What Did You Say?

By Kushagra Gupta

Buttoning my jacket and clearing my throat, I took a deep breath and began, “Good morning, honorable chair and fellow delegates, the People’s Republic of China strongly believes…” The speech was interrupted when a couple of delegates nearby started giggling. I looked up at the Model United Nations committee. Everyone was staring at me with a puzzled look. A little surprised, I continued my opening statement. Their reaction made no sense. Whenever I talked, laughter, judgement, and confusion quickly crept through the room. When I realized the source, I was hurt and disappointed. 

When the airplane landed in Philadelphia two years ago, I was excited for a promising future. Getting up in the early dawn hours to witness Lebron James upset the Warriors dynasty and watching The Office on the weekends to understand Americans and more specifically Pennsylvania had finally paid off. I was ready for the American high school experience. While I was used to hearing American accents, I learned quickly that nobody here expected a teenager with an Indian accent or any different accent for that matter.

“What did you say?” “Can you repeat that?” “What’s that accent?” was the usual reaction to my words. One teacher heard “Hollywood” when I said “park.” As one of the best English speakers at my school in India, this unexpected turn of events was astonishing and hurtful. The endless judgement and confusion during the first few months took its toll. I became hesitant to do my favorite task — talk. 

Not being able to freely express my thoughts and ideas was stressful. The reluctance to speak out, stemming from my fear of judgment, stopped me from exploring new opportunities. I withdrew into myself until one day, I finally broke free of the mental confinement while watching Trevor Noah’s stand up comedy special, Pay Back The Funny. He said that an accent was not a measure of someone’s intellect: it was speaking the same language with different rules. With this  new perspective, I thought of two options: try mimicking an American accent like Priyanka Chopra, which seemed impractical without professional help, or continue speaking the way I had for fifteen years and ignore the jibes and ridicule. The latter was easier and much more realistic and to be honest, more true to who I am and all that I have achieved. Everyday I challenged myself to talk more. There were times when someone would mock me or put me in an embarrassing position, but I ignored it and focused on my goal, eventually returning to my talkative self. 

Being comfortable with my accent opened up opportunities in and beyond the classroom. By speaking up, reaching out, and engaging in conversations, I got more involved in activities. These activities offered me a chance to pursue my interests while evolving into an effective leader. When it was time to deliver my first Model UN campaign speech, I was not hesitant. Although it might have been difficult to understand for some, the message resonated clearly.

Sometimes I meet new people who are surprised when they hear me. I patiently handle the “what did you say?” and repeating myself is no longer burdensome. By letting go of the insecurity surrounding my accent, I learned something about myself and others: Most of us are stuck in a bubble among people with similar backgrounds, values, and thoughts. Due to the little interaction outside that home environment, we quickly judge people for their differences. During the last two years, I escaped my own bubble, and helped my peers escape theirs. For many high school students, college exposes them to such circumstances. With my experience, I will be ready to embrace diversity at a college community. 

My accent reminds me of my unique perspective and experiences living in two distinct parts of the world. It reminds me that I will always carry a part of my native land. And, it reminds me to never judge people for that which makes them different as we are all just trying to survive, albeit sometimes with different rules. When we judge, we limit everyone from moving forward and exploring amazing possibilities. As for the laughing squad, we eventually became friends. They even voted to pass my resolution and helped me win the best delegate award. So what did I say? I said, “I won.” 

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