A woman with short blond hair and a black blouse stands at the entrance of a cafe in Parramatta, Sydney. She matches all the markers she described over the phone before we met — as do I.
I walk over to shake her hand and I am immediately greeted with a look of confusion.
“You’re Martyn?” She asks. “Sorry, you just don’t look like the way you sounded over the phone.”
I was there to interview her for a story for a university assignment. I’m not sure how she had pictured me, but I’m fairly confident she’d assumed I was white. And it’s because of my broad Australian accent.
I was born and raised in Sydney’s South West to Filipino migrant parents. Growing up, my accent was a mix of Filipino, American and Australian inflections — or what my anglo-peers might simply call ‘foreign’.
Roll call used to be my least favourite part of primary school. I would sit at my desk, constantly wiping the sweat from my hands onto my freshly ironed pants, rehearsing over and over the way I would say just one word — “here”.
Hard ‘r’s are a staple in the Filipino home, and we pronounce them with a roll of the tongue like the Americans. This meant saying my own name became a daily inconvenience. ‘Martyn’ was often mistaken as ‘Morgan’, ‘Melvin’ or ‘Marlin’.
If my accent alone didn’t drive me to silence, I also had a noticeable lisp.
Speech therapy was my parents’ solution. For two years in primary school, I practiced shaping my words with the vigilance of a dancer learning and re-learning every movement.
In order to fix my lisp, I was asked to pretend there was a piece of string tied to the back of my tongue. This invisible string could be pulled from the top of my head. Each time I attempted the ’s’ sound, I pictured tugging the string with my hand, pulling my tongue back and away from my teeth.
Meanwhile, I kept practicing my Aussie accent. “G’day! My name’s Mah-ten,” I’d say in front of the bathroom mirror, as if introducing my new accent to myself.
While speech therapy is a relatively rare experience, the quiet struggle with my accent isn’t. For people of colour, before we open our mouths and utter a single word, there’s often a preconceived notion of how we might sound. For some of us, accents are a lifelong performance.
A recent study by Belgium’s Ghent University found that people with foreign accents are judged to be less trustworthy, less educated, less intelligent and less competent compared to their native-sounding counterparts.
Interestingly, children’s shows also tell us a lot about our unconscious bias. In an analysis of 30 animated TV shows and 1,500 cartoon characters, US sociolinguist Calvin Gidney found that the majority of “bad guys” have foreign accents. “Villainy is marked just by sounding different,” said Gidney.
More recently, in Boots Riley’s film Sorry to Bother You, lead character Cassius Green, an African-American telemarketer, learns to channel a “white voice” to become a successful salesman. In the film, having one’s voice pass as ‘white’ isn’t just a signifier of class or status quo, but a way to get ahead and put strangers at ease. As writer Doreen St. Felix points out, what Riley wants us to see is that whiteness is ultimately “a remote and impossible and crazy-making hope.”
Looking back, my borderline bogan Australian accent was a way to convince myself of my Australian-ness — until eventually it became my natural way of speaking. This isn’t to say this difficulty is felt by all people of colour. I have friends who have maintained their Filipino-American drawl because they never felt the pressure to assimilate. I have friends who moved to Australia from overseas and have just naturally adopted an Australian accent over time without giving it much thought.
People of colour often feel the need to adjust ourselves for the holy grail of “fitting in”. We train our mouths and our tongues to mimic the sounds of acceptance. But how often do we exhaust our energy in performing acrobatics, flipping back and forth, pandering to what is ultimately an invisible — yet deeper — problem?
These days, I find that the tip of my tongue, my mouth and my lips are beginning to relax and settle back into what once felt comfortable. Just as I’m starting to feel steadier within myself, the tip of my tongue finds strength to rise and curl back behind the tooth ridge while the base nestles below, forming the hard r sound once more.
I’m learning to give my ‘white voice’ a break and with it, I feel my anxiety slowly lifting. I hear the hard ‘r’s returning whenever I’m with my family. I’m beginning to say my name the way my mum utters it. I’m reclaiming my accent and it’s drawing me closer to my identity as Filipino-Australian.
As settlers of this country, we must remember there are more than 250 Indigenous languages that predate the usage of English by hundreds of thousands of years. Given more than one in five Australians now speak a language other than English at home, next time you hear an accent, let’s assume nothing except that they’re just as Australian as you are.
Martyn Reyes is a Filipino-Australian writer and radio presenter from Sydney. Follow Martyn on Twitter @martyn_reyes and on Instagram @guapo.pwet.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_