Until I made the decision to quit debate in my junior year of high school, debate was my Thing. I was thrilled when I started the ninth grade because I was finally able to join the high school team. I spent the days I had practice getting home well past dark, I hardly saw friends on the weekends because I was competing in Pennsylvania or upstate New York or a New England city I hadn’t even heard of before, and I spent most of my free time reading philosophy that I am now mature enough to admit I did not quite understand.
I quit debate for many reasons. Some of these seem insignificant in retrospect, but other incidents still flit across my mind intermittently.
Your professional appearance as a debater, or lack thereof, is integral to how you’ll ultimately perform in a round. As with all situations, judges often make their first impression before anyone even opens their mouth; in addition, it is their right to take points off for what they may interpret as unprofessionality. In an attempt to avoid having points taken off for what I looked like, I tried everything I could to physically match up to my competitors who were, more often than not, male. I kept my hair short or I tied it up. I minimized the color in my wardrobe, even though putting on a dress suit in that same black/navy/gray variation everyone else had on made me feel like I had already signed my soul away to some money-making Midtown company. To add height to my 5-foot-4-inch frame, I wore heels to every tournament, even one that took place in the midst of a particularly brutal Boston winter, where the rounds were 20-minute walks apart and the snow came up to my knees and my teammates were holed up in some building I couldn’t locate.
But even given these efforts to ensure that I would stride into every debate round looking tall and presentable in my minimalist suits, what I could never seem to exert any real control over was my voice.
In theory, my voice should probably bother me to the extent that everyone else’s does. You know, you cringe when you hear a recording of yourself, but there’s nothing actually wrong with what you sound like. It’s just strange to hear yourself the way that everybody else does. Really, my voice is just high. And that fact seemed to counteract any of the precautions I took to avoid reminding the debate judges that I was not, in fact, a man. My voice would also take on the role of a consistent, insistent reminder to both my family and myself that there were irreconcilable differences in the ways we figured our ethnic identities—but that comes later.
An early round in my debating career comes to mind, in which I competed against someone less experienced than I was. I finished my last speech and took my seat with a satisfied flounce, knowing that I’d exposed every fallacy in my opponent’s arguments and bolstered my own case against their milquetoast rebuttals thoroughly. In short, I’d dropped the metaphorical mic and was now waiting eagerly to be rewarded for it in points. Had I realized that my opponent was new to debate? If I’m being honest, yes. Could I have taken it easier on them and still have won that round? Probably. But this was a competition and we were all taught to take advantage of our opponents’ weaknesses. It wasn’t personal; it’s what we were there to do. My biggest crime in that round was my confidence, but acting like you have it together is almost always necessary to convince the judge that you do indeed have it together.
So my jaw very nearly dropped when the judge told me that he was lowering my score because I had attacked my opponent too harshly. He remarked that I on the whole had been too aggressive and chastised me for not taking my opponent’s relative inexperience into account. I was too stunned to do anything more than nod mechanically at his comments. I’d never seen a man I debated against, a number of whom were obviously older and had been debating far longer than I was, have their confidence read as a negative aggression.
Variations of this happened many times, most often with judges who were parents and so were not as well-versed in the practices of debate. Another incident that rankled me took place about a year later, when the judge chose not to tell us his decision at the round’s end and instead left written comments for me that failed to give any substantive reason for why he selected my male opponent as the winner. Each such experience reminded me that I would have to not just avoid looking like a woman, but also keep as best as I could from sounding like one.
Of course, it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly would have made me more palatable as a debater from the judges’ perspectives. I suspect, though, that the pitch of my voice, which went up when I was speaking faster or was under pressure, didn’t help my case, quite literally. It was yet another way they were reminded that I wasn’t a man, that they could read the confidence and passion I expressed as hostility or aggression.
Thus was born what I like to think of as my debate voice. It’s significantly lower than my normal speaking register, and there’s also something flat about it. It’s been carefully crafted to prevent anyone from perceiving any unwanted tone or emotion that a judge could use to decide I was being less than serious or, on the flip side, too aggressive about my argument. And I hate it.
Go on, modulate your voice and talk for six minutes straight in it. Hell, try it for three, which was the shortest speech I’d have in a round. It wasn’t easy when I practiced reading my arguments aloud from the safety of my couch and it only became harder during a tournament, having hardly slept, attempting to decipher the scribbles I’d written about my opponent’s argument, while also trying to remember not to play with my hair or talk too much with my hands or fidget with my blazer.
When I took the time to think about it, I was incensed that along with the usual debating stresses of speaking as fast as one humanly could and justifying my position with philosophy I had relied on some webpage to distill, I also had to worry about not sounding like myself. I would bet that hardly any of the boys I debated against had to go through a similar rigmarole. Did they need to worry about appearing professional? Sure, but a well-knotted tie and ironed slacks took care of that for them. Once they’d checked themselves in the bathroom mirror, all they had to concern themselves with in a round was its actual content, a luxury I found myself never able to purchase.
