How Obviously Fake My British Accent Is

Michelle Lam.

I am a BBC, I’m not talking about The British Broadcasting Corporation, I am what they call a British Born Chinese. My parents are from Hong Kong but I was born on a small “Isle” called Thanet in the south east of England. I went to school, I had friends, I had hobbies and lived like most children. So this should be nothing out of the ordinary, we Chinese are expected to expand out of Asia, but for some reason it only hit me in 2006 that maybe growing up in Western society has made me less Chinese?

In 2006, I started a YouTube channel and after posting a silly sketch of me promoting cat food, I had accumulated thousands of views and just as many comments. What I found significant about this, was not the popularity of my videos, but the comments being made by random viewers. Many comments commented that they were amazed to see a Chinese girl with a “British accent” (if there is such a thing), while many others commented saying how obviously fake my so called British accent was. Some even arguing with each other about just how real my accent is, and how shallow the other person was being for not thinking a Chinese girl could even have a British accent…

Screenshots of comments from my videos, this is the first video I spoke in:

Comments on Cutiemish's "Whiskas Advert" on YouTube.

After my second video of me speaking, ‘just another message‘, the comments and views seemed to go crazy with more comments on my accent!

Comments on Cutiemish's "Just Another Message" on YouTube.

This triggered something in my mind that maybe growing up in a Western society hadn’t only given me a British accent but maybe also something much deeper!

Being Chinese with a strong British accent is a normal thing in England, just as a Chinese person from Scotland will have a Scottish accent, it varies in strength but most of the time no one notices. However, often people will judge me by my appearance and assume that I speak poor English, and make a smug attempt at communicating with me. Frequently they will open with what they think is an all-round top pronunciation… “neee howww” and I simply reply “I’m very well thank you”, they’d then look surprised, as if it’s not possible that I could know English! Then they will either ask me where I’m from… “coz u speek betta english dan me like” (as one loud ill-educated gentlemen once said to me) or they will just stare at me in shock and not know what to say as I walk away briskly.

Now you wouldn’t get this in Asia, and growing up it never crossed my mind that you wouldn’t, but this really became a problem when I went to university! I had always found it easy to make friends; I’m a friendly person with good morals, polite and am an all round normal person! Yet, for some bizarre reason, no one really spoke to me! Then, one drunken night two weeks into the university term, a very drunk man who I didn’t know and I had never spoken to before slurs at me, “do you know why no one speaks to you…? Do you know why no one speaks to you? Don’t mean to be rude but do you know why no one speaks to you!”. I looked at him in horror, how did he know my thoughts? Fortunately, his friend apologised to me for his friend’s behaviour… but the drunken friend continued… “it’s ’cause you’re Chinese! Everyone thinks you don’t speak English!”

This was an epiphany, “oh my gosh, you’re right!” I repeated to myself over and over again. Suddenly, it all made sense! He proceeded to repeat his words of wisdom, attempting every possible permutation of his original phrase. By now, I was too absorbed with this idea to listen to him babble… but he had raised an interesting point! I was unaware at the time, but my university actively encouraged international students, many of whom were from China, Japan and other Asian countries… So why does the fact that I look Oriental suggest that I can’t speak English! Perhaps people are scared that they’ll have problems trying to communicate with me? Obviously I’m slightly offended by this stereotype, and after the first year of university I had made no solid friends, so I decided to move to the big city, London.

London is very culturally diverse, and having made friends of all ethnicities, it’s a much happier time. Sure, I still get “nee how” (and sometimes even Konichiwa!) comments but there are always going to be those men who, no matter where you go, think they can impress you with their “wide” range of Chinese vocabulary! Losers. ;-)

So has this affected me? I think so. I’ve always grown up without thinking about my Chinese background, but from my experience at university, YouTube and strangers on the street talking to me, I find myself being reminded that I am Chinese. In reality, I don’t consider myself 100% Chinese. Yes, I suppose genetically I am, but I was brought up in England, my friends are all English, my surroundings, my environment all very British, so it’s not surprising that I’m fairly Western in my behaviour and way of thinking.

After all that I’ve said about being a Western girl, I do identify with my Hong Kong heritage, but this doesn’t reflect in my everyday life. Even simple things, such as the way I dress and the way I wear my make-up appear to be quite different to the Chinese girls I see in Hong Kong. I feel that I spend more time on my appearance and have chosen to steer my career path towards jobs in creative media, modelling and acting, while those who were born and bred in Hong Kong seem to put more time into studying and choose a career that requires more brain power (doctors, accountants and scientists). However, I’m only comparing myself as an individual and scratching the surface of the East and West where we know there’s a mixture in intelligence and vanity in both cultures.

My parents are very traditional, they wanted my brother (Andrew) and I to have the best start in life and tried to give us a wide range of opportunities. My mother even took us to a Christian Sunday school, simply for the experience! We had golf and piano lessons, and my brother took up guitar while I learnt ballet. We had Cantonese lessons as our mother-tongue is actually Hakka, and I feel I’ve been brought up with many Chinese traits. I honour my elders, I pay respect to Buddha and I eat with chopsticks! However, the one thing I cannot follow is their desire for me to have a Chinese boyfriend. I generally find Western people more aesthetically pleasing and easier to connect with. Put simply, I’m not going to hang around China Town waiting for a boyfriend! But hey, I’m helping to mix up the gene pool and keeping the rich diversity of this country alive!

There you have it, my views on being a little Chinese girl surrounded by British people and British culture. My Chinese appearance in such a culture doesn’t make me any more or less a person, I’m still a girl trying to make something of herself, living life to the full and hoping for a happy, love filled, prosperous life in the big city of London.

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