“Cora, you are speaking differently. Does everyone in northeastern China speak like that?”
“Yeah...Probably, but I am not sure...”
That was the first conversation I had with my peer at my new high school. Hearing what she said, I could not help burying my head deep in the desk. The blade in her tone cut me far in.
I was embarrassed by my own dialect that had been accompanying me for 16 years.
For the first 16 years of my life, I lived in Jilin City of northeastern China and our people spoke Mandarin with unique northeastern accent. Our dialect delivered the message of passion by pronouncing each word with the sound “er” at the end to make words sound softer. At the beginning of Chinese economic reform in late 20th century, heavy industry in northeastern brought huge profits to the country. At that time, our accent was deemed as symbol of progress and diligence. However, along with the development of soft industry in southern China, the influence of heavy industry in the north receded and the status of our dialect consequently plummeted. No longer regarded as the source of wisdom, northeastern dialect is thought to be spoken only by uneducated farmers. Stereotype held by most people embarrassed me, a native speaker of northeastern dialect.
One year ago, my family moved me to Guangzhou, a cosmopolitan city. Leaving my beloved friends, I was immersed in an entirely new culture. The food was different and the dialect was unintelligible. Willing to adjust, I abandoned my accent to accommodate the language of the new city -Mandarin- with a little inclination to Cantonese.
To avoid more conversations related to my Northeastern accent, I watched TV shows in which actors spoke standard Mandarin, and I frequently listened to Cantonese channels even though I had no idea what they were talking about. I forced myself to memorize the pronunciation of each character and spoke to myself for practice. My efforts got paid off and I could speak fluent standard Mandarin a month later. I felt relieved when I finally spoke elegantly, at least from my perspective. My peers welcomed me to their community and I attributed my successful socialization to my fluent standard Mandarin. In this way, I was putting on mask to conceal my true identity, including my accent.
However, not everyone was willing to abandon their accent just like me. My parents, who lived in northeastern China for over 45 years, spoke with strong northeastern tone with Guangzhou people and resisted to make any adjustments to the new culture.
I still remembered the first parent meeting at my new high school when my mother, dressed up elegantly with wool suit, high-heels, and a pair of pompous gold earrings, which seemed inconsistent with her daily dressing style. My counselor sitting in the office seemed impressed by her appearance until her accent gave her away. When she spoke about my mid-term report, she was so preoccupied that she did not even notice that, my counselor frowned and slightly leaned towards us, trying to grasp the meaning of her obscure words and striving to suppress a smile. Apparently, the northeastern dialect was so grotesque and hilarious that my counselor felt distracted. At that moment, I felt so self-conscious as if I tumbled into the crowd, naked. My “language mask” was ruthlessly torn away by my mother.
“Mom, please don't speak like a Northeastern person, please.”
“You make me embarrassed.”
“For what? Our dialect can be understood as we slow down a little bit. See, your counselor
and I chatted so smoothly at last”
I was at a loss for words. My mother’s questions stabbed. I questioned myself why I was so
haunted by my own language. To present my self-assured elegance? To segregate myself from my people in my hometown? Just like the wrong key can never open the right gate, I could find no answers that makes any sense, not to mention to relieve my agony.
That day, I called my best old friend in Jilin City. When I heard his passionate voice, my eyes became wet. How familiar and warm our dialect was! During that 10-minute talk, I freed myself from standard tongue and pieced myself back together through my dialect. Speaking in my comfort language, I sensed the genuine emotion, tunneling through the cocoon of standard language straight to my heart.
After that call, I realized that I essentially accommodated so terrifically that I lost myself out of fear of not fitting in. Realizing that my flexibility in character was a manifestation of cowardice, I decided to find redemption by leaping some northeastern words into my daily conversation. Although negative judgements still pop up sometimes, I feel that I am not vulnerable anymore. Beyond my adolescent sensitivity, I enjoy preserving my unique dialect. I can finally understand why my mother and counselor transcended what I perceived as a barrier: they accepted each other wholeheartedly. Now, language is never my wound: I learn to accept myself, and that is why people accept me.