My parents speak with an apparent accent. In their books, tuition is pronounced “too-shin” and the letter “r” doesn’t naturally roll off their tongues.
When I was in the second grade, my mother volunteered as a chaperone for my class during our school’s annual walk-a-thon fundraiser. Naturally, with being a chaperone came the responsibility of conversing with my classmates. I still vividly remember my mother walking only a couple of feet behind me in her bright purple Adidas jacket when a classmate told me that my mother had an accent, making it difficult to understand what she was saying. I remember laughing in confusion when hearing this because, up until this point, I never noticed that my mother had an accent.
After walking another couple of feet, my initial emotions of happiness for my mother being present on a field trip were shattered and replaced with a feeling of embarrassment. Embarrassment because I realized when classmates pulled their eyes up toward their hairlines and replicated a foreign accent, it reflected my own mother’s accent. Throughout my childhood, these jokes were so normalized that when classmates claimed that the clanging of pots and pans replicated the sound of Asians speaking, I felt a need to laugh along to fit in. The thing is, I grew up witnessing TV characters and comedians utilizing accents and broken English as a means to humor the audience, convincing me it was truly just a joke. If I felt something other than that, then I was being too sensitive.
However, over the years, I recognized the true symbolism of my parent’s accents. It didn’t symbolize a lack of belonging in American society, as conveyed in the media. Rather, it reflects the strength, determination and courage individuals have to immigrate to an entirely new country.
My mother was raised by a single mom who worked more than 12 hours a day to feed her family and saved up her money, anticipating her daughter’s future university tuition. Graduating high school in her village was rare due to families encouraging their children to help out with the family’s financial needs instead. My father was raised in a village named Kepala Batas, which is located in the state of Penang, and their family owned a small convenience store. He, along with his parents and four other siblings, lived above the store in a cramped apartment that lacked a proper ceiling.
Despite these odds, both of my parents immigrated from Malaysia to Oklahoma to finish up their last two years of college with $30 in their pockets, only knowing how to say the English words “hello” and “thank you,” and not knowing a single soul in the country. While being full-time students, they worked more than eight hours a day at the school cafeteria to pay for basic living utilities, such as rent and food, as well as part of their tuition. After graduating from university, they moved to Silicon Valley, an area notorious for endless job opportunities. Growing up, I witnessed cashiers getting frustrated with my parent’s English. However, I also witnessed them providing their best attempts in clarifying the words they were saying on the phone by using phrases such as “T as in Tom” when spelling words out letter by letter. I witnessed my parents working six days a week for more than 10 hours a day to provide my sister and me a better childhood than they had, and for that, I will be forever grateful.
Second grade me didn’t quite understand the hardships that it took for my parents to immigrate to America. The media’s inaccurate depictions of immigrants didn’t help either, as they have been improperly portraying the true hardships and respect an accent deserves. Instead of humor, an accent deserves the recognition of the individual’s strength, determination and courage.
Now, instead of embarrassment, my mother’s accent exemplifies the uncomical strength I aspire to have.
Amber Chia is a senior at Carlmont High School. Student News appears in the weekend edition. You can email Student News at firstname.lastname@example.org.