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Finding my voice

Confessions of a foreign-born journalist

Finding my voice

Tharakorn/iStock

I have a confession to make: As a print journalist, I prefer to hide behind written words. I like to sit behind a laptop and stick words on page, so that readers can read those words in their own minds with their own voices—not mine.

You see, I have a rather strong accent. It’s an accent that’s a mix of various intonations from my background as a Korean-born immigrant who spent 10 childhood years in Singapore and her high-school years in Virginia while attending a Chinese-speaking church. My accent is not Konglish (Korean-English) and it’s not quite Singlish (Singaporean-English); neither is it the mellow, drawling American, nor something cool and chic like British or South African.

In fact, I don’t think my accent has made up its mind on what it is. Sometimes it creates pronunciations as it goes, and when I’m tired or excited, three languages collide in my brain, which results in nothing intelligible tumbling out of my mouth. Indeed, my accent actually thickens whenever my emotion rumbles—which means when I’m really mad or sad or happy, few can understand me. Frankly, sometimes I can barely understand myself.

All this to say, I get nervous about speaking in public. I never feel more like a foreign-raised, naturalized citizen than when I hear myself speak on TV or on radio. As a college student, I noticed a clear distinction between the print journalism and broadcast journalism majors. The broadcast journalists love the camera, look and sound good on air, love hearing themselves talk. The print journalists, on the other hand, wear expressions of deep pain in front of the camera, and typically dress frumpier than the broadcasters.

Then one day, my big fear landed in my email inbox. A producer at C-SPAN’s morning call-in program, The Washington Journal, asked me if I would appear at their studio for a live interview about homelessness in Los Angeles. I took several days to respond, stuck in conflict between my desire to raise more awareness about an issue I cared about, and my anxieties over public speaking. Five days later, I emailed back and said yes—after all, times are changing and a well-rounded, cosmopolitan journalist can’t hide behind her MacBook forever.

When my all-American boyfriend found out about the upcoming interview, he painstakingly reminded me—several times actually—to avoid the words beach and sheet since the way I pronounce those two particular words make them sound vulgar. That was going to be tough for me, since a lot of the reporting I did on homelessness was at Venice Beach—how was I going to avoid that pit?

In the weirdest way, as soon as that incident happened, my anxieties and nerves melted away.

The day of doom arrived. That morning, I arrived at the studio at 6 a.m., having barely slept the night before. A make-up artist dabbed some beige under my eyes to cover up the bags, and before I was ready, I was sitting alone in a green room, staring at a giant blinking camera. I could hear the C-SPAN host through my earbuds but not see him. Someone had pasted a smiley face picture near the camera lens so I knew where to look, but I was so nervous that my eyeballs hopped all over the place—and remember, when I’m emotionally distraught, my accent congeals as thick as frozen lard.

The host asked me some questions, and I answered them with my mind screaming a pandemonium of languages, my eyeballs still zipping about, my tongue babbling, my voice frightened into a squeak. I didn’t even remember to smile, though somehow, praise God, I avoided the word beach. “What a disaster,” I remember thinking, “Oh Lord, please end this misery soon.” And then the host opened the line up to callers.

The first caller was a woman from Brooklyn. She said she saw a lot of homeless in her neighborhood, agreed it was a critical issue. Then she added, “Come on, C-SPAN. Ms. Lee seems lovely and all, but she should learn how to speak English better.” Before she could go on, the host immediately cut her off, apologized to me, and hastened over to the next caller.

In the weirdest way, as soon as that incident happened, my anxieties and nerves melted away. I should have been mortified. I should have been outraged. I should have kickstarted a movement called #AllAccentsMatter. But instead, I found the whole situation hilarious, and I had to bite the inside of my cheek not to laugh out loud. That woman’s remark lifted me out of my stiff, petrified body and knocked me back into the interview with humor in my bones. It was like the worst had happened and little else could faze me now. For the rest of the 30-minute interview, I was a lot calmer, and I hope more articulate.

I wish I can say that after that incident, I no longer feel self-conscious about my accent and just own it. I wish I can say a fresh zing of courage shot through me and I now conquer broadcast speaking with chutzpah, like some of my colleagues at WORLD. But I’m still very much a print journalist, and I’m glad you, dear reader, are reading this in your own mind, with your own voice—not mine.

Comments

  • Postmodern Redneck
    Posted: Mon, 02/05/2018 05:06 pm

    You're not alone, Sophia.  I have a friend here in Indianapolis who is ethnic Chinese, but spent her early years up to about 12 in Bangkok, Thailand.  Then her family immigrated to California.  Around the time she finished college she married an American boy from the Seattle area.  But in 2003 they moved to Indiana.  I suspect her accent is as much a hodge-podge as yours.  But she communicates well, and even runs her own business these days.  And she has plenty of American friends.  (BTW, her name is Sophia, too!)

  • JERRY RAINER
    Posted: Mon, 02/05/2018 05:24 pm

    Great article! Nothing eases the mind sometimes like your worst expectations becoming reality.  With all the pretention and lofty dreams shattered, we find that we can finally relax and be ourselves.  I can totally relate.

  • hawaiicharles
    Posted: Mon, 02/05/2018 07:55 pm

    I think I remember hearing you briefly on the "World and Everything In It" podcast once, and it was nice to hear what your voice sounds like.  I live in Hawaii and I have many friends (from various Asian countries) who speak English as a second language, so I can sort of identify with your fears.  I don't want to discourage you from appearing on camera again if God calls you to that, but I must say this: writing is definitely your strong suit.  Your command of English is absolutely stellar - better than lots of American-born people I know.  You write with a clarify and with such wonderful imagery, that it's no surprise it's your first love.  In a short time, you've become one of my favotire writers at World.

     

  • CRAIG ALEXANDER
    Posted: Mon, 02/05/2018 11:45 pm

    Sophia - found the Washington Journal interview on the net and listened to part of it.  You were Great!  You do have an accent but you are very articulate and well spoken.  Your command of the facts and figures on the homeless issue gives you a command of the language too!  God bless you!  Keep up the good work!  

  • Parfetfamily
    Posted: Tue, 02/06/2018 04:35 pm

    Sophia,

    You speak very clearly, (listening to interview now) even with an accent. Hopefully you will not worry about appearing on camera again in the future!

  • DWBrown
    Posted: Tue, 02/06/2018 08:44 pm

    I have always enjoyed reading your stories as well Sophia. It is impressive to me when people can speak more than one language. There is a 100% Mexican I know here in Georgia that married 100% American Georgia girl that is a nurse. They have two young sons and it is comical to look at and hear their boys talk. They look like a Mexican, but when they talk it is a 100% true Georgia accent. On speaking try this it has worked for me in public speaking. Develope a don't care attitude about how you look or sound, you have prepared best you can for the appearance and your looks and voice are what they are, Speak from the heart, people will listen and understand better when it comes from your heart.

  • Eric Bodin
    Posted: Fri, 02/09/2018 02:24 pm

    Sophia, 

    As an ESL Instructor at the University of Iowa, I work with a lot of graduate and undergraduate students who are building confidence and proficiency in English. I read your story and had to watch the interview that you were speaking about. I could tell that you were nervous, but who wouldn't be! I love your reaction - a gracious smile!! You survived the worst that could happen, then you were free to do your best. 

    For what it's worth, my assessment is that you don't have an English knowledge problem, but just a nerves problem. Obviously, your written proficiency is already better than 99%+ of English speakers. 

    I may bring some of your materials into my classroom for discussion. Your article on homelessness, your CSPAN interview, and your reflection on the interview provide good materials to discuss relevant issues, but also bring in a language component. 

    Thanks for your work!