Accented Identity

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 (Photo Credit: Amanda Font/KQED)

You may not think you have an accent – but you do. And the accent you probably notice the least is the one Hannah Shin craved as her ticket to completing her American identity.

A person’s voice is the first glimpse into their history. In diverse California - the state with the highest number of immigrants - the range of accents is broad.

But there was only one accent I wanted -- the Californian.

I’ve lived in America since kindergarten, and I thought I would acquire a perfect Californian accent. Which is to say, the mainstream, “official” American accent. It’s the popular dialect of Hollywood, and one of the smoothest accents I’ve ever heard - so unlike my Korean language, characterized by sharp syllables and brisk pronunciation.

Most probably don’t see speaking with a local accent as anything special. Yet, to me, it was that golden dream of becoming American. All my dreams of living here wrapped in a neat package of simply mastering an accent. With so many different definitions for being American, I had chosen the simplest, and often unobserved, notion -- my way of speaking.


Though I’ve lived in California half of my life, my English is still marked by an Asian accent -- the lack of L’s and R’s as well as the blurred line between F’s and P’s that still smudge my communication, especially when I’m emotional. My Korean holds a more dramatic grasp on my English when I’m nervous or angry. Articles like a’s and the’s go out the window. Singular and plural differentiations cease to exist. I’ll say, “I have many friend” and “There’s cat”.

When drops of my Korean trickled down into my English, I joked that I had a short tongue or was fresh off the boat, when on the inside, I was dying. Articulate, eloquent communication is a necessary skill -- and I thought my Korean made that unachievable.

Over time I’ve made my peace. Perhaps it’s resignation that since I’ve been unable to speak orthodox Californian all these years, I most likely never will. Perhaps it’s the resolve to embrace part of my identity instead of trying to shake it. Maybe it’s both. But the small details of my life - speaking Korean with family, listening to Korean music, texting in Korean with friends - have accumulated.

Maybe someday, I’ll even hope to find my own accent charming.

With a Perspective, I’m Hannah Shin.

Hannah Shin attends Santa Clara High School. Her Perspective was produced as part of Youth Takeover week at KQED.