One of these days I’ll have to run a survey on how those of us who speak a LOTE (Language Other Than English) at home are asked about our “accents”. When I moved to Sydney nearly 12 years ago, the potential racist or bigoted undercurrents of some people’s curiosity didn’t quite register. I was busy trying to become someone in a new country, and many of those nuances somehow I couldn’t recognise. Until of course one day the penny dropped: some Australian-born people are immensely suss of some foreign accents some of the time (to express it in a statistician’s lingo).

One day I happened to be queuing up at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre Café waiting to be served, when a middle-aged Anglo lady noticed my “accent” and asked the seven-million-dollar question.

‘Where’s that accent from?’ (the word that was meaningfully prominent in a falling-rising intonation contour)

Two things became very evident here: a) I had suddenly ceased being a human being and turned into an accent. b) It was displeasing to the lady’s pristine ears.

What did I say? I gave a straightforward answer, and got a very supercilious comment on how she didn’t like Buenos Aires when she stayed there for barely 72 hours, that the city was a rip-off for what it was (as if I were to blame) and that the liked Santiago better (there’s no accounting for tastes). I was more than glad to secure my flat white and walk in the direction of my favourite table, which luckily was available and far enough from where this lady ended up parking her derriere.

The following weekend, I discussed my exchanged with Ms Where’s-That-Accent-From in the company of my two besties. Juliet, who is English-born, said, ‘People avoid asking a question about your country of origin, and they inquire about your accent as a way of being less direct.’

Maria, my other friend, who is of Greek origin, nodded.

‘But what  if I object?’ was my question. ‘At the end of the day, multicultural relations are about not making people uncomfortable. There are questions that betray immense bigotry,’ I said, and left it at that.

It’s true that more often than not it isn’t what‘s said, but how it’s said.

Two weeks after that, I popped in at a fitness fashion store to buy myself a pair of yoga pants. After having a nice chat with the employees, one of them asked me, ‘What’s your background?’

I replied ‘I’m an Argentinian-born Australian’ with indescribable gusto, and congratulated the young lady on her nicely framed question. Then I proceeded to tell her about my conversation at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre Café. She shook her head and said, ‘I’m Australian born, but my mum is French. I thought you might be French because you speak English like my mum. Regarding that lady’s attitude, I don’t think that’s very nice.’

I paid for my purchase and left the store, feeling that we can learn a thing or two from millennials. They’re a lot less hung up on the way they experience life, and they’re very accustomed to people from different corners of the Earth. Some of them have travelled and learned a lot along the way. Maybe their parents weren’t as lucky. Besides, in the shop assistant’s case, her mum was born overseas and English wasn’t her (the mum’s) first language.

The way I’d inquire into someone’s background, accent or nationality would be as follows:

  • What’s your background?
  • Where do you come from?
  • And of course, how about the tried and tested ‘Where are you from?’

You bet I don’t ask such a question from a position of cultural superiority. If I did, I’d be wiping out a lifetime of linguistic work in which different accents were acknowledged and celebrated.

Still, I think I may have to set up that survey and invite my students to participate. The University of Sydney has a number of international students and they will surely offer an insight into how to ask someone about their origin based on their accent. Curiosity is a worthy human gift, but bigotry is at the heart of what’s mean in human societies.

“Where’s that accent from?”
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