Wai Yoo No Speeka Asian-Ameleekan?
Hello to all the loyal readers of MixedAsian (hello? anyone?). This post unfortunately does not mark my return to regular participation in the blogosphere; it will likely
be several months before that. However, I've just seen a piece of
writing so wrong-headed and misinformed that I felt compelled to take it on. (Thanks to Shanti for the link). It consists
of a long complaint that it is a bad thing that Asian-Americans (AAs) possess no racial language and as a result are forced to use Black Vernacular English or worse, the evil Ice People Standard English, in order to express all our "cultural" thoughts.
Actually, this rant I'm about to commence has a lot to do with one of my favorite pet
academic topics, linguistics, but it also relates to issues of integration and cultural
identity, so bear with me. Since fellow Asian Anti-Aktivist Marc Miyake seems to be on hiatus, I hope I can take on
this task without making too many errors that would be obvious to any linguistics graduate
Anyway, Mr. Hoyt Sze first decries the AA tendency to overuse black street language in an
effort to distinguish themselves from white people:
This campus's Asian American literary set fails to understand a simple concept:
When we Asian Americans appropriate African American language for our own, we sound
ridiculous. Using another people's street language is both a joke and a corruption. Sporting
a traditionally "black" attitude results in cheap imitation, not expression.
So far, I can agree with him. AAs have a tendency to ape poor urban blacks in an effort to earn
respect and fear from white people, as can be seen in the populariza
tion of basketball among AAs. They fail to realize the essential absurdity of middle
class suburban kids wearing $100 Banana Republic sweaters trying to talk and act like they
po' oppress-ed foke up outta dah ghett-toe.
Towards the middle of the article, though, Mr. Sze starts to veer wildly into dogma:
But let's not fool ourselves. Jazz and rap are culturally ours as much as Bach
Though Mr. Sze means this quote in a negative sense, I've chosen to take it the other
way. Black Jazz artists of the 1930s hardly intended their musical talent to be a gift
solely to black Americans. Americans of all races and even Australians of all races enjoy jazz music
today. As an American I'm heir to all the great musicians and poets of Western civilization
and of America itself. As a Chinese-speaking overseas Chinese, I'm heir to the civilization
which produced the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and all those cool TVB wu xia
dramas. Why would I want to be an "Asian-American?" I don't wanna inherit a bunch of crazy
political platforms, whiny books, and racial cliquishness.
An Asian American sensibility must be unique. We must find our own tongue with
minimal influence from the white mainstream or the African American
So, all you AAs are trying to find such a tongue? That's great, I know this language called Chinese, heard of it? In its history of thousands of years it has received
no taint of loanwords from the heartless colonial tongues of Evil Whitey (though we stole
some words about horsemanship from the Mongols). If you're worried about your cultural discourse being overheard by
oppressors who by some miracle have learned to speak the national common tongue of China,
why not pick a more obscure member of the Chinese family, such as Fukkienese, or my very own
beloved Hakka? Oh, excuse my Sinocentricity. Non-Chinese Asians also have the many languages
and dialects of their own ancestral countries from which to choose. We're confronted by a
wealth of options.
No wait, lemme guess, you all don't want it, it's too hard to learn, and you got embarassed
when your parents spoke it to you in public when you were a kid. You want a dialect which is
easy for a AA native speaker of English to put on as a flashy badge of his identity, and which
all of the Proud Yellow People (or at least the ones you're interested in hooking up with)
can speak to each other while none of the Evil Ice People have a hope of understanding (or
breaking in on your pick-up attempt), right? Okay, let's see how this might come about
A dialect of a language begins to develop when a subcommunity of users of a
language need to talk about ideas, objects, or actions in their daily experience, for which
the base language (e.g. English) has no words. The subcommunity invents words to fill the
gap in their expressive capabilities. We can see this process at work to a small extent in
the AA community, with loanwords such as "desi," "gyopo¡M" or "jook sing," or new English
phrases such as "parachute kids" or "overseas Chinese." Standard English has been taking
loanwords from the AA lexicon for as long as there have been AAs, leading to "chop suey"
(Taishan Âø¸H meaning "miscellaneous"), "coolie" (could originate from Tamil "kuli" meaning
payment for menial work, or from the Hakka reading "koo liet" of W¤O, Mandarin "ku3 li4,"
meaning hard labor), "dim sum," (Cantonese ÂI¤ß literally meaning to touch the heart), "wok"
(Cantonese ÷i), "kimono," (Japanese µÛª«), and the like. Indeed, the word "Asian-American"
itself was invented by AAs.
