Four days after I moved with my family from Mumbai, India, to Cleveland, Ohio, I picked up the phone to order pizza. I had eaten pizza twice before in Mumbai–at a small eatery that served a spicy-sweet sauce and cheese on a six-inch pizza base. (This happened over twenty years ago. In 2021 pizza is widely available in India.) But now in Cleveland, I couldn’t wait to try the exotic version I’d seen in American TV shows and comic books.
I dialed a number from a flyer that had come in the mail. “Hello, I would like to order pizza.”
“Sure,” said a young male voice at the other end. “You have Q-pins?”
Q–pins? “Is that something you need to order pizza?” I asked.
There was a moment of silence. Then the voice began talking Q-pins yet again. I thought: He’s speaking English, but what is he saying?
In India, my medium of instruction through school and college was English. I followed American sitcoms when I lived in Mumbai. I took in the occasional Hollywood blockbuster.
And I had read any number of bestsellers set in New York, Chicago, Dallas, and Beverly Hills. In short, I was no stranger to American English.
Or so I thought.
Now, in Cleveland, the voice stopped talking – so I jumped right in with my order: “I would like to order a pizza. The edges should be crisp not burnt. And please don’t put too much cheese. Or too much sauce because it gets soggy-”
“Come again?” said the kid.
“Sure,” I replied. “But this is the first time I am ordering pizza from you. If I like it, then I will come again.”
“Uh… for what should I excuse you?”
A huffing sound came down the line. I didn’t know what was happening, but it sounded like the kid and I had our wires tangled. Still, I was going to eat pizza today or die trying.
I took a deep breath and began rushing out my order. The kid got in a word edgeways, something about “toppings.” I rattled past the unfamiliar word. When I finally stopped, I was breathless.
That’s when the kid said, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but-” And then he enunciated politely but slowly, as if each word had a period after it, “I. Don’t. Understand. Your. Accent.”
Now that I understood. My mouth fell open and stayed that way long after I banged down the handset.
How dare that boy imply I had an accent! His words ran into each other. He spoke as if he were singing. My diction was perfect. I didn’t have an accent; he did.
I stood with my arms braced against the kitchen counter, breathing as if I’d sprinted up five flights of stairs. My cheeks were on fire; my heart thudded against my eardrums. Any minute now, I was going to burst.
And then, suddenly, shockingly, I did burst. I burst out laughing.
It was as if somebody had stuck a pin into the bubble of my self-righteous self-importance. When had I appointed myself Supreme Decider of the propah accent for the English language? When had I decided that anyone who didn’t speak like me had an accent?
It was ridiculous. I’d better not tell anyone. So, I never did.
Two years later, I signed up for a Speech and Communications class. Our instructor was Ms. Davis, a forty-ish woman with keen hazel eyes and bobbed blonde hair. On the first day of class, Ms. Davis walked in, crossed her arms, and said, “Please put up your hands if you think you have an accent.”
The emphasis on the word, “think” was unmistakable. I put up my hand, as did the four other immigrants in our class, and waited for the other shoe to drop.
Ms. D. called on three of the twenty students who had not put up their hands. “So, you don’t have accents. How come?”
We were born here. We grew up here, they said.
Boston, Huntsville (Alabama), and San Jose, they said.
“Then… you speak exactly like each other?”
Of course not, they said. Our accents are different.
“Then you do have accents,” said Ms. D.
She would have made a stellar addition to any courtroom.
The students’ jaws dropped. They looked at each other, then back at Ms. D. Their expressions took me back to that evening in my kitchen when, fresh off the boat, I was trying to order pizza.
“We all have accents,” said Ms. D., “because an accent is how one speaks a language.”
Actor Tom Hanks reportedly told his Philadelphia co-actor, Antonio Banderas, “Don’t lose the accent. If you do, you’re lost.”
Twenty-five years after coming to America, I still haven’t lost my Indian accent. But I speak slower now. Sometimes, I roll my “R”s. My vocabulary is more American. I say “gas” and “apartment” instead of the British and Indian terms: “petrol” and “flat.”
I no longer feel self-conscious about my accent. I now wear it as a cultural badge of honor. I see English (or any language) primarily as a mode of communication. I see English as a language, not an accent.
Gauri Sirur is a writer whose work has been published in the online magazines: Desi Journal, Sulekha, and India Currents. Her essays have been featured in the anthology: Abroad at Home. She has also written stories for children that have appeared on the Pratham Books website.
She lives in Houston and feeds her family, her backyard birds, and compost tumblers with impartial fervor.
You can follow her blog at gaurisirur.wordpress.com.