Going Berko

Trying to unlearn my accent and usage of Australian English has distanced me from acknowledging my Strayan roots.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

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By Rachel Chuong

I learned English surrounded by the mint green walls of my aunt’s living room in Sydney, with a view of Coogee Beach out the bay windows and the television playing Channel 9. I relished the vine-covered entrance and mellowness of my Oceanian family’s home, and there was something to be adored about the easygoing nature of the city. As a young child, I spent much of my time in Australia sitting on the wraparound veranda with my cousin, babbling in our different languages until one of us understood the other’s word or phrase. I picked up the beginnings of English from him, who was a year younger than me and only fluent in Strine (the roughest form of Australian English) and watched it grow in the mindless conversations two toddlers could exchange. Next to the palm trees that grew proudly by the main entrance, I learned to ask for Fritz and sauce sangas for lunch and to wear sunnies when going to the beach in the arvo. Words like that were natural—I never dropped the lingo even after I inevitably returned to boarding school in Taiwan; the slang was embedded in my sense of language like the sprinkles on my evening fairy bread.

I didn’t lose the lovely, lazy speech of Straya even after I moved to the United States several years later and quietly joined a school of native New Yorkers in a neighborhood of Long Island English speakers. There was a time when my tongue didn’t roll in the way American English required. While Australian speakers tend to slur words together, the other children in this new town spoke with perfect annunciation. I struggled with pronouncing the hard O at the end of words and using D’s instead of T’s. My friends poked fun at my odd pronunciations, and for many years, my teachers critiqued my innate habit to end each sentence with a questionary upturn as unnecessary and disjointing. As my cousin may have put it, it truly made me “berko,” or angry.

I found it increasingly difficult to adapt to the annoyingly pretentious way of American speaking, in which elisions and Strayan drawl were forbidden. The smallest things about my accent that I had never taken into account before became magnified. Picking apart the /a:/ (open back unrounded vowel) I tended to use rather than the American /æ/ (near-open front unrounded vowel) was insanity. Even if I did hear the contrast in our tones, I could hardly understand why pronouncing “graph,” “castle,” and “grasp” differently constituted the mockery it received. If the jokes and comments were lighthearted, they were numerous, and I eventually grew so tired of them that I confessed to my Aussie cousin that I desired more than anything to adapt to the form of English everyone else seemed to have. I found myself striving to erase any remnants of Strine from my tone—abandoning my roots in an attempt to speak “normally.”

It took years to lose my accent enough to blend in and even longer to pick up enough slang to trade Aussie colloquialism in favor of American lingo. In this new neighborhood, quaint and conservative, words like “cunt” were slurs; they had strange connotations that starkly contrasted their casual and almost endearing usage in Australia. I’d been taken to the office of the headmistress after affectionately referring to a friend as such—the embarrassment of having to apologize to the girl sticks through even years later. The language I grew up with was coarse at best by the standards of my town, and even words that weren’t dubbed vulgarities were out of place. In the states, asking for lollies, for instance, would get you pointed to only one specific form of candy rather than the entire sweets aisle. The fact that the two variants are both considered English does not change the inevitable choppiness of transitioning between them. In spelling and phonology, Strine and American English wildly differ. It’s difficult to balance the two. At best, they exist as two separate tongues; at worst, they merge into a confusing mess of the English language.

I observed how my friends spoke and how American celebrities presented themselves and devoured States’ media hungrily. I avoided as much Strayan vernacular as possible, training my voice to sound like any typical New Yorker. With time, my mind began to separate the two dialects completely: a native language and my second one. Inevitably, some words would slip through, but nonetheless, my vocal box was a filter; through it, I carefully sifted away my Oceanian past. From my efforts, I picked up the subtle ways that America distinguishes its accent, enough so that I wouldn’t be questioned anymore. The success was bittersweet, laced with both guilt and pride.

It’s because of my own learned speech that I felt particularly empathetic when I spoke with many of my friends’ parents in grade school and junior high. Most of them were immigrants, and their accents were tinged with their own histories. They spoke in ways that were easily distinguishable from the parents who had grown up in New York. I figured that if I, someone who technically spoke English as both a first language and a second one, could be teased, then they had to have faced similar treatment.

For those who have accents, the mockery is routine. It’s perpetually tied to your identity and, unlike surface-level attempts to blend in, easily betrays you and reveals your foreignness. Interestingly, the children who made fun of my accent frequently had parents who spoke with their own, and I found myself wondering how they could justify their treatment of alienage when they were linked to it themselves. I figured their parents had deemed their accents as embarrassments and consequently refused to acknowledge them.

