Hybridization of accents + Experiments in dematerialization

Every year, for the last two years, I’ve been getting on a plane, undergoing “corpo-real packaging”[1] and being transported from India to the United States, to go to college. As I prepared for what lay ahead of me, I knew that I would have to adjust to new ideas and beliefs but I didn’t realise that being displaced from my local place to a foreign country would affect my social interactions in my immediate environment. It was only recently that I started to notice, when a typical conversation with a stranger started somewhat like this:

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from India.” I would reply.

“Oh! Why don’t you have an accent? I thought you were from here!”

This was becoming more frequent, so I decided that it called for some introspection on my part. I knew the above statement wasn’t completely true; I’d retained some characteristics from my Indian accent but over a period of time, my accent had become somewhat of a hybrid between the Indian and the American accent. At what point had it become so Americanized that people couldn’t even tell the difference? I was curious as to why and more importantly astonished at the fact that I barely even noticed these changes, probably because they occurred so gradually. This made me wonder how it affected my consciousness, perception and awareness of place and what factors played a role in determining my behavior in different places.

One of them, I think is American Television and how it portrays a very caricatured image of Indian people in the United States.  One of these shows is undoubtedly The Big Bang Theory. When I lived in India, watching the character of Raj in The Big Bang Theory was funny; the thought that he was there just for comic relief never occurred to me. It was an American show that I was watching all the way in India and I didn’t think for a second that it was representative of me. However, when I physically got to the US I started to notice why the show was problematic, especially after someone I met guessed I’m from India because he said that my accent reminded him of Raj. He then proceeded to follow up his guess with the classic ‘Indian head nod’ (if you can believe that). It was almost as if he was thinking about me through the filter of the TV and the stereotypical, standard ‘Indian’ image that was portrayed through it. The medium was giving him a sign of what to expect when he met an Indian person and that is all he saw (and unfortunately decided to voice) when he met me. This reminded me of ‘The Most Photographed Barn’ in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. The presence of signs, even in this case tainted the image of the barn and signaled everyone visiting it to view it from the same perspective, as is visible from the line, “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”[2] This is an example of how media standardizes both people and historic places, creating one universal personality for them instead of the varied ideas that people might have had if their minds hadn’t already been influenced by the media and the signs that they saw around them.

Another effect of standardization within a place is that it makes anything even remotely different very noticeable. This I think is another reason why I started Americanizing my accent. People usually understood what I said but I sometimes had to repeat myself; it was easier to change my accent instead. This happened more frequently when I was on the phone. I remember a time when I was talking to a woman from AT&T regarding problems that I was having with my phone plan. She had trouble understanding me which eventually made me switch to an American accent (which, as it turns out, I can do very well) just because I knew that it was a surefire way of quickening the pace of our conversation. This I think is similar to how Mane Pena, in Through the Arc of the Rainforest shows a gradual change in accent as he is represented more in the media. The first time he spoke to the media, he spoke in his local untouched voice, as can be seen from the line, “his voice rising and twanging in regional tones.”[3] However, as time went on, his voice changed and his accent started to lose its regional touch, because J.B. Tweep knew he that his voice had to sound familiar to the audience watching the television. After reading this book, I wondered whether creating a sense of familiarity with the person I was speaking with played a role in the change of my accent. I can’t say for sure, but it is definitely something I need to give more thought to.

Another thought that crossed my mind after I hung up on the AT&T representative was the uncertainty that I felt about the source of confusion in our conversation. Was it really because it was difficult for her to understand my accent? Or was the wireless telephone phone network unclear? Or perhaps my cellular phone wasn’t working properly and needed to be changed? I realize now that I had experienced (in a way) what it is like to be living in a ‘Risk Society’; a society that is so mass-mediated that there is a fear and anxiety caused by it and its invisible effects. I was worried about both the phone, and the telephone network and as a result had a harder time identifying the source problem (although it probably was my accent). This is similar to the anxiety that Jack Gladney experiences when he contemplates the reason for his sons receding hairline. This is visible from the lines, “Did his mother consume some kind of gene piercing substance when she was pregnant? Am I…..glorious sunsets?”[4]. Although my experience on the phone is vastly different from this; both the instances call into question the general idea that technology is always, unquestionably good. They are also examples of how technology affects the nervous system, putting us into a state of uncertainty and sometimes even fear.

The above example also illustrates the idea that all the technology that connect us also disconnect us in some way. The more aware I got of the person I was speaking with, the more disconnected I was getting from my immediate surroundings, from the ‘here and now’ according to Rebecca Solnit. I also realized that while I was overcoming my body’s biological limits and speaking to someone far away, I was also limited in how I could interact with her. If I were physically present in front of this woman, I could have used actions and explained what I meant, however this was impossible to do on the phone. According to Solnit, “technology regards the very terms of our bodily existence as burdensome”[5] (page 11). Maybe it’s time for us to put our foot down and understand its effects without consuming it without thinking.

