Soles on my feet
As an eight-year-old schoolgirl in London, I remember being acutely embarrassed by my American accent. Having moved from New York City where my mother’s South African accent was weird to my friends, I now found that my classmates thought mine was! I felt so different that I remember practicing my ‘a’ sounds and canceling my ‘r’ sounds at home in order to fit in more at school.
Our London life was a brief one year, after which we moved back to my mom’s hometown - Cape Town, South Africa. In my extended family, mixed accents were normal - my grandmother’s was Afrikaans, my grandfather’s British, and my aunt-by-marriage Mozambican. But at school the situation was the same: everyone had proper Capetonian accents, except me.
Where are you from?
Living in Cape Town and visiting my dad’s US family once a year as a teenager, I eventually got used to just having an accent that made me sound different. Everywhere I went, family friends, or strangers would ask “Where are you from?” I eventually got over the embarrassment of always being from somewhere else and happily accepted belonging to more than one world.
After high school, I moved back to the US for university and felt apprehensive about my identity. Where should I say I was from? I wasn’t actually an international student as my passport was from the US, however, I hadn’t gone through the US school system. I was also worried about the possible stigma of being a white South African.
So I decided to say that I was from NYC, as that was where I was born. I lasted a week! Everyone I gave that answer to, having listened to my pronunciation of ‘York’ either looks puzzled or confused, so I eventually changed my answer to ‘South Africa’ (which no one had an issue with btw).
Fast forward to my adult life in Asia - in India, I was South African (everyone loves cricket there so love South Africa too!) and in Japan and Taiwan, I’m American (both countries have close ties with the US).
When I speak Chinese here in Taiwan, a whole new set of issues emerges. One common scenario is entering a shop to see the shopkeeper looking at me in terror before they realize I can speak Chinese (they’re usually scared their English won’t be good enough).
Another common situation is speaking Chinese but the person you’re talking to doesn’t hear you at first because they’re listening for English. And so on…
What I’d like to address is that in my life, I believe that in-group bias, accent discrimination, and identity politics will always exist and I don’t have expectations that people will treat me with the understanding and awareness that I spend so much time in my work on cultural intelligence focusing on.
My personal approach is to lower expectations.
Does that sound pessimistic? It’s not, in fact, it’s quite positive because it allows me to shift from focusing my energy outwards (what I can't control) to inwards (what I can control).
Here are 3 strategies that I use:
1. Build Empathy
When I meet a situation that challenges me, I like to think from the other person/group's viewpoint by asking: “How does this person’s worldview contribute to their perspective?” For example, it used to bother me when kids, taxi drivers, or strangers on the street would ask me very personal questions (this has happened all over Asia) that I'd only get asked by close friends back home. I then started to realize that it was their way of showing warmth and connecting. Now, whatever question is presented to me, I focus on the good intent and answer as best as I can.
2. Practice Forbearance
The other day on a call to a courier service, I got transferred from one sales representative to another, at which point I had to repeat my whole story. Why? After 10 minutes into the call, the representative realized that I was a foreigner and decided to transfer me to her colleague who could speak English (although we just continued to speak in Chinese!). Although I felt really frustrated by the experience, I just decided to let it go and focus on my goal of finding my package.
3. Develop Curiosity
When I meet with situations or responses that push me out of my comfort zone, I try to find out more details rather than reacting.
For example, at the end of a presentation on Intercultural Awareness last year, a young audience member stood up and told me “Your content is so Western.” I could tell that the organizers and some audience members felt uncomfortable, but I was intrigued. I thanked her and asked her more about her background as well as for feedback and suggestions. I learned a lot from her, and am very grateful that she had the courage to say that to me (especially here in Taiwan, where open disagreement is generally avoided).
I know that everyone's path is different, but on a personal level, the key to peace of mind whilst navigating intercultural communication and DEI-related issues is to focus on responding rather than reacting, and to accept others - and their thoughts - simply as they are.
In summary, here's a quote by the 8th-century Indian philosopher Shantideva:
“Where would I find enough material
To cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with soles beneath my feet,
It’s as if the whole world has been covered.”