Friday, May 26, 2017

Michelle Yeoh boleh!

Hello, blog! It's been far too long. Uni placements and job applications are keeping me quite busy, but I recently came across something I really wanted to blog about.

I don't normally keep up to date with pop culture and movies and things, but this bit of news caught my eye: Michelle Yeoh, a Malaysian actress, is keeping her Malaysian accent in the new Star Trek series. So what?, you may ask. It's just an accent, what's the big deal? Ah, but it is indeed a big deal, to me at least. Let me tell you why.

I am a Malaysian Chinese. In 2013, I came to Tasmania, Australia to study. It wasn't very long ago, but Tassie back then wasn't the popular tourist destination it is now. It was one of the less cosmopolitan parts of Australia, with a predominantly Caucasian population. Some people had never left the island, never mind Australia, because they were perfectly happy where they were.

Enter me, a Chinese girl who spoke English as her first language and didn't actually speak much Chinese. I didn't foresee communication to be a problem at all. It'd be fine, I thought. I'd talk to people, make friends, ask questions if I needed to. It'd be fine.

It was not fine.

Within the first few days of being on the island, I quickly realised two things:
1. People couldn't understand me because of my accent.
2. People assumed I couldn't speak English well.

Number two sometimes happened independently of number one. They saw me, a timid-looking Asian person, and just assumed I had a poor command of the English language. And that I was from China. Because all Asian people are from China. But anyway, I'm not here to rant about that. Let's talk about number 1: my accent.

When I was still in Malaysia, I was told by a few friends that my accent 'wasn't very Malaysian'. Whatever that meant, they probably weren't right, because my born and bred Malaysian accent was one that just could not be understood by the locals in Tassie. Close to nothing I said got through. Conversations got awkward really quickly, and it got to the point where I dreaded having to converse with anyone. One particularly memorable exchange happened in Woolies.

ME: Excuse me, do you guys have any kale? It was in your catalogue.
WOOLIES GUY: Sorry, what?
ME: Do you guys have any kale?
WOOLIES GUY: *stares at me intently* Do we have any..?
ME: Kale?
WOOLIES GUY: Um. *looks super uncomfortable* *starts looking around for help*
ME: Y'know, kale? K-A-L-E?
WOOLIES: K-E-L... What?
ME: No, K-A-L-E!
ME: Okay, never mind. Thanks.

Thankfully, it wasn't this bad at uni, where lecturers were more familiar with Malaysian and Singaporean accents due to previous students. I still avoided asking questions whenever I could, though, instead choosing to utilise Google (who never misunderstood my typed rather than spoken questions). I also stuck to people who spoke the same way as me, people who could understand me and whom I could understand effortlessly. Speaking to anyone local was difficult and uncomfortable and made me feel very small.

It wasn't long before I started seeing my accent as an embarrassment. It outed me straight away as someone foreign and different, someone who wasn't from here and didn't belong. My accent was not one of a predominantly English-speaking country, like America or the UK, so people found it difficult to understand. I often had to repeat myself a lot, and even then I slowly grew used to watching people's eyes glaze over as they gave up trying to understand me. Communication was hard, and it was all my own darn accent's fault.

So I adapted. My accent slowly became a weird Aussie-Malaysian hybrid that I detested but knew was necessary. Over the years, I like to think it's become more Aussie and less Malaysian (though I do still speak with a Malaysian accent normally!). My accent is now less clumsy and comes more naturally, and my tongue stumbles less over the round vowels and drawls of the Aussie accent. I can comfortably hold conversations with classmates, doctors, patients, people at church, people at the gym...anyone, really. Also, I've made some great friends along the way!

Not every Malaysian and Singaporean goes through this dramatic an accent transition, however. There are people who speak with their (toned down) normal accents to locals, powering through the awkwardness until they are understood. Whether by choice or because they can't, their accent never changes, and I respect them so much for it. I think it says a lot about someone who doesn't change who they are or the way they do things purely to make life easier.

Which brings me back to Michelle Yeoh keeping her accent. From what I've seen around the Internet, she's already been receiving some flack for it ('Hire sum1 who can speak English!!!11'), but reception has been mostly positive. I, a Malaysian, am so proud and so grateful that she wasn't embarrassed to speak with the accent she was brought up with. Of course, this accent has been flavoured by her time in the UK and Hong Kong, but it is ultimately her own Malaysian accent. And I am so glad to hear it.

Thank you, Dato' Michelle Yeoh, for being unafraid to speak with your Malaysian accent on a platform that will be viewed and heard by many. Thank you, director and producers of Star Trek, for allowing this to happen.

One of the best things about globalisation is the normalisation of different accents. I hope this means that we will no longer feel ashamed of our own in the future. Lah.

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