Why is it important to be introspective in a time of rapid globalization? If I think about it, I remember being judgmental of the way some Indian Americans pronounced their names. I couldn’t for the life of me see why they would Americanize their name, partly because I didn’t have to face that problem myself. I hadn’t considered the fact that the Hindi alphabet had additional letters that they may not be used to pronouncing or that they may not even speak Hindi. I’d expected them to have experiences similar to the ones that I had, regarding Indian culture, without taking into consideration the difference in environment. By thinking critically of my own behavior, I was able to understand at least to an extent, the effects that cultural displacement and hybridization has on an individual. Overall, it was a lesson in humility and helped me be more understanding of the Indian diaspora in the United States.


PART 2: Experiments in Dematerialization

1)Passing chits versus sending text messages

As a part of the mid-term project, I decided to conduct an experiment on the effects of dematerialization at my residential life staff meeting because these were people that had no knowledge of EcoMedia. The goal of the experiment was to explain the effects of the separation of transportation and communications media. The experiment was similar to the one we did in class; everyone had to write a note to someone in the room and physically get up and give it to them. One of my friends exclaimed at how she had injured her leg and passed her note instead. I couldn’t help thinking that if physically moving was the only way she could have conveyed her message then her note would never have gotten through. There was a lot of chatter and the expected exclamations of “aww, that’s so sweet!” as people exchanged notes.

After that I asked everyone to text someone else in the room. The room got a lot quieter and I got a lot more text messages that the number of physical paper notes. The digitization of sending messages sped up the process of sending messages and annihilated time and space. After the experiment, I asked my RA friends how they felt about the different forms of communication. Overall, they seemed to agree that the passing of chits felt more personal and exciting. However, there were some people that talked about how they didn’t even have the others phone number and despite the fact that they were very good friends. It was nice to see that despite living in a time of hyper connectivity, there were still people that interacted more with each other in person rather than online.

2) Physically writing versus typing

While typing the paper, I couldn’t help but noticing that Microsoft Word always autocorrected my British English to American English. This is because the keyboard on my computer is set to American English; I think this demonstrates how easy it is to mask our differences through technology and hide mistakes. If I physically wrote the paper, it would be more of a mix of British and American English and there would be visible cancellations. This is why I decided to write out the entire paper by hand and account for my hybrid English. I will then put the physical and the digital copies in folders to demonstrate the lack of physical matter when done online. This I think is significant because it connects me to the paper I wrote online. It reminds me of the time when Burtynsky, in Manufactured Landscapes uses silver slides to photograph silver mines. He says, “Everything I’m doing is connected to the thing I’m photographing.”[6] And in imitating him, I’m attempting to connect the different forms of media to the message that I’m conveyed through them.

Notice the underlining of the word 'realise' because it's not spelt the American way (side note: wordpress underlined this as well :P)
Notice the underlining of the word ‘realise’ because it’s not spelt the American way (side note: wordpress underlined this as well :P)
The physical copy, put into a physical folder
The physical copy, put into a physical folder.
The virtual folder, demonstrating the lack of physical matter (dematerialization).
The virtual folder, demonstrating the lack of physical matter (dematerialization).

Works cited

[1] Aden, Peter. “Mediations.” Page 205, Print.

[2] DeLillo, Don. White Noise. Viking, Page 12, 1985. Print

[3] Yamashita, Karen Tei. Through the Arc of the Rain Forest. London: Scribners, Page 23,1991. Print

[4] DeLillo, Don. White Noise. Viking, Page 22, 1985. Print.

[5] Solnit, Rebecca. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. The Annihilation of Time and Space, Page 11, New York: Viking, 2003. Print.

[6] Manufactured Landscapes. Dir. Jennifer Beichwal. Perf. Ed Burtynsky

Class Concepts:

  1. Dematerialization (through the experiments)
  2. Standardization through media: (by hybridizing my accent)
  3. ‘Media is the Message’ (through the first experiment in dematerialization)
  4. Experiencing reflexive modernity (when on the phone)
  5. Overcoming the body’s limits by using a phone (annihilating space)
  6. Writing out the paper as well as typing it (the same way Burtynsky uses silver slides to photograph the silver mine)
  7. Viewing everything through a filter due to the signs around it (Most photographed Barn in America)
  8. The phone connecting me to the AT&T operator and disconnecting me from my local lace at the same time (sacrificing the near to get to the far)
  9. A move from India to the US created a loss in my sense of place.
  10. Cultural globalization
  11. Media shaping someone’s imagination of a different culture. (Like in Through the Arc of the Rainforest)
  12. Humans have become so mobile that we’ve become packages to move around (me flying here in an airplane)
  13. Extending my body by using a phone (McLuhan)

6 thoughts on “Hybridization of accents + Experiments in dematerialization”

  1. First of all, I apologize on behalf of the guy who was ignorant enough to compare your accent to any character from the Big Bang Theory. That is beyond cringe worthy.

