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[ The Onus is on You to Understand My Accent ]

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash If you have lived in a region where the primary language is not your mother tongue, you must have had a moment like this: You pluck up all the encourage and answer a question in class; You try to present a new idea to your manager in a time crunch; You try to order from a menu filled with unfamiliar words, with a long line waiting behind you; The professor, classmates, manager and waiter, seeming confused, distracted or unattentive, ask you, with a varying level of politeness. “I’m not sure if I understand.” The immediate thoughts that come to your mind are: “It’s because I stuttered again.” “I wish my English were better.” “It must have been my accent — I need to enunciate better.” “It’s my fault.” But is it your fault? In my first two years in the US, I lived and breathed that belief — if I wasn’t being understood, it’s my fault — my accent, my grammar, my wordiness, my limited knowledge of cultural references. The longer I live here, the less I feel the onus is on me. Born and raised in China, I started to learn English in 7th grade, like most Chinese people of my generation. I spent lots of time learning English and it paid off. At the age of 19, I could pay my college tuition by tutoring TOEFL — a standardized test to measure the English proficiency of non-native speakers — at a language school. I won Best Delegate in Model United Nations Conferences with attendees from 30+ countries and English as the spoken language. I got promoted as one of the youngest managers at my first job, in a US company where English is the working language. I got a near-full scholarship for a top MBA program in the US and I have a GMAT of 770. The whole point of my shameless displaying trophies is that my English is good enough to get around, personally and professionally, both in the US and in China. Do I write in impeccable grammar? Of course not. You might have spotted 100 grammatical errors in this article by now; and that’s even after Google Doc did its diligent correction. Do I speak with an accent? YAS! 100%! I’m as happy with my Chinese accent as Sofia Vergara with her Colombian accent or Heidi Klum with her German one. My queen! But it took years for me to grow the confidence that I can hammer my message home perfectly even with a less-than-perfect English and a non American accent. Even though, along the way, I kept receiving comments, explicit or implicit, about my accent. Let me share two of such comments. Profiles of the people mentioned are tweaked for the purpose of anonymity.