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August 1, 2014 11:03 AM   Subscribe

"No wonder we react so viscerally to the 'ching-chong, ching-chong' schoolyard taunt. To attack our language, our ability to sound 'normal,' is to attack our ability to be normal. It's to attack everything we've worked for." An essay by Arthur Chu on feigning a Chinese accent for work and ridding oneself of an accent for life.

Linked in the essay, also from Codeswitch: How "Ching-Chong" Became The Go-To Slur For Mocking East Asians.
posted by Errant (54 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ha, I love his byline:

. . . he somehow captured national attention for becoming an 11-time Jeopardy! champion in March 2014 and is now shamelessly extending his presence in the national spotlight by all available means.

I liked this guy when he was a contestant, and props to him for his willingness to take on the complicated racial issues that were an undeniable* part of the weird anti-Chu phenomenon.

*not calling you, person who did not enjoy watching Chu on TV, a racist, just saying that there were racial tones throughout the whole thing
posted by Think_Long at 11:13 AM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


The YouTube clip he mentions sounds pretty damn racist.
posted by maryr at 11:14 AM on August 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


That was a terrific piece. He's really rolling around a lot of ideas fluidly: what accent says about race, about fitting in, about education, about region. I'm fortunate not to have to face racism for my accent (Southern US), but it does seem to influence how people see me in terms of class and education.

I remember that backlash against him. A lot of it was nakedly racist, yeah. Pronunciation flubs from a life of self-learning via books aside, he speaks with a clearer more classic standard Midwest American accent than I do.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:16 AM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


And suddenly I realized my dad's Chinese accent and the ranger's Canadian accent were too far apart from each other to be mutually intelligible.

I've had something similar occur - in college, we sometimes needed an interpreter between a Cambridge exchange student's thick, not commonly televised York accent (even native American English speakers had trouble with it at times) and another student's Tex-Mexican accent (who Americans had no trouble understanding, but whose Spanish accent was not usually seen on TV). I think we may have mediated between the Canadian Ukrainian and the exchange student as well.

The following year's Cantabrigian spoke perfect BBC English and everyone had seen enough PBS to understand him perfectly.
posted by maryr at 11:19 AM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


Is it Arthur Chu week on Metafilter? And has he always been everywhere or is it just a post-Jeopardy thing?
posted by Clustercuss at 11:23 AM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


His essays have been terrific. His piece on gender and nerd culture was superb, and this is just the perfect presentation of complicated ideas about how race and language contributes to -- or blocks participation in -- American identity.
posted by maxsparber at 11:23 AM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


Whoops. Wrong link. I mean this one.
posted by maxsparber at 11:26 AM on August 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


I didn't even realize that he was the one who wrote that CAH piece. Good for him.
posted by Think_Long at 11:26 AM on August 1, 2014


Most Chinese-Americans have a pitch-perfect "invisible" accent for wherever they live.

This is so true. One of my friends in college was a Chinese-American girl from Mississippi. She had the thickest drawl you have ever heard in your life - there was no mistaking her accent. And yet idiots would ask her where she was from.

For me the thing that rings true as well is the issue with over-correcting that comes from knowing the assumption is that your people speak incorrectly. I haven't been able to scrub the hill drawl from my speech unless I'm trying really hard. And then I try too hard and end up with the Robot American sound that Chu references in his essay. But people take the Robot American voice a little more seriously than they do the woman who pronounces hound with three syllables.

It must be infinitely more frustrating to get it both ways - people expect you to speak in a certain way to stereotype you, then ding you when you don't.
posted by winna at 11:28 AM on August 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


if someone goes 'Ching Chong', I'm like, You're just being stupid

My feelings exactly since 1969, when the girls in the back of the schoolbus erupted with this and guffaws of laughter when they spotted an Asian. It was ninth grade, and they wouldn't have processed my rebuke had I verbalized it, but I thought "Have you never heard any Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese? People speaking those languages don't sound like they're saying 'ching-chong' to me. WTF?" We were suburban DC kids, supposedly cosmopolitan, but not everybody was, I realized. Thanks for the enlightenment about the source, provided by that second link.
posted by Rash at 11:29 AM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


Pronunciation flubs from a life of self-learning via books aside

The autodidact's curse.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:30 AM on August 1, 2014 [15 favorites]


The YouTube clip he mentions sounds pretty damn racist.

