- Text by Tetsuhiko Endo
I was scrolling through Facebook this morning when an acquaintance posted a link to one of those ubiquitous lists of “Engrish”. In case you haven’t been using the internet for the past decade and are unaware of “Engrish” lists, they consist of pictures taken of signs in East Asia featuring poor, bizarre or nonsensical English. “Engrish” is a reference to how, you know, Japanese people can’t say their “L” sounds. Even though the lists aren’t limited to Japanese signs and there are plenty of East Asians who are perfectly in command of the fiendish English “L”, nobody really cares because Asians, like Africans, are all the same. As far as I can tell, these kinds of meme lists are mostly composed and laughed at by lifelong western expats in Asia who still don’t speak the native tongue of the countries they have colonised, pro internet trolls working for Buzzfeed and its various imitators, pimply high school children taking a break from looking at autopsy photos and coprophagy porn, and other such mental retardants.
I grew up in the American suburbs when being half-Asian meant that privileged white kids would reflexively tell you that they liked sushi and/or wanted to get a Chinese character tattooed somewhere on their body. It was racism, but the loving sort of racism: the first wide-eyed and exuberant gestures of self-styled cosmopolitans whose consumption of spicy tuna rolls and package beach holidays in Thailand would become the beating heart of modern multiculturalism.
My Japanese father’s English has always been better than most native English speakers, but just as idiomatic. His accent was a non-issue for me until I became an adolescent and some of my friends began to mimic it. Of course, most English people have no ear for Asian languages and therefore no ear for Asian-English accents. They would not really mimic his accent, they would mimic the Japanese accent in hopes of eliciting a quick chuckle. It wasn’t particularly mean spirited and formed part of what you might call equal opportunity ethnic ridicule, in which any perceived deviation from a constantly shifting status quo was fair game for a laugh. It was, in other words, high school.
It always niggled me though. It niggled me in a way that I wasn’t quite able to put into words because those of us raised on the edge of middle class society are taught to constantly strive towards its centre, even, or perhaps especially if it means laughing at those things that set you apart. The drive for homogeneity means that all accents have comedic value. A German accent is authoritarian, a French accent is cultured, an Italian accent denotes good times and Mario Brothers, a black accent is either dangerous or the height of cool, a British accent is snobby. Since moving to Britain I have learned that the accent used by American school kids to connote snobbism is the same one used by the British themselves to connote snobbism and that neither approach the lofty heights of sneering disdain contained in an actual posh English accent.
Compared to all of these other accents, the Asian speech of karate masters, computer nerds, and Chinese take-out owners is the only one that is purely ridiculous, the only one that both others and belittles in equal measure. It’s something straight out of a World War II propaganda advertisement featuring a strapping white dude beating the crap out of a buck-toothed yellow devil. How has this living fossil of prejudice survived all these years? As anyone of Asian descent can tell you, there is something uniquely unbearable about being the butt of someone else’s stupid joke.
To live outside your own language is to experience a constant, varying alienation from yourself or who you are when you are in command of true cultural and linguistic fluency. It is one of the reasons that expat communities exist – for all our enlightened talk of melting pots, globalization, and cultural hybridization, having a beer with friends is often more enjoyable in your mother tongue than it is in translation. This is not something you will ever understand until you live outside your own country and language. I learned it when I went to study, then work in Spain and Uruguay. I speak fluent Spanish, but my accent is imperfect, lacking the proper flexibility of lips and tongue that gives Spanish its beautiful acrobatics of enunciation. Once in a while a friend or acquaintance will lovingly mock my accent. Regardless of who it is, I’m always tempted for just a moment, to knock their teeth in. Not because I don’t already know my pronunciation is fair to middling, but because the joke is so easy, so pandering to the crudest mechanism of humour – that reflex that makes us laugh at simple difference and in doing so, serves to alienate those at whose expense we laugh.
The tables are slightly turned with “Engrish”. It is the westerner who feels alienated by the “inscrutability” of eastern culture and language, so he takes inane photographs and sends them back to his friends who have even less understanding of these places so they can both retreat into the shared sanctuary of cultivated misunderstanding. The mechanism at work here – the unwillingness to see deeper than surface differences — is the same one that powers racism, but it differs in that it never blossoms into full-blown hatred. Instead, it has become a way to consume differences that forgoes understanding in favour of throwaway laughs. It’s not that it’s particularly odious, it’s just really fucking dumb. The mark of a great joke is that the more you know about its subject, the funnier it becomes. This is why “Engrish” doesn’t really hold up. If you understand its various historical and cultural antecedents as well as the difficulty of translating between Altaic and Sino-Tibetan language families and English, “Engrish” is just sort of inane; in fact, much of it makes sense, albeit in a somewhat skewed way, if you put it into context.
In the age of the internet message board, wallowing in umbrage over the smallest of slights has become a profession for many of us online talking heads. Luckily, we don’t have to go there today. “Engrish” isn’t particularly racist, it’s not particularly cruel or insensitive, and it’s not evenly particularly offensive in the grand scheme of offensive cultural stereotypes. What makes it really unforgivable is the blunt-force idiocy required to find it diverting. Even among the various mouth dribbling memes that have found a home on the web, “Engrish” stands out as having all the comedic depth of a wet fart. Yea, it’s ironic that someone made a translation mistake that they will never understand, but if you think the joke is on them, the real irony is lost on you.
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