10/16/2014 02:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

On Having an Accent in America

Below is an excerpt from "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres" published in 2010. I have an accent still, somewhere between San Francisco and Saigon. You can hear it here in an NPR's commentary.

Uncle Tho, my father's older brother, was a studious man. He arrived to America from Vietnam at the age of 44 but nevertheless he struggled to re-educate himself. He went to school nightly, got a BA, then through Herculean effort, graduated from law school. But that was when things started to fall apart for him.

Uncle Tho's accent was so thick that none of his interviews proved fruitful. No one wanted to hire him, not even as a paralegal. After a dozen interviews or so, he gave up. 'Listen, get rid of any slight suggestion of an accent,' he would tell me bitterly. 'Americans turn a deaf ear to foreign accents. You'll never get anywhere fast if you sound like a foreigner.'


I already knew as much. Though I was pre-puberty when I came here, whenever I get nervous, my accent thickens. It's as if I am back in my seventh grade English class and forced to read a passage from some book out loud. I can still hear the snickering from my classmates as I stumbled over difficult passages, not understanding a word.

So I practiced and practiced and practiced. Every morning in the shower as I got ready for school, I would open my mouth and annunciate certain words learned the day before and listen to their vibrations. "Business," I would pronounce. "Stress!" I would shout. "Necessary!" I could almost see the words with their sharp edges and round arches taking shape in the steamy air. I would try my best to rule over them.

But I also knew that it was far harder to bend one's tongue to accommodate the American ear than to assimilate. Americans prefer certain accents and cringe at others. Speak with a British accent and you are stereotyped with elegance. Speak with a Chinese accent, or a Vietnamese accent, and you are placed by the collective imagination in a restaurant or a nail salon.

My uncle, for instance, was not hired for lack of qualification nor sheer intelligence. It was his unruly tongue that gave his foreignness away, pronouncing him interminably alien and, unfortunately, unemployable.

Uncle Tho never found a satisfying job. After awhile, he resorted to working in his wife's grocery store in the Mission district in San Francisco and smoked and drank himself to death. He had believed in the American dream, but its golden door was shut on him at the last minute. On his deathbed, ravaged by throat cancer, Uncle Tho whispered inaudible words and gasped for air.


The author and his cousin in Daly City, California, circa 1976.

It's been more than two decades now since he passed away, but I think of him sometime at cocktail parties or conferences. I try to enunciate my words carefully, masking my foreignness with my Californian accent. In the back of my mind, I hear Uncle's warnings, "Speak like Connie Chung, the tv anchorwoman, and you're OK. Talk like me and you end up running a grocery store."

Then the other day, I took a friend to a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco and the waiter, newly arrived from Hong Kong, told us to take the table to the night, having failed to enunciate the R in the word 'right.' "Sure," my friend snickered, "and we'll probably stay till morning."

A funny retort, surely, but I thought of Uncle Tho on his deathbed and I was suddenly overwhelmed by an intense sadness. "Cindy," I whispered to her, "listen, I have something to tell you." "Yeah?" said Cindy as she leaned over and combed back her golden hair, ready to hear me divulge my secrets. But I had nothing say. Instead, I did something that left us both in shock. I leaned over, stuck out my tongue, and swiftly licked her ear.

Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres." His latest book is "Birds of Paradise Lost," a short story collection, was published in 2013 and won a Pen/Josephine Miles Literary Award in 2014.