I thought, with this AskMe in mind, and my own mispronunciations in mind of looking for this video, and then realised what message that would send, so decided against it.
posted by ambrosen at 11:31 AM on August 1, 2014


I feel a bit weird commenting on these posts about accents because white privilege definitely impacts my experience in this area quite a bit. I started life with what I assume was a Yorkshire accent, which I determinedly lost in the first few years of school (I grew up in the US) in an attempt to gain acceptance. (They still didn't like me. But they did mostly stop making fun of the way I talked.) I'm moving in two weeks and this entails making a lot of phone calls and I've realised that I'm code-switching on the phone to some sort of simulacrum of a "real" American. It's a really bizarre feeling now that I've realised I'm doing it--every time I hang up the phone it's like reverting to myself.
posted by hoyland at 11:31 AM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


One of my favorite stories is when a woman outside a bar in Seattle said to me, "Your English is really good, how long have you lived here?"

I said, "Well, let's see. I'm 31, so...31 years."

She said, "Oh. Well, welcome to America!"
posted by Errant at 11:31 AM on August 1, 2014 [70 favorites]


I never really thought much about the whole "ching chong" thing because I'd never heard it growing up in the Bay Area. After moving to Philly, this stupid phrase has been shouted at me more times than I can count. It's ridiculous.
posted by extramundane at 11:34 AM on August 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


Why does NPR have blogs without audio?
posted by smackfu at 11:39 AM on August 1, 2014


Nearly every Chinese immigrant I've met does, in fact, "talk like that," because it's almost impossible not to have a thick accent when your first language is as fundamentally phonetically different from English as Mandarin or Cantonese is.

well, there are many Chinese immigrants to the US who don't speak Chinese as a first language. Mine is UK English for instance. I'm nitpicking there but the article doesn't distinguish enough between culture and genetic ethnicity for my comfort.

Both my parents lived in the UK for decades in jobs which required them to speak English. They still have strong accents and relatively poor English and much prefer to speak Chinese, but I have never ever heard them say the l's in an English word like "hello" as "r"'s . I was baffled when I first came across that stereotype as a young kid.
posted by Bwithh at 11:40 AM on August 1, 2014


There was a fascinating NPR piece that related to this a year or two ago, but I can't remember enough details to pull it from the Google. The gist of it was (probable botched details, but the gist is solid), there was a lovely young up-and-coming country singer from Texas who was raising eyebrows and catching hackles because she was Asian-American. She tried to be kind about it, but her friend and touring partner, another country singer who was a white woman from Detroit was intensely frustrated. "You're complaining about her? She's been here her whole life, she was raised with this music. I'm a carpetbagger from Detroit and you have a problem with her and not me?"
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:44 AM on August 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


I'm nitpicking there but the article doesn't distinguish enough between culture and genetic ethnicity for my comfort.

I think he's meaning "Chinese immigrant" as in "immigrant from China". You would be a British immigrant as you have come from the UK.

but I have never ever heard them say the l's in an English word like "hello" as "r"'s

It's racists confusing Chinese with Japanese, who do have the l/r issue when speaking English.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:45 AM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


"It's racists confusing Chinese with Japanese, who do have the l/r issue when speaking English."

Uhm, not it's not. Cantonese people do it too. Also it's not a mixup of Ls and Rs as much as it's a sound that sounds like both. If I remember correctly, it involves putting the tip of your tongue up against your upper palate and making a "D" sound. it creates a sound halfway between L and R.
posted by I-baLL at 11:51 AM on August 1, 2014


Eh, but the mixup does actually happen sometimes when new English speakers (or people who are trying to improve their pronunciation) do try to do one sound and another sound comes out because the tongue is in the wrong place.
posted by I-baLL at 11:53 AM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


TangentAlert! (Tm)
I get uncomfortable with a narration having a "Chinese accent" just to give "color," so to speak, to a video set in China, but it's no different in spirit than having a Southern-accented narrator for a video set in Texas.

I blame that monster Ken Burns. After The Civil War documentary every documentary -everything, really- forced ridiculous accents on their voice overs. (The voice overs in the Civil War documentary were mostly authentic and acceptable IMO.)

Such that a documentary on Beethoven had the voice over reading from his diary in a forced "German" accent. Wtf. That's kind of unctuous as a technique, if unfortunately effective.

For those scoring at home, this is the tragic flaw to House of Cards. Spacey's North Carolina (?) accent ruins everything.

