I recently came back from Northern England. It was Liverpool, to be exact. The regional accent in Liverpool, ‘Scouse’, is considered one of the most distinctive English accents. I have always been fascinated by the many accents in the English language — how it separates cultural and socio-economic groups, which sometimes, leads to cultural stereotypes. While I was in Liverpool, an English friend of mine started to dissect my accent.
‘I can only hear Australian accent,’ Mike said.
The broad Australian accent, which I don’t think I have, is often frown upon in England.
‘I’m not sure how I feel about that,’ I awkwardly smiled.
I have mixed feelings about this comment. Part of me hopes that my British-colonial education in Pre-1997 Hong Kong would leave some trace; but the other part of me is glad he picked up on my Aussie accent. After all, the accent is something that I have been trying to master in the past nine years.
He had no idea how genuine my response actually was.
‘Oh wait,’ he continued, ‘I could hear a little bit of English… Hmm… “Proper” English. Just a little.’
There was a moment of joy in my heart.
‘Ah! You know what — actually — you have a rather universal accent… Universal. That’s it,’ Mike concluded.
Another failed attempt to belong, I thought to myself. While Mike was probably being more accurate than my heart could ever be on the issues of my identity, it was an unsettling fact.
Fast-tracked six weeks after our conversation, I had, by that point, adopted a few Northern English phases and subconsciously thinking in a weird mix of Aussie, Scouse and Irish accents.
My friend Mike, on the other hand, after knowing me for six weeks, had declared that I was, indeed, ‘very Australian‘. It was probably the partying that gave him such impression — I had very little problem with it. In my mind I was slowly adapting to the English culture, while in Mike’s, I was becoming more Australian the longer I was away from home.
It was no surprise to me.
These continuous conflicts between the few identities that reside inside me have always been more apparent when I am in a foreign country. A girl from Hong Kong disguising herself as Australian, a Melbourian artist uncomfortably examining her own identity crisis in her work, a non-native English speaker adopting local dialects wherever she goes… My identity crisis intensifies whenever I travel, particularly when I am being confronted by a foreigner who barely speaks English, ‘no no no… But where are you from?’
It doesn’t matter how Australian I feel. They are never satisfied with the answer ‘Australia’.
But perhaps neither am I.
After all, I have based my research-led art practice on the idea of belonging and identity, hoping that I would eventually become more comfortable with my identity being ambiguous, transient, transformative. It is the conflict between my many identities that I find unsettling yet utterly fascinating: that tension between the fundamental need to belong and the resistance against cultural complacency that makes us unique — however you might like to define the word ‘us’.
My friend Mike’s observation of my ‘Australianness’, might have very little to do with how my sense of identity, despite all efforts, is in constant flux of change. It does portray how it is to be in between cultures, to be in a unique place that is constantly being negotiated — mostly amongst ourselves. Perhaps it is my evolving ‘universal’ accent that defines my undefined identity.
But whatever I sound like, I hope my voice still resonates.