My last final of the semester, an oral presentation for my Modern Culture and Media class, was minutes away. I stood in a corner of the room with my group, re-reading for the tenth time the sweat-stained paper I clutched in my hands.
“In conclusion,” I whispered under my breath, “the ideological apparatus—” I stopped.
“Appa-RA-tus!” I berated myself. “Say appa-RA-tus, not ap-PA-rrratus!”
“Appa-RA-tus. Appa-RA-tus…” I chanted, praying that in the couple of minutes that remained before I had to speak before the class, I would somehow eliminate the oddities of pronunciation that were characteristic of my thoroughly “Indian” English. I had spent the morning reading my monologue aloud to my friend, Will, requesting that he correct me wherever my pronunciation sounded wrong or unfamiliar, or my accent made a word unintelligible to American ears. As it turned out, there were quite a few such instances, and red notes were scribbled all over my neatly typed out speech. Pa-RA-meter, not PA-ra-ME-ter. RE-sources, not re-SOUR-ces. IN-jure, not in-JYOR, like I said it, emphasizing the ‘r’ at the end.
As bile threatened to rise up my throat, and I stood confronted by the ridiculousness and futility of my efforts (How could I expect to transform in minutes the speech patterns I’d accrued over 18 formative years?), the novelty of the situation struck me. Not that I’d never been nervous or self-conscious before, but it was certainly the first time in my life that I was that nervous and self-conscious before delivering a speech.
My oratory skills had been the defining trait of my high school persona. I was known for my ease in front of a crowd, my fluency and command over English (a second language for most of my friends and me), and my accomplishments in Debate and Speech. I was in my element behind a podium, speaking to a large crowd of people. I never felt fear when I was delivering a speech; on the contrary, that was when I truly felt at home.
Yet here I was, standing in that dark corner of the classroom, nauseated with anxiety at the prospect of speaking for a couple of minutes in front of a handful of people. But therein lay the rub. These people, though only a handful in number, were not like the large crowds of people I had spoken to innumerable times in the past. They were different. They were Americans (most of them, at least), who looked, dressed and spoke like the people in the fantasy world of the Hollywood movies and sitcoms of which I was an ardent consumer. Try as I may, I couldn’t rid myself of the notion that speaking in that classroom with my unyielding Indian accent, with my stressed d’s and rolled r’s, my misplaced emphases and unconventional pronunciations, I would sound to them like Apu from the Simpsons: comical and out of place.
Oratory was my thing. If I couldn’t be an orator here, then who would I be? I asked myself. I became fully aware of the crisis that moving to the other side of the globe and immersing myself in an unfamiliar culture had wrought on my sense of identity—a crisis of which my struggling accent was perfectly emblematic.
Throughout my first couple of semesters, I tried to streamline my speech and reign in its peculiarities, negotiating the tricky terrain of cultural imperialism and exoticisation—abstractions that had suddenly transformed into intimidating realities. I learned that I must accentuate my Britishisms (lift, not elevator) and my English ahs (cahn’t, not can’t), because they were supposed to be sexy or cute, and downplay the clunkier, Indian-derived eccentricities because they were just odd. As the semester drew to a close, I realized that communication had become exhausting.
When it was finally time to go home for the summer, I was relieved. I looked forward to slipping back into my old, effortless self, to speaking without pre-screening my words and to reclaiming with confidence the identity that the international transition had compelled me to question. However, when I returned to India, I realized that my old Indian accent wasn’t just lying around at home, waiting for me to put it on like a pair of disposable contacts. Seven months of rapid Americanisation had taken an irreversible toll—I couldn’t roll my r’s like before, and if I wasn’t careful, I would say ‘apparatus’ the way Americans did. Moreover, I hadn’t escaped the implicit social pressures of conformity, either; my friends back home constantly scrutinized my speech and pounced on any Americanism that crept in, accusing me (only partially in jest) of having turned into a ‘wannabe American’ and having forgotten my Indian roots.
The irony was, of course, tragic, and extended well beyond my accent. Despite the attempts I made to integrate myself culturally in America, I would never be able to erase my old, Indian self. In the process, I would shake off too many pieces of that old, ‘true’ identity to ever really be able to fit in back home. It wasn’t as if I had the best of both worlds; it was as if I had no world to call mine.
I wish I could say that I resolved all my internal turmoil and discovered the meaning of life in the process, but the truth is, I’m still trying to figure things out. But this experience has compelled me to question the notion of identity. I believed attributes like accent, culture, and nationality to be fixed and essential to my identity, but they proved fairly malleable superfluities, as central to who I am as the clothes I wear. I realized that it was foolish of me to expect identity to be a fully realized, permanent construct when it is, in fact, always a work-in-progress. A year ago, I was a confident orator; today I am less confident. A year ago, I rolled my r’s with ease; today, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. To say that any of these is not who I am would be incorrect, because ‘who I am’ is forever in flux—and that’s okay.
First published in Post-Magazine, Sept 24 2014. Illustrated by Phil Lai.