I used to find “Chinglish” funny -- that is, until I moved to Taiwan and found out that the joke was on me.
Last month, an article in the New York Times about Chinglish in Shanghai stayed on its Web site’s Most E-mailed List for more than week. In response, fellow Hyphen blogger Victoria Yue wrote a post on the mixed feelings many Asian Americans have about Chinglish-derived humor.
“In the US, confused tourists are often treated with an attitude of ‘Know English if you’re going to come here.’ So why is it that when Americans travel, there is this expectation for other countries to know English?” Victoria wrote.
When I moved to Taiwan in 2007, I found out that Taiwanese people don’t expect foreigners to know Mandarin -- as long as they aren’t of Taiwanese descent. My non-Asian expat buddies got heaps of praise just for saying xiexie, to the point where they worried that they weren’t getting enough language practice. I am of Taiwanese descent, however, and a lot of people here find my American accent not just amusing, but downright weird.
I grew up among many other second-generation Taiwanese Americans. Our Mandarin skills were all over the map. Some of my peers were fluent, while others could barely say nihao. Because I knew so many other Taiwanese Americans with limited Mandarin skills and considered myself somewhere in the middle, I was unprepared to hear things like “If your parents were born in Taiwan, then how come your Mandarin is so bad?” or “If you are Taiwanese American, then why do you have an American accent?” My favorite was “You’d better work on your Mandarin. I’ve heard white people who speak better than you do.” I wondered if the people who made those remarks thought that every ethnically Chinese person is born with a Chinese language chip implanted in his or her head.
To be clear, most Taiwanese people don’t make fun of my accent. When certain individuals do, it is obvious that their remarks stem from prejudices. I once (briefly) had a language partner who kept insisting that Taiwanese American pop star/actor Wang Leehom’s Mandarin is so heavily accented that she had trouble paying attention while watching him in Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” because she was laughing too hard. According to other fans of Wang Leehom that I’ve met, he does not have an American accent -- at least not one that is noticeable to the point of being a bigger distraction than a naked Tony Leung.
My language partner let whatever stereotypes she had about Taiwanese Americans override her rational thinking. She reminds me of my college professor who insisted that I spoke English with an “Asian” accent (I guess he thinks that all Asians speak Asian).
Even though only a few people were downright rude about my language skills, their remarks still got under my skin, especially when I was spending hours each day studying Mandarin. I felt like I was operating on a deficit. No matter how much progress I made (and I must have made progress, because I got straight A’s in my classes), my Mandarin would never be up to par. I also resented the implication that I (or my family) must have done something wrong for me to consider English my native language.
Before moving to Taiwan, I found Chinglish amusing -- though, like Victoria, I also felt uncomfortable, especially when I thought about non-Asian people cracking up at it. While I was taking language courses, however, I stopped finding Chinglish amusing at all. If I shouldn’t have to hold my Mandarin up to the standards of a native speaker, then why should people in Asia be obligated to speak or write flawless English? Watching people laugh at Chinglish reminded me too much of how fed up I was with people who thought that my Mandarin should be perfect just because I am of Chinese descent.
Eventually I had to get over the fact that I do have an accent and I do occasionally make awkward gaffes (which I like to call my “Engnese” moments). If I’d clammed up because I was afraid of getting mocked for not “sounding Chinese enough,” my Mandarin would never have improved.
I think one of the things that people often overlook when they laugh at Chinglish is that most examples represent someone taking a risk. I know from my experience with learning Mandarin that it takes a certain amount of derring-do to write a sign or attempt a translation in a second language, especially if you know that your work is going to be on display for the entire world to see (and potentially mock). Chinglish should be seen as inspirational, not merely funny. I’ll try to remember that the next time I tell someone I’m easy when I mean easy-going.
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!