Worth of Words: Disentangling the Mental Effects of Western Supremacy Through my Accent
About the Series: Worth of Words
It’s been often said that words have power; they are the vessels of how we perceive and construct reality and our everyday lives. Yet, this power becomes nuanced when looking at just how those words come across—how they’re spoken, why they’re written, when and where they’re read. Moreover, they vary across different cultures, geographies, and times, meaning there’s a lot more to unpack than what our own lived experiences can say. Worth of Words was created to do just that—to tell the stories of our words, our accents, our voices, and our various languages, ranging from the variations of Blackness in speech and code-switching to how language impacts queer identities. Our camp counselors shared their stories, both visually and audibly, so you can read and listen to their experiences on the power, and possible harm, of words.
When I arrived in Vancouver for the first time in the fall of 2006, school was already in full swing. They dropped me in the middle of a class of first graders who had introduced themselves to each other weeks before — that is, if they hadn’t already been friends for years. They played games I’d never heard of, like groundhog and freeze tag and, bizarrely, toilet tag. I didn’t understand when I could unfreeze in freeze tag and I never ran fast enough to beat whoever was “It” and I never understood why something boiled red and angry in my chest every time the other kids pointed at me and screamed, “You’re It!” before running in the opposite direction, holding hands and howling with laughter.
I grew to enjoy my own company better. I read about ten books a week — from I Spy books to chapter books I had to pick out from all the titles I’d already read on the library shelves. I knew the meanings of words other kids my age didn’t. But saying them out loud was a different matter. The other kids spoke like they ostensibly belonged — belonged with each other, belonged at school, belonged in Canada. Their English flowed and lilted, like music to my ears; my English sounded broguish and inelegant and choppy.
When I lived in Malaysia, my English was good. I read just as much as I did after I moved to Canada, typed my first story on my mom’s huge laptop computer when I turned six. What I felt when other kids in Vancouver gave me weird looks for things like pronouncing “Wednesday” like “Wen-nes-day” was a new, discomforting feeling. I felt stupid.
I didn’t sound like a first-grader — I sounded like one of the Chinese grandmas picking the kids up after school. I sounded like my mom, who stumbled over her words and got stuck in loops of ah’s and um’s when the cashier at Safeway made small talk. I decided that I couldn’t go on talking like this if I wanted to become a normal kid here.
So I consciously changed my accent. I practiced mouthing sentences characters said on TV, like an actor learning her lines. I reviewed each word carefully in my head, running over the pronunciation, before I spoke aloud. Every time someone uttered a word I hadn’t pronounced correctly before, I repeated it to myself under my breath, tongue tucked behind my teeth at the end of each syllable. Before long, I talked just like any other kid in the school.
For years, I wore my new accent like a badge of honour. I saw it as a triumph; the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes of my Malaysian past. I used it to distance myself from the Chinese grandmas. I used it to berate my mother for still not knowing the words she didn’t know back in 2006. If I could do it, she could, too.
But when I look back now, in 2019, that sweet victory tastes more than a little stale. Instead of a determined young learner, or a future writer, I see a little girl who felt alienated and angry at the world. I see an immigrant’s kid who eventually realized that she still didn’t belong here, despite the hard work she put in. I see someone who went on to believe that people who looked like her could never be beautiful, so she spent hours scouring the internet for information on eyelid tape and false lashes and tutorials on how to create an eye-crease with makeup instead of doing her Grade 8 math homework.
Every time someone compliments my English and tells me I sound as if I’ve lived here my whole life, I just chuckle and tell them that I basically have lived here forever. There’d be a split second where I’d find myself in an elementary school hallway again, about half the height of the seventh-graders walking by, reminding myself to say “good morning” to the teacher without shortening the D and drawling the R. Then the memory would vanish. Each time this happens, the memory takes on more of a glassy sheen until it feels as distant and small as a picture encased in a snowglobe.
I’m trying to remember now. I’m trying to trace the uncomfortable origins of my internalized racism, instead of forgetting the bitterness and mean thoughts and angry outbursts.
I want to undo all the work I did to fit in, to make myself a bona fide Canadian, but I can’t. I can’t undo years of Western assimilative logics that guided my thinking, my living, my breathing, for the majority of my youth. But by remembering, I can finally understand the person I was always embarrassed to have been; the kid I always thought could’ve done better; the version of me I shed and kept tucked away with everything else I didn’t want to remember.
For ages, I thought that remembering would mean admitting guilt. I’m outspoken about issues of race, ethnicity, and citizenship; Western supremacy has become an essential theme in my research and my writing. Every time I remembered “fixing” my accent and holding blond hair and blue eyes as the pinnacle of beauty and fuming when my mom packed smelly Chinese food for lunch instead of white-bread sandwiches or Lunchables, I felt like a hypocrite. I felt ashamed — how could someone who believed so strongly that everything Canadian or American was inherently better champion the anti-colonial and anti-racist values I did, without being a fraud?
But it’s taken remembering to help me see that I wasn’t really the bad guy. If anything, my childhood and adolescence serve as a lesson in the insidious ways that Western supremacy colonizes our minds. Sounds dramatic, I know, but it’s true. The effects of Western supremacy coloured my way of life for years, misinformed my understanding of my own heritage and background, and ultimately manifested in a prickly, ignorant relationship between myself and my culture. That’s not to say that I wasn’t at fault — I know I could have handled certain relationships and behaviours better than I did. I’m choosing to acknowledge that, along with the structural forces that drove my actions, so that I can disentangle myself from and move beyond pain and self-hatred.
About the Author
Grace Kwan (she/her) studies Sociology and Professional Writing & Communication at the University of Toronto. Her speculative short fiction and prose poetry have appeared in several print anthologies and magazines. Her writing on media, culture, and social justice can be read on various online publications, including Camp Thirlby. Grace also blogs at grkwan.com.