After living in USA for a few months, I have come to the conclusion that having the right accent is the key to adapting and being accepted in a foreign country.
I had a great time during my USA work and travel after graduation and I realized one crucial element why I enjoyed it so much and “adapted” so well was because I was surrounded by many internationals who all speak with different accents. Although I was in the USA, but most of the participants in the program were internationals. Ironically, the American co-workers were the minority in the working program in USA then. In fact I think they have to adapt to our foreign accents, therefore you won’t feel the difference between us that starkly.
During my 3 month stint then, I was still in a sheltered environment where I meet the same few international faces on a daily basis. Plus, given the self-selection nature of those who would choose to take part in that program, it means that every participant, be it an international or an American, are into cross-cultural exchange.
This time round, I am no longer surrounded by internationals on a daily basis but I really have to try to blend in. But every time I speak, I will unwittingly but naturally speak with a Singaporean accent. Many a time, I feel that a fellow Chicagoan has to pause for a moment before understanding me, even though I might just be ordering a simple food. And this will naturally make me feel self-conscious after a while.
From my observation, a different accent is the determining factor in deciding whether one can blend in seamlessly into a new environment. Even for those mega ang moh pai, try as they might, it is quite impossible to speak with a different accent from the one you grew up with, and this will naturally brand you as “different” no matter how hard you try to blend in. In an environment where everyone speaks with the same accent, it is very jarring when you suddenly hear a different accent. Even for myself, I also feel slightly “surprised” every time I hear myself speak in an all-American setting, because I never knew my accent could sound so different to my own ears. In fact, I am not even considered one with a strong Singaporean accent back in Singapore.
I have seen other internationals blending in well with Americans, and more often than not, these are the people who managed to switch accents well. I have also observed internationals who have been living in USA for over 10 years, but who still appeared a bit “off” when interacting with fellow Americans. After some pondering, I realized the “off” part is in the accent, cos some people can’t seem to be able to get rid of the foreign accent.Therefore I don’t think ethnicity or nationality is what that brands people differently, or affect their ability to be accepted fully, but rather accent.