Monday, December 17, 2018

On the way I speak

When the brother moved to Boston for college, now more than a decade ago, it took us a while to realise that he had developed an American accent, because for some reason, his accent appeared only when he spoke with Americans. I think the first time we all collectively realised it was when some of his college friends came to stay with us one summer, and we suddenly realised he sounded very different while speaking to them than when he spoke with us.

Some months after that, I was on the phone with him after he was back in Boston. A friend asked him something, so he turned to them to respond, and I could hear the accent creep back in. I teased him when he came back on the phone, and I remember him exclaiming, "dammit, I thought I was talking in my Indian voice tonight!"

When I moved to the US, I would periodically ask folks back at home if I had an accent yet, and was always assured I did not. I knew that even before I moved here I had a more anglicized way of speaking than perhaps the average Indian, so I always hoped that I wouldn't develop much of an accent and just continue to speak the same way.

My hopes were dashed the week before my graduation. My parents and brother had come to attend my graduation, and a couple of days after they arrived, I was on the phone with a friend. Midway through the call, she suddenly laughed and said, "you sound so much more Indian now that your family's here." When I ended the call, my father suddenly commented, "well, you had a definite twang while talking to her."

Needless to say, I was very confused.

I moved to Texas after graduation, and despite my ex-boss's warning to not develop a Texan accent, the word y'all entered my vocabulary very quickly. About a year after I moved here, I was talking about a former coworker, and found myself saying "bless her heart, but..." completely unironically, and knew it was too late.

My American coworkers now all laugh at how my voice organically becomes "more Indian" when talking to South Asian coworkers (there really are several). One particular coworker, who I do not like at all, has always been very blatant about eavesdropping on all conversations that go on around him, and once had the actual audacity to complain that he couldn't understand what me and another coworker were saying whenever we were talking, regardless of whether we spoke in English and Hindi, because our accents became "too Indian" for him to follow from his cube. I of course made sure all subsequent conversations were always in Hindi.

But just like my brother didn't all those years ago, I don't usually realise whether I'm sounding "more Indian" or "more American". Recently though, that changed.

I am currently the product owner for the business teams for a large IT project. I've only been trying to get this project funded and kicked off since I joined this team four years ago, and now that it finally seems to be happening, it is consuming all my hours at work. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, a lot of the folks from IT working on this project happen to be Indian. I'm very often in a meeting room full of Indians, with only one or two non-Indians, and sometimes have to pause the conversation to remind people that just because I look like this does not mean I understand any of what they're saying and can they please break it down for me in layman's terms for the love of God.

Last week, one particular meeting had me, two architects from two different teams, and my lead developer - all of us Indian - in the room with our IT Program Manager, and my teammate from the business, neither of whom are Indian. The latter two were not really speaking much during the discussion, and given the topics of discussion, I was being... animate.

And suddenly, I could hear myself clearly. During a lull in the conversation, I IM'd my teammate: "I can feel my accent being extra Indian in this meeting."

I promptly got two IMs in rapid succession:
yea girl i can hear it
In fairness, the girl is 25.

But yes, my accent now flips between being Indian and American, and occasionally, depending on how emotional I am about a topic, Southern as well apparently.