    I worked in a restaurant downtown for many years, and the theme of the place is authentic British pub, right down to the people. This restaurant goes the extra many miles and takes real English college students in their third year of school and brings them out to Rochester to perform the various different roles of this restaurant, from the kitchen, to the floor, to the bar, and to the finances, and it counts as their third, junior year of college, or as you know, what they call university. I got to train and work with four crew years worth of ten English students per crew year in the kitchen and I had to watch them go through every single thing you spoke about in the first half of your essay. Just trying to serve tables was hard for them, as the American patrons consistently had a hard time understanding them. The only difference was that all of these students would live and work together, all day everyday, and if anything they begun to find it entertaining how little of their accents Americans possessed the ability to understand. They became proud of it. I remember one time, my friend Jack from two crew years ago and myself went out to Walmart to buy an inflatable pool and a bunch of beer and when he stopped to ask the sales guy where the beer was the sales guy kept saying “we don’t sell any bears”, until I stepped in and said “beeeeeer” with an extra long held out e in the middle. After working many many hours a week with them, my standard of hearing speech became the English accent, although I would never insult them by pretending I had one myself as a thorough-blooded American. Although they spoke the same language, it was amazing to see exactly just how used to a standard of speech the American public is. It’s like we are so conditioned to be so used to something, that we almost don’t even believe it’s real when we are confronted with something different, like we have this expectation of standards. And when something doesn’t meet that standard, that something is suddenly the target of all kinds of separation.

  2. Ria, It’s so interesting that people don’t discover your Indian background from conversing with you, but rather by projecting media’s image of Indian on you. He didn’t learn your background, then impose the stereotypes of the media, He used them to identity you. A great example of how people despite their complexity and can become signs dictated by media. Also, troubling that you needed to change your accent to be understood by the AT&T representative. It disconnected you in a way from your history and culture while connecting you with an Americanized accent and the assistance you needed.

  3. Ria this is a great essay! It is so reflective and interesting, and says a lot about American culture through your analysis of people’s reaction to your accent. You made some really interesting connections, like your example of the AT&T operator and our modern ‘risk society.’ Problems can be analyzed and broken down in so many ways that produce so many different potential sources that finding the true issue can be complicated. It seems to be a great critical response to Babette’s problem-solving method of “more information is always better” and a problem only needs to be “broken down and put back together again” in order to be solved.
    Your “americanization” of your accent is really interesting. In a sense you are doing the opposite of delocalizing and hybridizing by adapting more fully into a new environment. I never thought about all the connections that can be made between what we’ve been talking about all semester and accents: this was a very interesting read!

  4. I LOVE THIS! I had the very same problem when I moved here from Jamaica, and I think my experience was even worse because I was just starting middle school (the worse years of my life). People often projected the stereotypes of Jamaican culture unto me, rather than getting to know me (like come on which 12 year old would actually be smoking weed). It got to the point where I’d be asked, “Say something in Jamaican” as if I was a record player ready to play at any instant. This question was both annoying and degrading because there is no such thing as Jamaican language, it is patios and furthermore, I cannot just couldn’t automatically speak patios on command without having a conversation. In both 7th and 8th grade, I got ridiculed for my accent and was called several degrading names which pushed me to want to cover up my accent. Though I was still tremendously proud of my culture, I was tired of getting pushed around and immediately stereotyped based on how I sounded, or how I pronounced words based on my education in British English. Yet even today, sometimes some words still cannot be covered by my “American Accent,” and people would stop me in mid sentence to ask where I was from. Why is it that I cannot just be an American who is cultured, why do I have to be from a specific place. Even today, I saw my Aunt who lives in Canada, and she says to her kids, “Did you hear the American Accent slipping out?”

    This I believe says so much about America culture, for they only appropriate the aspects of cultures they deem fit and throw out the parts that do not seem applicable, which often times is the best part of a culture. There is so much more to cultures that the stereotypes that have become associated with them, and I’d wish people would take time to get to know the person and not apply the preconceived notions of the stereotypes.

  5. It’s interesting how you connected the assumptions people make about your culture with the signs talked about in White Noise. In a sense, it’s more insidious. In White Noise, Jack took pride in the signs displaying his standing as a college professor, but what you describe is people applying signs to you based on their own assumption.
    That said I find it amazing that you are so self aware of your own accent – pinpointing when your speaking with an Indian accent and when you revert to an American one. My girlfriend is French and she has always said that for a long time after moving here she never thought she had a discernible accent and was surprised when people pointed it out to her. Similarly, I am originally from the Southwest, and while I certainly can claim to have dealt with anything like you describe, since moving to Rochester people occasionally ask me where I’m from based on my accent (one guy described hearing some salsa in my voice). I never have been able to discern it myself.
    It must be frustrating for people to feel pressure to hybridize their accent. It seems like it would inherently change your identity to a certain extent, furthering a sense of delocalization.

  6. I think this is a really cool way to explore how a sense of place effects us. This is something we never talked about, but definitely has a lot to do with media I think. It’s crazy to think that someone has been so affected by the media that they would view you/compare you to a TV character without even considering that might not be a good idea. It further proves how distanced we are from each other because of media. The way you tie in personal experience with what we learned in class is really powerful.

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