But an accent is a cultural tie, a connection to a piece of one’s personhood. I did not realize that when growing up, but I wonder if I still would have tried so desperately to erase my accent if I did. Nowadays, I speak in a way that sounds nearly natural to New Yorkers, pronouncing the hard R’s after isolated vowels and carefully adhering to the strict General American accent rules. But somehow, I feel less complete. It’s always a surprise to people that I lived in Australia, much less for as long as I did. When I reveal my residency in Sydney, it’s followed by an instantaneous question of why I don’t speak with a significant accent. It’s an understandable curiosity, but I often don’t know how to respond. It’s difficult to explain that I’d purposely abandoned it without sounding as if I am embarrassed of having lived there. It sounds as if I intentionally disconnected myself from my history, and I’m left to feel as if I’ve lost a massive part of my identity by trying to blend in.

There’s inherent loneliness that spawns from the disconnect. It’s why I look back on my learned tendency to speak with an entirely American tone with some regret: my maternal family, who mostly still live in Oceania, speak Strine with pure confidence. My cousin still lives in the green house on the edge of Sydney, and each time I call him, I feel guilty—that in some way, I am turning my back on my home. I’m not ashamed of my family nor of the time I spent there, but my conscious decision to abandon the most prominent evidence of my years with them makes it seem as though I am.

I still actively try to avoid slipping into Strine. I’d be lying if I said it was easy to not slip into it from time to time. It requires focus to not accidentally blend the two accents. I shy away from words like “aluminum” and “oregano” because they easily fail my hard-earned New York voice, and I tend to avoid words that can cause my mind to subconsciously slip into Strine-like “mate” and “strewth.” But doing so sends pangs of fear that I’m betraying my history through my larynx and into my vocal cords, and I quiet myself, preferring to not speak at all if I have to explain why I avoid Australian English so much.

Still, I justify my new vernacular to myself with circumstance: had I moved into a more open-minded area, I wouldn’t have felt the need to unlearn my accent as much as I did. My neighborhood had a tendency to reject the alien, a hereditary habit. I see that in immigrants like my parents and my friends’ parents; they’ve become embarrassed about their accents just as I’d become embarrassed of mine and found comfort in remaining silent instead. The desire to fit in had taken precedence over the preservation of my roots at the time. Though I do miss the jargon I abandoned, it truly has been much easier to claim myself a New Yorker—to call it home—when I speak in a way that adheres to the same standard as everyone else.

My younger sister, however, was born and raised in the States—she’s a real New Yorker. Truth be told, she’s not that much younger than me, but she’s never stepped foot in Australia before; her comprehension of Oceania lives in the stories of the city I tell her. When we were kids, she often marveled over my accent, fascinated with how words curled at the end of my tongue and how my vowels softened and twisted. She was the only one who really protested when I began to speak with a more American accent, and now, years later, she still favors when I mumble in Strine over any form of perfected speech. She, like some of my newer friends, appreciates my foreignness as if it gives her a glimpse into how large the world could be, even if that big world exists only in my occasional slips in speech.

It’s easier to grow past my former embarrassment when someone like her, who embodies the ideal New Yorker I’d wanted to be, sees my accent so fondly. When I was younger, she had been silenced by both my doubt and the constant mockery, and I regret that I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I’d started to appreciate her affection toward the parts of my language that I hated.

Strine is truly worn so deeply into my sense of language that even at my very best, it peeks through. I disliked that trait, that my accent was so intrinsic that I couldn’t escape it, for the longest time. Yet my Strayan voice is part of my history; if I were to completely erase it, I expect I’d be more lost in my sense of identity than ever. If I had been purely American like my sister, I wonder if I would have desired to have an accent—to have a unique story to tell—and in that sense, the idea of being entirely New Yorker or entirely Australian seems unfulfilling.

“Going berko” is much more interesting than just “going mad,” and I am not obliged to only speak one form of the English language. So quietly, largely, wholly, I picture myself speaking both so naturally it feels like breathing. If not now, then in the future, there is a version of me who wears her Strine proudly, like a dress the same color as the mint green walls I grew up and fell asleep surrounded by. She speaks without being conscious of her tone, she uses slang without care, and regardless of where she is, that version of me has found home.