Voice actor Arthur Chu recently wrote about how he feigns a Chinese accent, and his thoughts on how “every single Chinese-American kid born here” have “a pitch-perfect ‘invisible’ accent for wherever they live.”
My early childhood was this, so many times over. My parents pretty much only spoke to me in English, and I got to watch as much TV as I wanted every day after school. I was the one “Chinese” kid in classrooms full of “white” kids, and being surrounded by “white” faces it never occurred to me that I was different from them.
Ironically, I only noticed this after my family moved to Canada in 1998. My parents chose to live in a subdivision that was predominantly filled with immigrants from Hong Kong who wished to remain British subjects after the handover to China. From third grade onwards, kids all around me at school would speak Cantonese and go to ESL classes, and I would feel left out. In sixth grade, one of the smartest (“Chinese”) girls in the class asked me for help, and I loudly yelled, “Sorry, what did you say? I can’t understand you.” (despite her perfect English) and then walked briskly away as she started crying. In seventh grade, I met a “black” kid for the first time, and got into a fight on the playground over my racist behaviour towards him. Even in high school, I was always nervous when some old lady would ask me directions in Cantonese while I waited at the bus stop and all I could do was to unhelpfully reply, “Sorry, I only speak English” and watch them scowl at me.
Nowadays, I wonder how bad my English sounds to others. Whenever I talk to someone speaking in a “Chinese” accent, I start using a heavy accent in my responses, and I can only wonder whether that has started to bleed into my “normal” speech.