My freshman-year proctor, Leo Hochberg, once said, “You have a unique accent.” After I asked, he offered that my accent couldn’t be easily defined—it wasn't simply Chinese or American, refined or crude. Puzzling over why, I decided to trace its origin.
Ever since I was a kid, I have been collecting snippets of my parents’ childhood, from Mom, Dad, and Grandma’s stories over the dinner table to complete this giant puzzle of where I came from. For as long as I could remember, my parents would take me to our hometown in the countryside every summer. When the asphalt highway gives way to concrete pavement, then gravel roads, and finally bumpy dirt paths, we would be back in rural Anhui and Jiangsu, where unassuming homes are scattered among canola fields and rice paddies.
When Mom was young, she would spend nights studying under the kerosene lamp, and wake up the next day with a nose filled with soot. Grandpa passed away when Mom was just finishing up middle school, and Grandma was faced with this repeatedly asked question: “Why would you send a girl to high school?” She still did, despite the pressure from the whole village. For my father, on rainy mornings, his shoes would be soaked heavy, caked with mud, and his walk to school would become a trudge. His near-empty stomach would barely provide enough energy. Somehow, they made it through, and became the first college students in their village. And these memories turned out to be a gift I wasn’t able to unwrap until later when I came to Westtown.
My parents were the first-generation immigrants in the city of Shanghai, and Shanghainese take great pride in their more refined vernacular. For me, I never learned to speak Shanghainese as a kid. Instead, I spoke a mixture of rural dialect and Mandarin—raw and inelegant. My uncouth mixture of accents felt out of place. I faced scrutiny when I answered teachers’ questions with my best-attempted Mandarin. As little as I was, I felt different, and I took note that language was the key into a community.
When I came to Westtown four years ago, the shifting of context yet again highlighted the thickness in my tone, this time in English. My accent was gritty—I brought along with me my hometown-crafted explosive consonants and extended vowels. But it was in the freshmen English course, The Outsider in Literature—the very role I occupied both in literature and in this foreign land—when I realized, for the first time, that my voice mattered. I wasn’t just encouraged to contribute to discussions but expected to; yet, I stumbled over my accent, messily stringing words together to share my ideas. Terribly embarrassed, I was determined to erase my awkwardness and to speak with an authentic American accent.
Luckily, I’ve been surrounded by many authentic voices. At Westtown, we gather weekly in the Meeting House in purposeful silence, which is broken only when messages are shared. Here, I’ve realized that American accents are varied just like Chinese ones. I remembered Profe Monica once shared in her Puerto Rican accent that she was choked with tears when, during the past presidential election, her daughter asked if they would be deported. I remember Tray told an anecdote in his Tennessee accent about the generosity and the slowness back home—a lady, a stranger, who brought a tray of brownies from her house to Tray and his friends playing basketball. I remember during a late-night conversation with my roommate Jeo when he shared, in his Harlem accent, his admiration for his mother who worked three jobs to support her nine children.
Through listening closely to stories in my community, I’ve realized the authentic American accent is impossible to define, and the importance of our words lies far less in how we say them than in the meanings they hold. My primary school was a 30-minute walk away, my middle school was an hour drive, and my high school is a 14-hour plane ride. For me, growing up meant leaving home. But it turned out that it was only when I left home to go 8,000 miles away, that I have come closer to understanding both the grit and sand in my accent, and the soot and mud in my family’s shared memory—though inelegant, it reminds me of my story. At this place where my difference was valued and celebrated, I have finally unpacked the gift my parents have left me. It is a reminder, composed of my parents’ childhood memories, that grounds me, humbles me, and reminds me to defend passion with diligence.
I wish I didn’t have to wait two years before I could tell Leo that my accent really isn’t my accent after all. It is the mixture of the accents of every person I have ever talked to. I pick up small phrases and intonations from my friends and teachers, and they’ve merged to become my accent. If you think about it, it is the same with our most trivial habits as well as our most profound thoughts. When you spend more time with the people around you, you become more like them. And for the past four years, I have been picking up bits and pieces of the people around me, and before I’d notice, they had become very much a part of me.
In these last fleeting moments we share, it is at least a bit reassuring to know that I will be carrying bits and pieces of each of us as I leave. I will carry you in my accent, my habits, and the way I think. And that is fulfilling. From rural China to Westtown, I’ve found my accent bearing the marks people and places have left on me—it is quirkily nuanced and perfect in its imperfections.Although these marks are sometimes confusing for me and unexpected to strangers, they are my story. It is eternally growing and evolving, from the first word until the very last.