Don't even get me started on Keanu's British "accent"
posted by petebest at 11:55 AM on August 1, 2014


Thanks for posting this, Errant. I know Arthur a bit and I'm excited every time I see his stuff linked on the blue. I'm consistently impressed by his pieces, and this one is no exception. Accents are such a tricky issue. I can't even imagine how frustrating it must be to have everyone constantly judge you based on how you speak, regardless of whether you conform to their stereotypes or don't. Heck, I'm about as accentless as they come and I still viscerally remember the times people have corrected or made fun of my pronunciation and I wince on the inside whenever I have to say those words.
posted by ferret branca at 11:57 AM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's racists confusing Chinese with Japanese, who do have the l/r issue when speaking English.

Except not really. Japanese contains a consonant sound that doesn't exist in English. It's kind of like R, and kind of L, but not the same as either. For the sake of simplicity, it gets transliterated into English as R when using the most common transliteration systems, but there are some obscure systems that use L instead. And some people, such as legendary comics creator Leiji Matsumoto, just prefer it.

Anyway, every natively-Japanese-speaking English-speaking person I've ever met has pronounced the English R and L sounds with no difficulty whatsoever. The only time I've ever seen the sounds get actually confused is when a person tries to pronounce an English word they've only ever seen written in katakana, tries to guess which consonant belongs there, and gets it wrong.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:57 AM on August 1, 2014 [6 favorites]


Hoyland: similar situation to yours.
I can empathize, though my position is more privileged also (white middle class). I was raised in the UK (Berkshire), and so my natural preferred accent is a lower class home counties accent. But my family moved to the USA when I was eight. I received a good deal of teasing for my accent, and people think that I'm 'putting on airs' or being pretentious for speaking in a manner that feels natural and comfortable. So when I'm sounding 'unpretentious' to my American neighbors by adopting a Californian accent, I'm actually being inauthentic. And when I just speak with the natural accent of my voice, then, suddenly, 'I'm pretentious'.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 12:00 PM on August 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


I'm nitpicking there but the article doesn't distinguish enough between culture and genetic ethnicity for my comfort.

Damn, this may be off topic, but our language doesn't distinguish enough between culture and genetic ethnicity for my comfort. He does clearly mean "Chinese immigrant" as in "immigrant from China," but the grammatical function of "Chinese" as an adjective in English does mean that it could be either, and so there's this gray area that seems to justify people throwing up their hands and saying "Well, what's the difference, anyway!"

I think it is a beautiful thing that "Chinese American" is inclusive of immigrants as well as those who have been here for five generations, but the downside is that I haven't found a more precise and elegant way to say "Yeah, he's Chinese... Chinese American... no, I mean, he was born here." And you cannot specify ethnicity alone without reference to nationality, except with a clumsy construction like "of Chinese descent." Blah.
posted by sunset in snow country at 12:02 PM on August 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


Anyway, every natively-Japanese-speaking English-speaking person I've ever met has pronounced the English R and L sounds with no difficulty whatsoever.

Right, but it's a very common mistake for non-native Japanese English speakers. Obviously native speakers are going to speak...natively. It's non-native speakers like my fiancee who have this issue.

Chu says he did the l/r thing when putting on a "Chinese accent" for a video; I think the American expectation of that being an "Asian accent thing" is due to confusion between Japanese and Chinese.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:05 PM on August 1, 2014


"I think the American expectation of that being an "Asian accent thing" is due to confusion between Japanese and Chinese."

Except it's also present in Cantonese (why are we treating "Chinese" as a single language?).
posted by I-baLL at 12:13 PM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


DirtyOldTown:
...there was a lovely young up-and-coming country singer from Texas who was raising eyebrows and catching hackles because she was Asian-American.

Are you perhaps thinking about Arden Cho? She's the only Asian-American artist I can recall who has a country-ish sound, and she is from the Texas. I don't know if she's doing another album, but she seems to be doing all right--she's currently acting in Teen Wolf.

edit: s/Tween/Teen.

(There's also another band called Run River Run that I recall, but it's a few people in it, which leads me to think Ms Cho is the one you might be referring to.)
posted by qcubed at 12:16 PM on August 1, 2014


Right, but it's a very common mistake for non-native Japanese English speakers. Obviously native speakers are going to speak...natively. It's non-native speakers like my fiancee who have this issue.

First, I don't think you're parsing Faint of Butt correctly here--natively-speaking is modifying "Japanese", not "English".

