Saturday, 9 February 2013

Which Accent?

Piccadilly Circus

I emerged from the underground station of Piccadilly Circus slightly fazed and for a moment stood briefly transfixed by the urban scene that was before my eyes. Behind me, a lone building is mounted up with a collage of advertising hoardings in bright neon lights, London’s version of the NY Times Square. On the other side of the boulevard, a fountain was erected with the statue of the Greek god Anteros, popularly mistaken for his brother Eros. The buildings on each side of the intersection features theatre houses, shopping centres and fine restaurants catering mostly to tourists who flock in thousands at any time of the year.

But on that cold January morning, I wasn't there for sight-seeing. An unfortunate incident in Budapest last year has left John and me stranded in Central Europe without a passport. An emergency one was issued but only for a year and after months of putting it off, I finally had to renew.

I haven't been to the capital for more than a year and I easily forgot what it was like. From where I stood, an overwhelming flurry of movement rushed past me in every direction - a carnival of sorts - of cars, busses and delivery vans; of businessmen, tourists and lunchtime shoppers. They all seemed to have a clear idea of where they were going and an urgent need to get there, oblivious to the heavy snow that was starting to fall (although this being London, it never quite settled on the ground).

I started to move off and crossed the street at the traffic lights, following Haymarket Street just before it slants to the left and entered Suffolk Place which leads to a line of impressive Regency period terrace buildings that boasts of a painted stucco façade, wrought iron balconies and bow windows. This is Suffolk Street, an expensive neighbourhood in the Westminster area and home of the Philippine Embassy in Britain.

The Philippine flag, hoisted from the middle of the four dramatic columns above the main entryway, beckoned me in. It was still 15 minutes before the embassy opens for the afternoon but the waiting area was already packed and noisy. I picked a number (33) from the door and prepared for the long wait.

Unlike the heavily guarded British embassies around Europe with intimidating officials and very quiet rooms, my national embassy felt somewhat cozy. In a city where people tend to occupy their own spaces and went inside themselves on public places, it was a refreshing experience to see how Filipinos manage to break free from this culture when they find themselves in the company of their fellow countrymen. Acquaintances were made on that waiting room, the national language and occasional English  some with very recognisable Filipino accent was spoken.

I haven't heard my first language spoken by a large group of people for a long time. British cultural integration meant mixing with peoples of different ethnic origins who have made this country their home and thus there was absolutely no need to become a part of a Filipino community (my husband would heave a sigh of relief on that). But having been able to socialise with individuals from different tongues, I have learned to pick a person's origin from their accent and in Britain, there is nothing 'racist' about it as some Facebook statuses have accused. In fact, the British themselves are rather proud of their regional accents - Cockney in London, Scouse in Liverpool, Geordie in Tyneside, Brummie in Birmingham and Scottish English amongst others. John occasionally slips into the Yorkshire accent himself.

Although the British are not particularly patriotic, an ideal that to them seems rather vulgar and should be limited to the waving of the Union Jack during royal celebrations (which very few people participate in), there is a very strong sense of regionalism here. People are proud of their local colour - their provincial customs, history and landscape - and these regional differences are happily celebrated. But it isn't just the British. Other non-native speakers of the English language have their own accents that tend to carry over the intonation and phonemic inventory from their mother tongue into their English accent. These accents speak of their origins and they are proud of it.

After three years of living in Sheffield, I have come to appreciate the blend of cultures that mix harmoniously in this country. In this politically correct society still tormented by its dark history, an accusation of racial discrimination is a serious one met with harsh consequences. Laws are set-up to promote equality and efforts are made to reduce racial and other discrimination. And while there remains allegations of racial divide linked to crimes, I have never been subjected to this nor have heard of any reported incident within my community. There would of course be the occasional banter involving one's origin, but this should be distinguished from that dirty word: racism.

My visit to the Philippine Embassy lasted for more than two hours because despite the queuing system, groups can actually approach the counter at the same time and those picking up passports or documents need not go on the queue. But perhaps the biggest inconvenience was the fact that the system does not seem to be capable of cross-referencing records thus the need for individuals to check that all details typed by the staff are correct. This probably explains why a postal service is not an option. It was very typical of a Filipino public service, if I am allowed to complain and on an age where customer service feedbacks are the norms, there was a deeply felt absence of such a questionnaire.

It was still an interesting afternoon nonetheless, where I became privy to the lives of other Filipinos who are happy to share their life traumas and accomplishments. For a moment, it did feel like I was back in my own nation's soil. But when I left the building for what might be the very last time and stepped back into the British soil, I also felt relief. 

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