While I’ve spent most of my time living in Canada, as a child I moved around a lot. I grew up in North Burnaby but also spent time living up and down the west coast, as well as in the Philippines. I grew up in a military home in my early years, and my dad was often asked to relocate; when my parents split up, that stopped.
Adding to that, having a French-Irish dad and Filipino mom made things tricky: while my English wasn’t the worst, I’d grown up having some trouble speaking in school because there were words and phrases that only ever came up at home in languages like Tagalog or French. This was all compounded by my staying in the Philippines for a bit; we stayed in my mom’s town, where we spoke some Tagalog, along with Akeanon, the Filipino dialect native to our region.
I was pretty proud that we seemed to be so worldly — that is, until I returned to Canada from the Philippines. I ended up retaining an accent while I’d been away, and in my world, that felt worse than the scars from the bug bites I’d also acquired — since this made me a target for criticism.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t kids who were mean to me — it was actually the adults. Growing up as a mixed Filipino kid in the time I did, it felt as though kids like me were subject to so much scrutiny because people criticize you for not being “of pure blood.” For instance, other Filipino adults would always tell my mother I was too white looking: “Filipina? Talaga? ‘Di pwede, puti na!” Some people would use the old Tagalog term for “street dog” (that I will not say here because I hate it) to refer to me. And the accent made it worse because people would say I was masquerading as a Filipino. I knew I was a mixed kid, a mestiza, if you will, but I had a deep respect for all the cultural roots I harboured.
So my mom decided the best course of action would be to stomp out my accent. This included prescribed reading out loud for a minimum of an hour each day after school. I honestly don’t feel like it didn’t really do anything, but overtime I could hear a change in the way I sounded. It felt like I was hosting a stranger, to be quite honest. I was me, but I didn’t sound like me.
In my last year of high school I took a creative writing course; a portion of the course included having to read things out loud to a partner. This was always an interesting exercise because for some of us the things we wrote were somewhat personal. For me I was just concerned about how I sounded when we did these workshops. One class I had a partner that I had never worked with, and for some reason I was feeling tense. I couldn’t read anything out loud that day; I’d been struggling to speak. The tenth or so time I tripped over a sentence, she cocked her head to one side and said, “you need to read without putting on an act, man. Just be yourself. Seriously. You sound ridiculous.”
I probably sat there for 30 seconds, lost in space. I remember her waving her hand in front of me to bring me out of my thoughts. As I was walking home I realized she was right. I did need to relax and just be myself — and not just while reading. I’d done so much work to try and stomp out my accent not just reading out loud, but also from my mind. I had to let myself breathe and with time things would sound normal to me.
Mind you my accent has mostly disappeared over the last ten years, but I have become comfortable with how I sound. I do my best to learn the proper pronunciation of words, and if I struggle then I try to read them out loud as often as I can. It’s a little scarier having to read things on air — but what better way to learn? Being able to read stuff out loud on air is a big part of my learning and if my accent pops up every once in a while…then so be it!