And I agree with him that I haven't observed it as being a "common mistake" among Japanese or Chinese speakers with English as a foreign language. I can count on one hand the number of times I've observed it, and I grew up in places with large Asian-American and Asian immigrant populations. (Even when I have observed it, it wasn't something that was consistent throughout someone's entire mode of speech--for example, I knew a Chinese chemistry professor who had no problems with it, except for in acronyms.)
posted by kagredon at 12:30 PM on August 1, 2014


Regarding the whole R/L thing--that's always bugged me. I can't speak for Chinese, really, but Japanese has a sound that isn't really replicable in English; the closest thing I can think of is maybe almost like the German 'r'-flap, which also kinda appears in Korean too, except in Korean, you have the positioning changing whether it's more r-like or l-like; syllable-initial, it's more r; syllable-terminal, it's more l. They can distinguish them, and most with practice can definitely say them.

Either way, the fake accent is lazy and obnoxious.

Especially for me--I was born and raised in Atlanta, yet I cannot fake a Southern accent to save my life; I have the very neutral Midwestern accent, from my youth where I was only allowed to watch Tom Brokaw and PBS. I kinda ended up just running with it, even if it sounds too robotic and perfect, though I do tend to adopt regionalisms, if not accents: calling it coke, for instance, not "pop", which is wrong; asking if people want to "come with", etc...
posted by qcubed at 12:32 PM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


I recently read a news item from China that said it occurred in the city of Chong Ching. I was certain that it was filler copy that was never replaced but it is indeed a real city, although more commonly transliterated as Chongqing.
posted by gngstrMNKY at 12:49 PM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


Doesn't the ear lose the ability to distinguish between unexperienced sounds with age? By age 10 or so, if a sound is never heard, it becomes much harder to distinguish from sounds that are part of the the user's phonetic alphabet. With English being taught in Asian schools, it's unlikely that people who did not miss out on education would have this l/r issue.
posted by halifix at 1:03 PM on August 1, 2014


When I hear racial slurs, I'm somewhat glad that the person is loudly advertising their ignorance and bigotry; sometimes it can take quite a bit of time to determine a person is a bigot (and that you don't want to waste your time with them).

On the other hand my danger!danger! alerts go off, as someone comfortable verbalizing racial slurs (particularly in public places) may be capable of some racist (or non-racist) violence as well, so extreme caution is warranted as i back the fuck away.
posted by el io at 2:01 PM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


but the downside is that I haven't found a more precise and elegant way to say "Yeah, he's Chinese... Chinese American... no, I mean, he was born here."

Isn't this idea captured by "American-born Chinese" (ie, ABC)?
posted by MikeKD at 2:27 PM on August 1, 2014


Doesn't the ear lose the ability to distinguish between unexperienced sounds with age?

Yes. In simplified terms: Sounds in a language are not actually discrete, physical realities. When we say that a language has an "r" sound, we are talking about a psychological abstraction. Each individual utterance of "r" is unique, but we group these physically different sounds into a single category because the differences are not relevant.

As we acquire our first language, we learn to attend to the differences that are relevant and discard the ones that aren't. We acquire what is called categorical perception. Since each languages defines these categories slightlydifferently, we end up with cross-linguistic shibboleths, like Japanese speakers having trouble with r/l, or English speakers having trouble with Japanese vowel length.

You can think of Japanese as having one sound on the r/l continuum, while English has two. Technically, the Japanese sound is an alveolar tap (very similar to the consonant in the American pronunciation of 'city', which has the same features) that may be lateralized for some speakers (making it sound a little more like 'l' for them).

The trouble that Japanese speakers who do not speak English natively have with distinguishing r/l is supported by a lot of experimental evidence. They've often been favorite subjects for studies of categorical perception because the r and l have some acoustic properties that make them easy to manipulate. Mocking Japanese people for having trouble with r and l is still racist, though, and not just for the obvious reason that it's mocking people because of their race. It's racist because it's incredibly myopic--like the Japanese are the only ones who have trouble distinguishing new sounds in another language! I get the impression that some of these people think English is the one with the "standard" sounds, and if your language doesn't have them, it's inferior.

But also, it's important to note that although we lose the ability to distinguish between unexperienced sounds, it's not impossible to relearn later in life. We shouldn't expect everyone to be able to do it, because it depends a lot on circumstances, but it's not impossible. (Also it depends on the sound--not all new distinctions are equally easy to learn.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:38 PM on August 1, 2014 [18 favorites]


In fact, there isn't a Chinese-American accent the way there's a distinct cadence to how black Americans or Latino Americans talk.

