“Get back on the boat,” is what they used to tell me. “Why do you speak like that?” is what they used to ask me. I was in the 5th grade and all I could remember was coming home every day and crying. For an 11 year old girl, acceptance is very important. To be scrutinized every day for a dialect I couldn’t control was almost unbearable. Both of my parents were born in Port of Spain, Trinidad. My brother and I were the first generation to be born in the United States. Growing up, my house WAS Trinidad. From the music, to the food, to the sing song accent. I knew I was American, but I loved my Trinidadian culture and I identified with it the most; largely because everyone I encountered up until middle school had a West Indian background as well. To this day, people still don’t believe I was born in Brooklyn, New York because my dialect is so strong. It was a badge of honor when I was younger because though I was born in the “states” it was the worst thing in the world to be called a “yankee”. I did my best to stay far away from any association with that name.
This was until middle school. I was picked on and laughed at almost every day for the way I spoke. I used proper English, but I just had an accent. I was a very strong reader when I was younger and I enjoyed volunteering to read out loud in class. The teasing got so bad to the point I stopped raising my hand to read because my classmates would complain about the immigrant always being chosen to read out loud with my funny voice.
In an attempt to assimilate, I begged my mother to get me a speech tutor. She did and I was taught how to say “three” instead of “tree”. I stopped saying “Whas de scene” and began saying “What’s up”. I shortened my vowels and even adjusted my voice to sound more “American”. The teasing decreased, but now instead of making fun of my accent, it was my love for soca and bright colors. It was even a struggle to subdue my accent because it was all I knew growing up and now I had to suppress it.
That same summer I went to Trinidad to visit my family and then it happened. My cousins called me the dreaded word…”yankee”. I was devastated to say the least. I immediately dashed away everything I learned from my speech tutor and reverted back to my sweet dialect. This, again, was not good enough. My cousins began to make fun of me for living in America and accused me of being a “fake Trini”.
As I got older I realized that I couldn’t please everyone. I could only be true to myself. I am an American/Trinidadian. Yes I speak with an accent, but it is just extra seasoning for the flavor of personality. Once I reached my senior year of high school, I no longer hid my accent and everyone started to call me “sexy Trini” and I loved it. I knew who I was and was proud of it. I articulated myself just as clear as the next person and I realized my accent only added to my personality. Today, my accent is one of the things my friends love about me. I’m the “Trini gyal” and every time they call me that I respond with a big smile.
Yes, I know how to turn it on and off, but it is no longer a struggle. Sometimes I sound like a “yankee” and sometimes I sound like a Trini. This is because both of these cultures make up who I am. I feel privileged to be able to share the richness of both cultures and I will NEVER be ashamed of either one again.