On accents, Migrating and Jhumpa Lahiri

The other day, while walking Salter at the park near our apartment in Miraflores, a woman came by so that her dog, an energetic beagle puppy, could play with mine. As the dogs graciously moved their tails and jumped around, the woman and I shared a few comments about the weather and our pets, the usual small talk that happens between dog walkers at the park.

When I was about to head home, she asked if I lived nearby. Yes, I replied, just two blocks away from here, in the antique blue building over there, I said, pointing with my head. Oh, yes, I’ve seen it. Have you lived there for a long time? She asked. No, no, I said. I moved to Peru a few months ago. Wait, so you are not Peruvian? She then asked, surprised. No, I’m from the Dominican Republic, I replied, smiling awkwardly, and walked away.

After this encounter, I couldn’t help feeling weird about the fact that this woman couldn’t tell that I was not Peruvian. That I was from the Caribbean, or at least from somewhere else. Then I thought about the rhythm of my words. Sometimes my Spanish sounds so neutral, no one could ever tell where I’m from. Sometimes my Spanish sounds so neutral, it feels like I’m betraying my roots. I do this unconsciously. Something changes in me when talking to strangers. To new people. I shift colors, like a chameleon. I don’t want to be identified as a foreigner, and so everything about me becomes neutral, rigid, still.

This reminded me of Jhumpa Lahiri and her book In Other Words, which she wrote in Italian. In this book, Lahiri explores her relationship with English, Italian and other languages. Her relationship with reading and writing. More importantly, she writes about the metamorphosis she went through: from an internationally acclaimed Indian-American writer, to an almost invisible woman in Rome writing in a vulnerable, newborn, recently mastered Italian.

“While the refusal to change was my mother’s rebellion, the insistence on transforming myself is mine,” she writes in one part of the book.

These words hit so close to home.

I have lived in five different countries, in four different continents. I used to think that when you traveled and moved around so much, it was impossible to not experience some changes in the way you speak, in the way you view life, even if just slightly. At least this is how it has always been for me: traveling has allowed me to transform myself over and over again.

But just recently, I realized that this is not true for everyone. Some people never change, like Lahiri’s mom. Some people spend 30 years living in a foreign country and manage to keep the same accent they had when they arrived. It happens to Dominicans in New York, specially those who live in places like The Bronx, where you can find an impressive community of Dominican and Latino immigrants. They keep the accent, they cook the food, they dance the music. Their refusal to change is their rebellion.

I moved to Puerto Rico when I was eight years old. After half a year, I sounded almost as Puerto Rican as any other kid in the island. By the time I was seventeen, I spoke like a real Boricua. The slang, the rhythm, even the Spanglish that permeates the island was part of my world.

Yet at home, otro pájaro cantaba. Whenever I spoke with my mom, in those careless moments when we would sit in the porch, swinging in la mecedora and drinking black coffee, I sounded like a dominicana. I sounded like her. We shared this beautiful, secret accent that would only revive in me whenever we joked and gossiped. An accent so intimate, so personal, so joyful. A rhythm that connected me to my mother and the history of our family. To the place where we came from.

Today, when I speak with my friends in Puerto Rico, my Boricua accent instantly comes back. When I call my mom, I sound as dominicana as the kid who was born there, the one who learned to speak and walk and experience the world in Santo Domingo. And here, in Peru, I speak my impeccable, neutral Spanish.

At times, I wonder: is there something wrong with me? Why can’t I just speak the same way with everyone? Is this some sort of defense mechanism? What am I afraid of?

A similar thing happens with my writing.

I lived in Newark, New Jersey for five years. I had just graduated high school when I moved to Newark. Those years in Jersey had such a huge impact on me. I arrived there as an adolescent and left as an adult.

I was an immigrant in Puerto Rico, but it wasn’t until we moved to the continental United States that I understood what it was like to be a real foreigner. An Immigrant, with capital letter. An outsider. I did everything possible to adapt quickly. I had to learn English. Once again, like a chameleon, I changed colors as fast as I could. Would not touch a book in Spanish. Didn’t even want to speak Spanish in public. I wanted to be invisible. To get lost in the crowd.

The fact that I’m writing these words in English, is a testament to the impact those years had on my way of thinking. To this day, ideas come to me in English, and I have no option but to follow them in this, my second, vulnerable language. Explore where they would take me. If I were writing this essay in Spanish, it would be a completely different one.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the United States is a beautiful yet merciless place. It gives you many wonderful things, but it takes such valuable ones away. As soon as you set foot there, everything seems to be telling you: you are different, you are flawed, you don’t belong here. Lahiri explores this idea with more clarity:

“I identify with the imperfect because a sense of imperfection has marked my life. I’ve been trying to improve myself forever, correct myself, because I’ve always felt I was a flawed person. Because of my divided identity, or perhaps by disposition, I consider myself an incomplete person, in some way deficient.”

This sense of deficiency is very familiar to many people, specially to those who belong to a diasporic community. From this sense of deficiency comes the idea that immigrants must always improve themselves. That we are not good enough. From this sense of deficiency come many of my own insecurities as a dominicana, as a woman, as a young aspiring writer.

I don’t know if I will ever stop acting like a chameleon. After all, speaking an intimate and unique language with your loved ones has its magic. Languages are about creating connections, and my many accents allow me to do just that. What I do hope is to one day learn to appreciate every single part of my identity. To value them all equally. To change not because I feel deficient, but because by transforming myself, I grow.

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