There definitely is a Chinese-American accent, but only in cities with large Chinese populations. I'm Asian, grew up in the southwest in a small town, and have a pretty standard American accent, but when I moved to New York I definitely noticed an "accent" among native New Yorker Chinese-American kids. Not an accent as in foreign sounding, but just a certain way of speaking, like he describes black or Latino Americans having their own "cadence". I don't know how exactly to pin it down, other than that uptalk (you know like always talking as if you're asking a question?) is a common feature. I've also noticed a sort of "Asian-American" accent among people from parts of California with a high Asian population. Not everybody has it (just like not all black people sound "black"), but it's definitely a thing.
posted by pravit at 2:39 PM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


My in-laws are Cantonese speakers. The l/r distinction is notoriously tricky for them, just as I have many problems with Cantonese tones.

Liquids, like "l" and "r", are tricky for everybody. Even among native English speakers, you can often spot a fake accent by paying attention to the l's and r's. (I'm looking at you, Karen Gillan in Oculus.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:41 PM on August 1, 2014


I think it is a beautiful thing that "Chinese American" is inclusive of immigrants as well as those who have been here for five generations, but the downside is that I haven't found a more precise and elegant way to say "Yeah, he's Chinese... Chinese American... no, I mean, he was born here." And you cannot specify ethnicity alone without reference to nationality, except with a clumsy construction like "of Chinese descent." Blah.

1st generation is immigrant, 1.5 gen is immigrant but grew up wherever, 2nd gen and etc are the children of these first two. The only problem you'll have with this is that the only people who'll know what you're talking about are going to be people who are ethnic minorities.

I'm not sure where everybody is coming from but, like Arthur did, I saw a lot of the R/L conflation growing up. I'd get embarrassed as hell by it when my mom or some co-worker or family friend would make that mistake. It was one of those things people incessantly tease you about as a kid and it hurts because it seems to validate the things shitty people say even if it really doesn't.

I don't think this issue is exclusive to race. Southern accents get painted as a redneck, hillbilly, read: poor. African immigrants often have British accents and that's weird to us because British accents read educated, rich, white, and monocled. Accents signify status and capital, and Chu's problem with a Midwestern accent is that it's Midwestern, read: boring, suburban white and not cosmopolitan or sophisticated or whatever.

The privilege he's adopted has worn out and he wants a shiny new privilege to replace it with. I don't think he deserves that. Maybe he's not a voice actor because he doesn't have a great voice. Maybe he's not a voice actor because we expect a range of voices that map well with our USian sensibilities. In either case, he doesn't need to be a voice actor, it's not like it's something he deserves. It would be nice, sure, if he could be granted instant star voice-acting status like Samuel L Jackson. But why would he want that? Samuel L Jackson reading a nursery rhyme like every angry black character he's ever portrayed is hilariously ironic because hurr durr who'd ever let an angry black man around an IRL precious white baby. You don't want to trade cultural capital on that kind of construction, Arthur. That shit only works if you're a talented, highly distinguished actor who has a lot of cultural capital already.
posted by saucy_knave at 2:50 PM on August 1, 2014


Mocking Japanese people for having trouble with r and l is still racist, though, and not just for the obvious reason that it's mocking people because of their race

This strikes me as one of those areas where we mistake the contextual fact (the vast majority of the people who would ever mock someone for making a mistake like this are, in fact, racist) for something essential to the action itself.

If a French person makes fun of characteristic English mispronunciations of French, is that "racist"? It's perfectly possible for there to be good-natured and inclusive humor generated by characteristic linguistic errors. It's just that there's such a long history of anti-Asian racism and that racism has become so intertwined with the gross "they speak funny" racist caricatures that there's no way for that to emerge (at least in any public forum) in any English-language joking about characteristic Japanese or Chinese second-language errors.
posted by yoink at 2:56 PM on August 1, 2014


Worth noting as a bit of trivia, maybe, that the Korean word for the Korean alphabet, hangul (한글), actually includes the terminal ㄹ qcubed describes. A clear, distinguishable "l" sound is actually part of our word for "words".

The R/L thing is super annoying for many reasons, but for me most often because it doesn't actually sound like anyone. Confusion certainly exists, but no one exactly says "Herro" the way Mr. Yunioshi would; it's usually that modified tip-of-the-tongue in-between sound used for both Rs and Ls. It's turned into "herro" in stereotypes because, of course, that blurry sound is a difficult one to reproduce for native English speakers.