That's usually called something like jargonization (there's a real word for this; my
Linguistics TAs would be marking me down at this point), but it's not a sufficient condition
to make a dialect. At this point, it's just English with a few funny words. In general, a
full-fledged dialect only develops if the life experiences of the subcommunity are so
different from that of mainstream language users that the lexicon becomes filled to bursting
with new words, and if the subcommunity in the process of dialect formation is so segregated
from mainstream language users that standard grammatical features are not reinforced and new
ones develop. The classic example of this kind of segregation is long distance, as occured
in the colonization of Latin America by temporally and regionally separated groups of
Spanish explorers. Their differing origins and interactions with locals led to various
regional dialects of a single Spanish language, most of which, for example, lost the
second-person plural informal "vosotros" and associated verb forms.
Unfortunately for Mr. Sze, AAs are not segregated to anywhere near the extent that black
Americans were during their 300 years of Anglophone history that led to the development of
Black Vernacular English, or to the extent that Australians were from Mother England in the
200 years which led to the unique Aussie accent. We grow up among, work with, and date
speakers of standard English, and share their life experiences and cultural referents. And
as can be seen from the examples of specific Asian-American words above, most of our invented jargon concerns either peculiarities of life as a child of immigrants, or customs
of old-country cultures in which the vast majority of AAs cannot participate without
assistance from relatives due to linguistic deficiency and are rapidly leaving behind due to
lack of concern. Thus these words will likely fall out of use as AAs pass into adulthood, rather than becoming a stronger component of the spoken language.
Searching for our own identity and language is not any easy process. But once we
discover our true collective voice, it will mean the [blank] to our days of silence and
self-hatred and the birth of a new Asian American.
Sorry, Mr. Sze, you've got it backwards. A dialect isn't the beginning of a new, separate
identity; it's the result of it. If an AA dialect has not already developed by 2003, the
centennial of Korean immigration and long past the sesquicentennial of Chinese immigration,
maybe that's a sign that even 2nd-generation AAs are already just mainstream kids little
different than the white and black suburbanites who surround them.
Is this the fault of white people for forcing AAs to forget their old culture? Well let's
see, in San Francisco Bay Area alone, there are 3 broadcast television stations (in
addition to I don't know how many cable and satellite channels) which every evening from 6PM
until midnight run shows in a total of 3 different Chinese dialects (nightly news, soap
operas, music, and talk shows in Cantonese and Mandarin in addition to a weekly cooking show
and the occasional movie in Fukkienese or something close to it), in addition to Japanese,
Korean, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. Every public university offers Chinese language courses;
community colleges and religious associations offer courses in Japanese, Korean, and Thai,
among others. Chinese bookshops and Korean video rental stores abound.
And there are tens of thousands of immigrant students who would love to teach AAs their
native languages and take them around to all these places and watch TV shows with them; that's
how I, a Malaysian-Chinese Hakka speaker who was born in America and has lived here on and
off (about 75% on) all my life, learned to speak Hong Kong-accented Cantonese while
attending an American high school.
But do AAs take advantage? No, all they have is a lowered Civic with some pearl milktea
in the drink holder, as Eminem blasts on the stereo and they drive home to watch The
Simpsons. And they're trying to convince us that the shape of their taillights and the
flavor of their drinks says more about their cultural identity than the language in their
heads and in their entertainment.