The Language that Betrays

We all shudder at the thought of the people of Judiasm having to walk around with yellow stars pinned to their lapels and numbers involuntarily tattooed on their arms. We don’t like to think about the time when black people had to drink from separate water fountains than white people. We don’t even like to acknowledge that purebred dogs are chosen over shelter animals because it gives evidence to a shallow inclination to place value on aesthetic rather than morality. And, unfortunately, this blatant discrimination hasn’t been limited throughout the years to mutts and Malamute’s, it is still alive today in the U.S.

In the short story “Accents”, Andrew Lam addresses the reality no one likes to face: immigrants have a harder time finding jobs, receiving help, and being treated as equals. We seem to give the most sympathy to teenagers. They’re just coming into their own in the world, they’re full of angst and confusion and those raging hormones that make them do silly things. It seems to uproot someone at this delicate stage in their life and thrust them into a new world is almost cruel. But who really has a harder time adjusting? The teenager will, at the least, work diligently to fit in, to assimilate. It is the adults that may have a harder time. Sure, teenagers have to put up with cruelty from other kids their age and their lives are in the most dramatic throes they may experience. What about the adults that not only have a responsibility to themselves to stay afloat in a foreign land, but have the children’s well-being to shoulder, too? It is this double responsibility that  makes finding a job  exponentially important.

Lam paints us a humble and tragic picture of this very struggle. He introduces us to his newly arrived uncle, Uncle Tho. Uncle Tho retained a thick hearty Chinese accent, but even as a young boy Lam knew it would not serve him well; he “knew that it was far harder to bend one’s tongue to accommodate the American ear than to assimilate” (113). Unfortunately, Uncle Tho could not overcome his accent and the community in which he lived never did either. He was, "not rejected for lacking qualifications of intelligence. It was his unruly tongue that gave his foreignness away, pronouncing him interminably alien and, unfortunately, unemployable” (113). Without ever finding a satisfying job, Uncle Tho eventually smoked and drank himself to death.

Centered around this tragedy, Lam uses “Accents” to explore varying degrees of discrimination, to touch on dire consequences, and to give us a peak into a struggle we may have never known of before.

Below: Watch a commercial for an "Accent Eliminating" course in which students are told by reducing their "foreign" accent they will: Get a better job, recieve the promotion they deserve, talk to customers, clients, and coworkers with ease, and improve their income, and social relationships.

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