It’s been a week since the NUS troop landed in Yale, and we’re finally settling into the thick of things! While classes are a little overwhelming in terms of readings (I’ve about 150 pages worth of readings every week for just one module), little detracts from the beauty of living in this gorgeous campus. True to my typical slacker self, I’ve managed to walk most of the lanes outlined on the map given to us at check in. There’s nothing much beyond the periphery of the map — at least, nowhere that I can get to without a bus. That said, the cool air and lack of humidity just call for a stroll every day; which I suppose is a good thing given the amount of food I’ve been shovelling down my throat.
How I can tell that I’m getting slightly more comfortable being here (not that I wasn’t in the first place!) is that I’ve finally stopped speaking weird. Ever since Ian pointed out that I tended to roll my Rs during productions, I’ve been subconsciously hyper-aware of how I speak. When speaking to strangers here (or any angmoh, to be honest), I can feel my mouth filling up with cotton, my tongue twisting in an odd way and altering the way syllables slip out. Not exactly an American accent, not exactly a Singaporean-trying-to-be-Angmoh accent either, I cringe whenever a syllable strays off with an odd inflection.
The first time I was fully conscious (and embarrassed) of the way I spoke was when I was 12, just after PSLE. My family had decided to take a trip to US to visit my aunt and uncle, because my aunt had just given birth to my cousin (who was 6 months old at that time). My cousins and I were out with my uncle, who was American, and we were trying to do handstands and cartwheels along the lake that they owned. He asked if I could do handstands; and I proudly replied, “I used to can!”
He turned to me — laughingly. “What is a used to can?”
“I mean.. I mean, I used to be able to.”
If memory serves me right (and it’s certainly more dramatic to say so), I didn’t speak to him for the rest of the day after that — too mortified by how I had been called out on my terrible English. I remember convincing myself that from that moment on, every time he spoke to me, he would always recall that moment, and would be secretly jeering-laughing at my English. Now, of course, I’m sure this isn’t the case because my uncle is a pretty cool guy; but it seemed like an inescapable label for my 12 year old self.
Oddly enough, the next year, when I started Secondary 1, my form teacher casually asked my parents during Meet-the-Parents if I had been educated out of Singapore before. He said I spoke with a slight sort-of American accent, and he asked where I had picked that up from. Baffled, my mum shrugged her shoulders; and later relayed the story to me. I wasn’t sure what to feel when she told me, and made a deliberate effort to check myself if I thought I sounded too angmoh.
Perhaps the result of the culmination of these two experiences, I’ve always been rather conscious about the way I sound. How best to speak proper English without sounding American or British; how best to speak Singlish without sounding crude or too Singaporean? Being here makes me confront these questions every day. I internally wince at how different I sound around my non-Singaporean classmates and professors and how I sound around the NUS students (and even then, I find myself making a deliberate effort to sound normal — whatever that means).