You know someone is fluent in a language when they can fake terrible accents to mock one another.
Late one afternoon, I was having chicken- rice with Michael (the Norwegian TV journalist I fell head over heels for) at a street food vendor’s. I’m always happy going out with Michael and let him impress me with his stories, his vast general knowledge and unbiased view on the global economy and political climates.
He was explaining why wines are banned in Beijing but my focus shifted when I heard a group of Burmese migrant workers giggling with delight, comparing their Thai. A woman in the group intentionally spoke Thai with a strong Burmese accent to make fun with her folks. ‘What a stupid thing to do.’ I thought. ‘Do you have any idea that you’re degrading yourself?’
“You weren’t listening.”
“No, I am listening.” I told him 50% of the truth—I was listening but wasn’t paying attention, “Go ahead, and tell me about the moonshine.”
It was the Burmese woman that made me realized the fact that, maybe, Michael was actually full of shit. It was his Scandinavian accent that tricked me into thinking whatever he said sounded incredibly witty without being arrogant, and, therefore, extremely sexy. I would go homo for him.
Accent can be a deal breaker. On his Tinder profile, a German guy can look like a younger version of Tom Hanks. But, when it was time to meet in person, with an accent that sounded completely lost and in need of the toilet in the complex shopping mall designed by ants. He reminded me of the middle aged, tearful Tom Hanks in The Terminal when he realized his country was in turmoil.
In job interviews candidates with ‘proper’ accents are more likely to get hired. This explains why Indians often land a job (in a foreign country) that doesn’t require much speaking, such as a software engineer or programmer. Proper accents provide a melody for the ears and, yes, for some job functions where you have to constantly ask for opinions or brainstorm ideas: the voice is key.
On the last day of his stay in Bangkok I asked Michael what he thought about my accent. “You have an accent but I don’t think it’s Thai. Hard to tell.”
“Tell me.” I insisted.
“You have serious accent.” He said. Eventually. Not a joke.
I often came across this line when reading books and a character was described as such ‘he’s a man with serious accent’. It was uncanny when I heard it in real life. Because you can learn a lot about a person from their accent and communication style, when he told me that I have a ‘serious accent,’ it worried me. What was that supposed to mean? Does it mean I am monotonous? Too cynical? Neurotic? No fun at all? I believe this to be true since I developed an accent on my own and am careful not to sound Thai whenever I speak English.
It’s not something you can easily change or get rid of it (unless you’re someone like Renée Zellweger in the Bridget Jones’s movies.) Accent is kind of the center of your true color. (Seriously Sam? You can agree to disagree with me here.) It’s what you are made of. The people who try to change it are challenging nature or God’s purpose.
I know a young Englishman who wanted to have it easy, so he moved to Bangkok where he could secure a teaching job with a decent salary. But he was a little ambitious. He didn’t want to be the cliché farang teaching English in Bangkok, he was looking for something more. He believed he could do much more. Meanwhile my distant relative is doing his master’s degree in Sydney. Like the Englishman, he believed he could avoid the same cliché shit like working as a waiter in a Thai restaurant or a massage ‘therapist’ who works for 16 hours on the weekend, rubbing necks and applying hot oil on the back of upper middle class Aussies hoping for some tips at the end of the day.
In the end, no one gets what they want. The Englishman becomes an English teacher. He lost his accent and found himself using simpler words. While my relative picked up an accent from the Aussies.
There is a Sarah Jessica Parker show on HBO called Divorce. I didn’t know that I pronounced the name of the show ‘di-whore’ until a colleague corrected me. She’s Thai. I tried pronounce it to my Siri (a modern way to check my pronunciation) when my Siri couldn’t understand, everyone laughed. They’re all Thai and after that there was a series of mocking my awful English pronunciation in the workplace.
“Did you watch ‘di-whore’ yet?” became an inside joke we made to brighten every Monday morning. These were people in the Middle Management level, but for some reason it brought me back down to the street level. I remembered the Burmese migrant workers at the chicken-rice place and felt like one who speaks poor Thai and is constantly being mocked by my own people. I tried to shake it out ‘No. No. No.’ and reminded myself that we were a group of decent people working with real and important job titles in a comfortable air-conditioned office in a high-rise in Bangkok’s CBD. But were we?