A collection of anecdotes:

1) My emigrated-from-Korea-at-30 dad is one of those amazing-ear-for-languages guys and has flawless, Midwestern-accented English despite learning it as an adult. Sounds a lot like a John Wayne. The cognitive dissonance of customers who come into his shop to drop off their cars—having only spoken to him on the phone—is usually amusing, occasionally offensive. And when people come in to the shop and open with "Do you speak English?" his stock reply is always, "Unfortunately, no. You'll have to take your car somewhere else."

2) The Korean-American comedian Henry Cho, who grew up in Knoxville, has a collection of jokes about looking one way and sounding another. Here he is on Leno in 1992 opening with that. He's still making pretty much the same jokes 22 years later. Maybe he's just lazy as a comedian, I don't know, but evidently people are still laughing. It's amazing to me that the literal next generation still finds that particular bit novel.

3) But then again I came uncomfortably against my own bias a couple weeks ago when I saw four generations of Japanese-American women shopping, with a baby and a mid-twenties, a mid-fifties, and a 70+ woman all together. I expected the family to be like mine and for the younger woman to maybe speak native English and the older women to speak with accents or to answer her in Japanese--but turns out they all spoke English as/like a first language. The eldest lady sounded like Eleanor Roosevelt, maybe she was herself nisei, or damn, sansei or beyond. But I was surprised, and embarrassed to realize that I had assumed differently and might have spoken based on that had I interacted with her.

4) The first time we went home to my boyfriend's family, his white Texan-through-and-through dad said to me: "You know, you have hardly any accent at all. If I weren't looking at you, I could barely even tell that you're Asian." Which of course has ten thousand different problems with it, the least of which is that I generally speak with the American English newscaster non-accent, but I had to laugh--back to the cognitive dissonance, again.
posted by peachfuzz at 2:58 PM on August 1, 2014 [10 favorites]


4) The first time we went home to my boyfriend's family, his white Texan-through-and-through dad said to me: "You know, you have hardly any accent at all. If I weren't looking at you, I could barely even tell that you're Asian."

Yeah, I've heard that a lot, too. I don't know how you react to comments like this. Blatant, aggressive racism is easy to take in stride but people trying to be nice is another thing entirely.
posted by saucy_knave at 3:21 PM on August 1, 2014


but the downside is that I haven't found a more precise and elegant way to say "Yeah, he's Chinese... Chinese American... no, I mean, he was born here."

Isn't this idea captured by "American-born Chinese" (ie, ABC)?


Maybe someone could clear this up, but isn't this term considered slightly derogatory? I once had a conversation with a Chinese American friend of mine who taught me about being "fresh-off-the-boat" versus being "ABC". Both are terms that came up most with his Chinese American friends, most often in a sort of friendly-ribbing sort of way, but it always seemed like a double-bind to me. You could either get made fun of for being too apparently raised-in-mainland-China and wearing the wrong sort of clothes, having the wrong sorts of interests, etc., or you could be made fun of for being "not Chinese enough."

It seems to me that ABC might contain a lot of the same problems that Arthur identified: that you're "American-born" but still fundamentally Chinese and other, but I could see how you might want to claim a distinct Chinese identity rather than a variant of an American one.
posted by taromsn at 3:26 PM on August 1, 2014


Isn't this idea captured by "American-born Chinese" (ie, ABC)?

1st generation is immigrant, 1.5 gen is immigrant but grew up wherever, 2nd gen and etc are the children of these first two. The only problem you'll have with this is that the only people who'll know what you're talking about are going to be people who are ethnic minorities.

I do like ABC, but these are still imperfect and kind of get at the problem I have with the language... Asian Americans have developed all these shorthand ways to speak with each other about their identity and experiences, but they're all but unknown to the people who most need to understand the difference between ethnicity and nationality, and the language used by most Americans is such that it's almost impossible not to conflate them. Plus sometimes I want to express my ethnic background without referencing generational status. I just want a word to purely express ethnicity without bringing any other information into it, like Nikkei in Japanese.

(Why yes I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this)
posted by sunset in snow country at 3:27 PM on August 1, 2014


1st generation is immigrant, 1.5 gen is immigrant but grew up wherever, 2nd gen and etc are the children of these first two. The only problem you'll have with this is that the only people who'll know what you're talking about are going to be people who are ethnic minorities.

Huh. We use "1st generation" to mean my generation, viz. the children of immigrants, the first generation to be natural citizens in this country. Apparently it can be used both ways. That's not confusing at all.

