersonating chickens and Michael Bluth says, "Have any of you ever even seen a Chicken?"

I don't hear myself "talking funny," but apparently everyone around me is a master of elocution and American Standard English, and my ears are just deaf to the sound of my own gibberish.

I really don't mean to be humorless. The first dozen or so times somebody paused and said, "Wait, how did you say root beer?" (Louise-talk says "rut beer" apparently) or "crayon" ("cray-in"), I laughed and would go through the whole song and dance of "How do YOU say it?"

But over the years, when you develop the reputation amongst your circle of friends as the "Funny Talker," the joke gets old.

I'm sure I say some words differently than the predominantly Californians and East Coasters I find myself surrounded by. I fully admit that there is a little bit of muddled multi-regionalism in how I form my words. My speech patterns were formed all over the place, not to mention, I'm a pretty fantastic mimic (a friend of mine says she never wonders what a person I'm talking about will actually sound like in real life, because my impersonations are usually so frighteningly spot on). So I suspect I have the tendency to sound like a little bit of everywhere if I spend enough time in a place.

I was born in Hong Kong to Chinese-English bilingual parents, who grew up speaking that very specific Queen's English found in Hong Kong -- and of course Chinese. I then spent my formative years in Seattle, Washington, where I think the basis for the sound of my speech was built. But then I moved to Dallas, Texas where words like "y'all" infiltrated my language in middle school and high school, before spending almost six years in St. Louis, Missouri, that hotbed dialects that brings us such pronunciations as "Farty-far" ("44").

Weirdly enough, to this day I cannot hear my mother's Chinese accent. I'm told it's fairly heavy, but aside from a couple words here and there, it took some assholes in middle school mocking her accent to make me even REALIZE that she didn't speak like the American born and raised moms they had. If I try really hard now, I can kind of hear it, but for some reason I have aural blinders when it comes to her.

Now I know that the way we speak is formed pretty early in life, so really, I think I most sound like the almost-accentless Seattle girl I am deep down. However, the fact that earlier in my life I was so desperate to fit in with my peers, and the fact that I'm kind of fascinated by the way people speak (hence the mimicry abilities), I think I absorbed more "local talk" than I ever realized.

So here I am. A Californian identifying woman living in Honolulu, with Texas roots, a Pacific Northwest childhood, a detour in the Midwest, and a Hong Kong Chinese heritage. I'm the linguistic equivalent of discount buffet.

And personally, I think that's kind of cool. Why all the normalizing? What does that even mean in the US?

And what is it like for an American with a foreign sounding accent? How often have you heard someone with an Asian or Middle Eastern or Hispanic accent, to name a few, been mocked for no other reason but they way they pronounce the English language? This was especially sensitive subject while I was growing up.

I remember very clearly my uncle, who moved to America and started a family a few years ahead of us, telling my mom to make sure that I spoke perfect American English -- not a trace of an accent in rhythm or tone -- otherwise I would forever be thought of as "second class." I find this so sad now. The belief amongst my Chinese born family members that the color and cadence that they bring to American English -- of which they are all fluent -- is something less than.

I often wonder if this sort of normalization as part of my upbringing, an attempt at normalization and assimilation that is perhaps unique to the children of immigrant families, is why I'm so sensitive now to when people say I "talk funny"?

I suppose hearing your school-aged peers or even their parents "innocently" remark about how your mom or dad or grandma or uncle "talks funny" can put you a little on the defensive as to what it means to "talk normal."

And, yes, I understand that there has to be some standardization of language and communication. But for the most part we're all talking, conversing, communicating -- why do we all have to sound the same?

But I try not to let all this bog me down in my daily life. I assume that the average person who jokingly remarks on my "words" isn't wading into battle over American cultural norms, and those closest to me now understand my sensitivity. So the first time my speech comes into question, I can take it with a healthy sense of humor. We may even get into an interesting conversation about where you grew up and where you learned to speak.

But the 12th time you ask me to say "Vancouver"? THEN we'll have words.

Do you say any words "funny"? Do you ever get comments on your accent? The way you talk? Does it bother you? How do you deal?

By the way, I love the way you speak, don't change a thing.