By now, I’ve used this voice in a variety of situations: classrooms, interviews, really any time it feels like there’s something at stake and I have to convince someone that I am reasonable, cool-headed, and worthy to get what I want. My mother hates this development. She thinks the voice sounds arrogant and fake. I love my mother dearly and trust her judgment on most things, but I don’t know how to explain to her that, just like no one goes up to the cute stranger in lecture and asks them out to coffee, her advice in this regard is simply not going to cut in the very real, male-dominated profession I’m increasingly closer to entering. As hard as the voice may be to sustain, I have at least figured out a way to modulate my voice’s pitch and its tonal shifts.
I know that I shouldn’t have to engage in this performance in situations where there are academic or professional stakes. But I tell myself that at least this way I have some power over people’s perceptions of me; however ironic it may seem, I need to sound like this so I’ll be given a space where I can relax and take the opportunity to be myself. And in some ways, those thoughts are comforting.
But I become even more frustrated and helpless than I ever was in a debate round when I encounter situations from which I can’t extricate myself, in which I can exert almost no control over my voice. I inevitably run into this problem with my accent, which betrays me every time I lapse into Hindi and immediately give away that my first language is English. I wouldn’t have wanted for it to be any other way, but this fact earns me no capital with my extended family, who are not quite sure what to make of my hybrid identity and whether they should be proud of it.
As many children of immigrants know, every few weeks a phone is shoved at me with some aunty or grandparent or second-cousin on the other end who wants to know how college is going and what I plan to do with the rest of my life. I have it easier than most, though. I am conversationally fluent in Hindi, the first language of most of my family members, and so I’ve been able to have short, amiable conversations with them.
Or so I assumed until, in my later teens, I started to get comments about how embarrassingly American my Hindi sounded. I was warned when I went to India to keep quiet around vendors or they would charge us the prices they reserved for the foreigners.
“Well, what do you expect?” I want to ask sometimes. I thought the point of my parents emigrating was so that I would have the opportunity to be educated in the Western system, an opportunity for which I continue to be grateful. But even as I studied for the SATs and applied to seminars I really wasn’t qualified to take, was I also supposed to have developed a Hindi so authentic that it could fool even the vendor who bargains with tourists for a living?
And it felt impossible to take this as distinct from the not-so-subtle queries about whether there was a man in my life (no), whether he was Indian (really, he didn’t exist), and whether I would have a traditional ceremony when I got married (at this rate, I would have to ensure any potential spouse would be okay with eloping). It seemed that finally my life had gotten the Bollywood treatment, but instead of realizing that the love of my life was right in front of my eyes all along, I had to prove that I was not the secular Westernized floozy but the pure-hearted maiden, in touch with her culture. It might have made millions at the box office—indeed, this exact plot has launched the careers of multiple Bollywood actors—but it is not a narrative of which I have any desire to be part.
My younger brother’s Hindi, on the other hand, is limited to a handful of words. But, as with my male debating compatriots, I have never observed him being criticized for it. Nobody assumes that he should take the time away from his schoolwork to learn Hindi, nor that his inability to speak an authentic-sounding Hindi throws a wrench in his Indian-American identity. He talks to our relatives in English seemingly unselfconsciously, whereas I always seize up whenever the phone is offered to me, wondering in which language I should answer their questions about my classes and postgraduate plans or the lack of a man in my life to render me the more acceptable cousin, niece, granddaughter. Most often I choose standard English; I would rather be reprimanded for not trying than have my efforts made fun of.
It’s had other practical consequences, my unwillingness to speak Hindi in public knowing how inauthentic it sounds. I flirted with the idea of taking Hindi my first year at Columbia but gave up on it quickly. I still rely on half-accurate subtitles and song translations to understand a number of Bollywood movies because I only ever speak in Hindi to my mother, so I never encounter a vast swath of the language.
None of these consequences are damning. I’m not too angry about those debate rounds—I doubt any of them would have seriously altered the course of my life—and I certainly lost many others on justifiable and separate grounds. And I speak Hindi well enough to translate in an office setting. But the worry I can’t let go of is that, in my personal and professional life, I might look the part but I will never sound like I’m good enough.
I dream of days where my biggest problem with my voice is that I can’t reach all of Roger’s notes when I’m singing along to Rent. Sometimes I despise myself for all the performance I’ve engaged in. Because it must mean I agree with the gender binary and a particular view of Americanization, doesn’t it? I couldn’t say. Who knows what you would hear in my answer.
Have fun leafing through our seventh issue!