Maybe someone could clear this up, but isn't this term considered slightly derogatory? I once had a conversation with a Chinese American friend of mine who taught me about being "fresh-off-the-boat" versus being "ABC".

The South Asian version of this is "ABCD", "American-Born Confused Desi". You may infer from the words that it isn't the most complimentary of acronyms; it's typically used by South-Asian-born desis to mock American-born desis whenever they act either "too" Indian(Bangladeshi/Sri Lankan) or too American, because why be denigrated by one culture if you can be denigrated by two. I would not like it if someone used it to describe me. I thought it had largely fallen out of favor, but apparently a movie came out last year called "ABCD: American-Born Confused Desi", so that's super.
posted by Errant at 3:50 PM on August 1, 2014


This is fantastic. Just yesterday I was pondering how it is that my coworkers sport their thick russian accents, while people will never know I'm an immigrant unless I tell them since I moved here at such an early age. Unless you are sensitive enough to tell between different ethnicities of white male, that's all I appear to be. In my business, a russian accent is realtively more prestegious, and I had resolved it would be the height of irony for me to learn how to fake one. I take off my mask to reveal another mask!
posted by I-Write-Essays at 3:58 PM on August 1, 2014


The South Asian version of this is "ABCD", "American-Born Confused Desi". You may infer from the words that it isn't the most complimentary of acronyms; it's typically used by South-Asian-born desis to mock American-born desis whenever they act either "too" Indian(Bangladeshi/Sri Lankan) or too American

Yeah, I really hate this term. I remember hearing it from Indian born Indians (and some of my parents' Indian born friends thought it was HILARIOUS) when I was growing up and I thought it was so mean. We were/are inventing what it means to be Indian American as part of the first major wave of second generation immigrants, born between the late 60s and mid 80s. We aren't confused, we don't have to choose one way to be and more than that we can't.
posted by sweetkid at 4:32 PM on August 1, 2014


Also it's not a mixup of Ls and Rs as much as it's a sound that sounds like both. If I remember correctly, it involves putting the tip of your tongue up against your upper palate and making a "D" sound. it creates a sound halfway between L and R.

See also: New English accents. I couldn't pronounce my /r/s as a child, because either my tongue is weird and/or my earliest years were in New England.

Pronouncing an /r/ involves tucking your tongue back in your mouth so the tip is along your soft pallet, and it's a very specific tongue movement that doesn't show up elsewhere. The /lr/ people talk about involve making the rest of the /r/ in the standard way, but having your tongue a little behind your teeth.

After years of speech therapy, I finally hit a therapist who did tongue exercises and had it mastered in about a year. The residual fun bit is I'm a lot more aware of how my mouth makes sounds, because she taught me that, and I can speak with my tongue in the /r/ position because that was one of the exercises. The residual sucky bit is that my New English accent had already been eroded by years of trying to mimic tapes (I loved that accent); I did pick up a weirdly-showing-up pitch perfect French accent in High School though.

RE Immigrants and accents - the parents of my best friend both came from England as adults at the same time, and have roughly equivalent intelligence and perceptiveness. Her father was an Engineer and her mother became a school counselor. Fascinatingly, at about twenty-five years after the move their accents were completely different; her father had a very noticeable accent and her mother did not. I attributed that to their professions; we (Usans) tend to assume people with English accents are more intelligent, a bonus for an engineer, but colder, a deficient for a counselor.

I know I've had interesting reactions from people when I've said Haiti and Port au Prince around them because I learned about Haiti from my HS French professor, who was from there, and so I lapse into his accent when I say those words without thinking about it.

Accents imply a lot and convey a lot of ever-changing information - a lot of it stereotypical rather than necessarily accurate.
posted by Deoridhe at 5:38 PM on August 1, 2014


As far as I can tell from the (very, very occasional) difficulties my Japanese wife has with the r/l thing, it's like the problem native English speakers have with noun gender in other European languages - where one is used to a single option, there are two. Occasionally, in the areas of the language you're less familiar with, you have to guess, and sometimes you guess wrong.

As a traditional Received Pronunciation southern England English speaker, I can't really say the ra-re-ru-ri-ro syllables at all as a Japanese person would recognise them, and have learned to say them with a d instead.

Adigato gozai-i massss.

My accent is so bad in most languages (especially Spanish - I know people from Madrid, Barcelona, different parts of Mexico, Argentina, Chile and several other countries as well - I have no idea how it's supposed to be pronounced) that even if I get the right words I'm not understood.

