At university, he researched the phenomenon. When he asked people to listen to voice recordings of Asian-Australians and non-Asian Australians without any context, most were able to distinguish between the two. It was part of his undergraduate linguistics degree, so not definitive by any means, but he believed it pointed to the possibility that such an accent existed.
I didn’t quite know how to feel about it. I’d always thought that for those like me who don’t “look Australian,” a typical Australian accent is one of the best ways to prove that we belong. It says: Just like the rest of you, we probably know how to have a conversation about the footy and are well versed in throwing shrimps on the barbie (to be honest, I can do neither of those things). It says: We’ve sufficiently shed our foreignness, so please accept us into the mainstream. It is, admittedly, a very model-minority way of thinking.
“There’s this ingrained idea that the accent binds us together,” Baopu said. “So to say, no we don’t share the same accent, there’s something destabilizing about it.”
He had some hesitations when doing his research. What was the benefit in seeking out points of difference? Was he creating more possibility for division? I had similar misgivings when writing this — especially when Baopu didn’t recognize the Asian-Australian accent in the reality TV contestant I thought I’d heard it in.
We may hear accents where none exist because of the way someone looks, and it’s easy to venture into the realm of stereotyping, said Catherine Travis, a linguistics professor at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at the Australian National University.
Professor Travis has been studying modern Australian speech, and while her research so far hasn’t found anything like the type of accent Baopu and I were discussing, she said there was something notable about the way second-generation Chinese-Australians speak.
Australian English used to have a large class distinction — from something like your stereotypical Crocodile Dundee accent on one end to something resembling a posh British accent on the other. But that gap has narrowed in the last few decades, she said. There’s been a shift toward a more universal middle-class accent, and Chinese-Australians have been at the forefront, sometimes adopting new ways of speaking before the rest of the country catches up.