“How much of the chapter have you read?” I asked my Kiwi classmate who happened to be staying in the halls with me in my first year at university.
“Oh, sweet bugger all,” he replied nonchalantly.
I smiled uncertainly. “So… All of it?”
“Nah, bro.” he laughed. “Means I’ve done none of it.”
Because I had a rough first couple months grasping the local lingo, I was always the brown girl with the limited command of English. This, to me, was mildly insulting because I pride myself on my mastery of what is in fact meant to be my third (but what I personally feel is my strongest) language.
“You won’t have a problem when you move to New Zealand!” I was told. “They’re an English speaking country and you speak English good!”
“I speak English well.”
“See? There you go!”
Yet here I was in a foreign land, always smiling bashfully and at a loss for an appropriate response because I wasn’t exactly sure what was being said to me half the time.
I almost had an existential crisis every time someone I was pretty sure wasn’t related to me called me their “cousin”. One time, I was told to grab my “jandals and togs” for the beach and I thought I was going to have a mental breakdown because I didn’t understand half the words in that sentence. I wasn’t sure if I was being threatened this other time I helped someone out with a favour and they “promised to shout me”.
The list goes on.
Fast forward four years and I find myself not only automatically switching on my version of the local accent when I talk to the Kiwis but also throwing in these very terms that used to baffle me when I first arrived here. I do the accent so well sometimes that I’ve had people ask me if I was from Auckland. And I tell them nope, I am not a Jafa (see what I did there?).
The accent I adopt when I speak to the locals is not permanently embedded on my tongue, though. I do switch back to my natural dialect when talking to fellow Asians or people from my part of the world. My friends make fun of me for my bipolar speech styles but I prefer to think of it more of as borrowing an accent rather than faking one. I do it mainly because it helps the locals understand me better than if I speak to them in my Malaysian accent. It just overall saves me a lot of time, trouble, and embarrassment from having to continuously repeat myself.
In saying all that, I have never in all my years come across anyone here who has either maliciously teased or been teased for lingual differences. It’s funny how the same language can have a multitude of variations around the globe, making it close to unrecognisable from one country to another. Studying in an environment that is a melting pot of nationalities and different mother tongues has given me a deeper sense of appreciation for the harmony we are blessed to savour amidst the diversification that we embrace. You know those cliché university promotional catalogues that always have a picture of a group of multiracial students sitting together on the lawn and sharing a good laugh? Well, we are the living embodiment of that.
But usually at a class party or pub instead of on the grass.
And usually with alcoholic beverages between us instead of books.
But hey, we’ll take it!