In almost all cases it's much easier to simply perform the native-English-speaker-who-speaks-no-other-language than struggle through speaking the other languages badly towards competence.
posted by Grangousier at 6:14 PM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


And I agree with him that I haven't observed it as being a "common mistake" among Japanese or Chinese speakers with English as a foreign language.

A relative of mine by marriage is Japanese, and speaks very good English- lived in the US for a number of years- but has a strong accent, and absolutely never got the hang of American-English R sounds. My name has a prominent R and her pronunciation was so far off that it would always take me an extra second to parse it as my name. If I were Harry, it would have sounded like Hally (though obviously, it wasn't an English /l/, it was the Japanese... whatever that is)/

Attempting to learn Russian I got to have a similar experience. There are a couple of sounds in Russian that are only one sound in English (ш and щ, л and ль). So incredibly frustrating, since via Sapir-Worf you're really not equipped to even hear the difference, let alone pronounce the difference!

I will admit: I have an unpleasant dislike of thick Chinese accents. To my ears it sounds like they have the world's worst cold, or have cotton balls in their mouth. It's the same feeling I get when I watch someone doing other things in the wrong way and I get the heebie-jeebies because I can't correct them.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:27 PM on August 1, 2014


I will admit: I have an unpleasant dislike of thick Chinese accents. To my ears it sounds like they have the world's worst cold, or have cotton balls in their mouth. It's the same feeling I get when I watch someone doing other things in the wrong way and I get the heebie-jeebies because I can't correct them.

Strange - when I hear people speaking with thick accents I'm impressed that they have such bilingual proficiency and speak English well despite speaking such a completely different language.Maybe try this and you won't be so worried about people doing things "wrong."
posted by sweetkid at 6:41 PM on August 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


Strange - when I hear people speaking with thick accents I'm impressed that they have such bilingual proficiency and speak English well despite speaking such a completely different language.Maybe try this and you won't be so worried about people doing things "wrong."

Thanks, I'll keep that in mind. It's not something I enjoy disliking, since the accents are often attached to perfectly good people. And, obviously, there's no "right" accent- I have a slightly international background and occasionally people think I speak funny, and growing up I had a small dose of the pain people with stronger accents deal with.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:50 PM on August 1, 2014


Chinese accents come in a million varieties. They might share some universal features, but the odd thing is while the rest of the world seems able to accept that there are different US accents, at least in broad regional groupings, people sometimes, well...I don't know. Wouldn't it be almost common-sense that a language, language group, whatever, this HUGE would have a wide degree of variation? You've got the slow slur and heavy eliding of the Beijing accent that I'm most familiar with, and no one but an American can really learn it without butchering it, you've got the long vowels and heavy consonants of Hangzhou, the downtalk clip of Shandong, the slow, meditated r-less Mandarin of Cantonese speakers trying to modulate their rising-falling tones for Mandarin which doesn't have any, my boss's Tsongtsing (Chongqing) Suh-tswan (Sichuan) accent which is as rapid-fire as they get...

Not to wax lyrical, but my ears get assaulted with so many different accents that I'll never be able to think of any one language as sounding the same coming out of two people's mouths.

I will admit: I have an unpleasant dislike of thick Chinese accents. To my ears it sounds like they have the world's worst cold, or have cotton balls in their mouth.
As much as I hate to agree... This is the northern China Mandarin-speaker accent, and it does sound particularly wrong. Chu references it here: "Herro, and wercome to Beijing. Zhis is yoah guide to an ancient culchah." I think part of why this accent is so odious is that it's the "official" accent of the PRC's inept cultural outreach, and you're more likely to hear it in creepy cultural promotions than in everyday speech. When I like what you have to say, your accent is a lot less offputting.
posted by saysthis at 10:38 PM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


It sounds like he went into voice acting because it was the "job" he had as a kid translating for his parents so he figured he'd be good at it.

Being understood by everyone really is a privelege. When I did my masters at the University of York I swear I had twice as many friends just because I (white American with lots of exposure to International English) was the one person everyone could understand.

In my current profession (teaching), I'm a hit in schools with lots of ESL students because I clearly separate my sylables the way International English speakers do, but in schools where everyone is from the same place I actually have a hard time establishing authority because of my "accent". People not wanting to listen to you because you don't fit into the right accent box is a hurdle in lots of professions, not just voice acting.
posted by subdee at 9:56 AM on August 2, 2014


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