Musings on a Southern Accent

People find me confusing. It’s not as though my handwriting is dreadful and you can barely follow my thoughts on paper. It’s not as though I ask random questions about physics in the middle of an economics lecture. It’s not as though I throw in an SAT vocabulary word in every sentence I speak. No – people are confused because of my accent ability. I can twist my speech into almost every dialect that you ever heard south of the Mason-Dixon line, and critics (okay, friends) praise me for how natural and homegrown my drawl sounds. Record me and drop the tape in the middle of Deep East Texas, and the local cowboys, maybe even the ghosts of the Confederate cavalry soldiers rumored to haunt the rural regions, will think I’m the local Southern belle running the saloon down yonder over them rolling plains. That’s the problem.

Being stereotypically Asian during a summer program in 2013 at Valdosta State University.

Being stereotypically Asian during a summer program in 2013 at Valdosta State University.

See, people find me confusing because I’m not a local Southern belle. I’m Chinese, a first-generation American, who happened to be born and raised in the South. At the age when humans start acquiring and understanding language, I happened to be living in the middle of Deep East Texas. Consequently, speaking Southern is effortless for me, but everyone who hears me “go country” for the first time simply can’t put my image next to that of John Wayne in High Noon or Hank Williams at the Grand Ole Opry. They instead hear what their minds comprehend as a Chinese version of Scarlett O’Hara, and they overwork their poor brains trying to make sense of such an odd association. They wear the expression of someone attempting to find the cube root of 2,487,993 without a calculator. 

I always find this reaction amusing. Forget Penrose’s impossible triangle and endless staircase; forget Escher’s sketches and tessellations; the Chinese Southern belle functions as both an optical and an audio illusion, and elicits a much more entertaining response. 

Not only is it entertaining for both me and whoever’s listening, but it’s turned out to be a valuable skill. Last year, in my AP U.S. History class, I stood on a desk and recited the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence in a Southern accent for three bonus points on my quiz. My class thought I was hysterical. They found it ironic, unusual, funny, that this Chinese girl could proclaim that "all men are created equal" in a Southern accent.

What’s really important about the accent, though, is what it’s taught me. I learned about stereotypes. I'd start speaking and everyone would react with "You're a redneck?" or "Are you a dairy farmer?" People heard me and changed the way they perceived those with Southern accents.

I learned about making others laugh. Whenever I spoke Southern, I unintentionally became a comedian. People laughed because they were fooled by the illusion I created. I combined my wit and sarcasm with the accent and loved that people found me entertaining.

I learned about friendship and making friends. I could cheer people up, reassuring them Southern style. (“Wait, what happened at tha mall? Nawww, that's plumb crazeh! Ehh, don’t cha worry ‘bout him. He’s so stupid he could throw hisself on tha floor and miss.”) They'd instantly perk up and smile. People approached randomly, genuinely interested in getting to know me and asking if I was the "Hillbilly Asian." We'd become acquainted in seconds. 

You know Jenny Curran from Forrest Gump? Everyone started calling me "Jen-naaay" like good old Forrest pronounced her name. It's stuck.

Getting laughs is great, but sometimes I worry over what’s actually striking people as amusing. I’d like to think that the illusion is funny, but the illusion is based on a stereotype that in turn is based on our first impressions of people, oftentimes garnered from what they look like. That’s disturbing to me because it highlights the fact that we laugh for cruel reasons. I remember a sketch on Saturday Night Live featuring Drake, who has both African and Jewish ancestry. The scene was about Drake’s Bar Mitzvah, and the audience laughed at the actors portraying each side of the family because their lines and actions emphasized flat-out mean stereotypes about both Africans and Jews. I hope people aren’t laughing at me because I’m emphasizing a flat-out mean stereotype as well. (I personally am a strong believer of the First Amendment, and I sure hope the censor hammer doesn't start smashing scripts with this kind of humor, whether innocent or intended to offend. I just hope I'm not misrepresenting my roots, something I am proud of.)

Whatever the reason for the laughs, though, I know that people are unconsciously learning not to judge a book by its cover. I myself have learned how valuable speaking Southern is; it continues to reveal to me how much others appreciate uniqueness and individuality. I've discovered that I enjoy my freedom to express myself in such an unusual way – not to mention it’s smashed through barriers created by stereotypes and tossed in lots of laughs in the process.