“I’m a fraud within my own identity”: Racial Impostor Syndrome

Emily Kwong at age 2 with her grandparents

There was a compelling story this week on NPR dealing with individuals from families with mixed ethnic backgrounds.  In the story, Emily Kwong discusses her decision to learn Mandarin Chinese at the age of 30. Her Dad had grown up speaking Chinese as his first language, but when he started school, he started learning English, and soon switched over completely. When she was little, Emily had learned some Chinese from her grandmother but had not retained any. As an adult, she started to feel increasingly that she needed to try to reconnect with the Chinese side of her identity and decided that necessitated learning the language of her father.

The feeling that Emily has of “feeling that I’m not Chinese enough” has sometimes been labeled racial imposter syndrome, the sense that individuals may have that their lives are in a sense inauthentic because they don’t conform to key aspects of the ethnic heritage with which they identify. That might be related to a lack of knowledge about traditional customs or aspects of the way of life, or be connected to the individual’s appearance. But quite likely there will be a language component. For Emily, learning Chinese has proven to be a challenge, as it is for many native English speakers, particularly if one starts later in life. However, the difficulties she has had with the language pale when compared to the shame she feels in not being able to connect at all with her Chinese-speaking relatives:

I’ve decided that any shame I might feel about imperfect pronunciation, fumbles with grammar is nothing compared to the shame I felt about not knowing the language at all; the shame I feel as my older relatives rattle off dim sum dishes and I stare down the menu pictures, feeling like a fraud within my own identity, missing something I never had in the first place.

This sense of feeling like a fraud within one’s own identity is likely felt by many individuals from immigrant families or those with connections to multiple cultures. NPR a few years ago did a series on such cases, which are increasing as American identities become more mixed. The accounts of experiences are revealing. A woman whose mother is Panamanian and father a white American recounted:

When I was young (20s) and living in the city, I would get asked multiple times a day where I was from, where my people were from, because Allentown, Pennsylvania, clearly wasn’t the answer they were looking for … It always felt like the undercurrent of that question was, “You aren’t white, but you aren’t black. What are you?” But truthfully, I don’t feel like I fit with Latinas either. My Spanish is atrocious and I grew up in rural PA. Even my cousin said a few weeks ago, “Well, you aren’t really Spanish, because your dad is white.” Which gutted me, truly. I identify as Latina.

Another individual featured was a light-skinned biracial woman:

White people like to believe I’m Caucasian like them; I think it makes their life less complicated. But I don’t identify as 100% white, so there always comes a time in the conversation or relationship where I need to ‘out’ myself and tell them that I’m biracial. It’s a vulnerable experience, but it becomes even harder when I’m with black Americans. It may sound strange — and there are so many layers to this that are hard to unpack — but I think what it comes down to is: they have more of a claim to ‘blackness’ than I ever will and therefore have the power to tell me I don’t belong, I’m not enough, that I should stay on the white side of the identity line.

Emily’s effort to retrieve a heritage through language learning may not apply to everyone, but for many it may be an important tool for feeling less like a “fraud”. The experiences in her family illustrate a frequent pattern in immigrant families, namely that the first generation may give up their first language, as Emily’s Dad did, in order to assimilate into mainstream US society. That was widely the case throughout the 20th century in the US. Second or third generation children, like Emily, discover often that not speaking the language of their immigrant parent or parents leaves a void in their sense of who they are.

Free academic speech or racial slur?

USC Professor Patton, removed from course

Earlier this month, the University of Southern California removed business professor Greg Patton from his classroom. His offense? In a lecture on linguistics, he used a Chinese word as an illustrating example of filler words (“um” or “like” in English). So far, so good, but that Chinese expression, 那个, or ne ga sounds a lot like a racial slur in English (the N word). That word is one that I have found to be tremendously useful when I’m in China. It means “that one” and comes in handy ordering in a restaurant when you can just point at a picture of a dish and say “ne ga”, i.e. I’ll have that one. Additionally, native speakers of Mandarin use it in conversation as a filler, as the USC professor was trying to illustrate, making the point that such words or sounds are common across languages. He made clear that the expression was Chinese (not English). Despite that, several African-American students took offense and complained. They wrote a letter to the dean of the School of Business, describing Patton as insensitive and suggested he be removed from his post. They wrote,

There are over 10,000 characters in the Chinese written language and to use this phrase, a clear synonym with this derogatory N-Word term, is hurtful and unacceptable to our USC Marshall community. The negligence and disregard displayed by our professor was very clear in today’s class.

In fact, the letter sent by the students is incorrect, in that the Chinese term is not a “a clear synonym with this derogatory N-Word term, ” in fact not a synonym at all, i.e. a word with the equivalent meaning. It is at most a homonym (words sounding alike), but that is not normally seen as significant or meaningful when you are dealing with two different languages.

As reported in Inside Higher Education, the complaint and removal have been controversial with a petition for Patton’s reinstatement stating:

For him to be censored simply because a Chinese word sounds like an English pejorative term is a mistake and is not appropriate, especially given the educational setting. It also dismisses the fact that Chinese is a real language and has its own pronunciations that have no relation to English.

The professor himself apologized to those students offended, but also reported to Inside Higher Education, “Given the difference in sounds, accent, context and language, I did not connect this in the moment to any English words and certainly not any racial slur.”

In a report on the incident in The Atlantic, a fellow professor (from UCLA), Eugene Volokh, suggested how the Business School Dean should have replied:

This should go without saying, but of course many languages have words that sound vaguely like English epithets or vulgarities, and vice versa … Naturally, USC students are expected to understand this, and recognize that such accidents of pronunciation have nothing to do with any actually insulting or offensive meaning. To the extent that our first reaction to hearing such a word might be shock or upset, part of language education (or education of any sort) is to learn to set that aside. The world’s nearly one billion Mandarin speakers have no obligation to organize their speech to avoid random similarities with English words, and neither do our faculty (or students or anyone else) when they are speaking Mandarin.

On the other hand, as the article discusses, this kind of reply, as reasonable as it sounds, does not take into account the real feelings of the USC students who were upset by the incident.

Coddled millennials?

whatAs universities in the US have started up a new academic year, there continues to be a good deal of discussion about the degree to which college students need to be protected from speech and actions which may offend. A recent article in the NY Times, “Campuses Cautiously Train Freshmen Against Subtle Insults,” outlines the efforts at a number of US universities to provide orientation to new students, with concepts such as “microaggressions,” comments which unintentionally express prejudicial views or stereotype others. Examples given from the article, taken from an orientation at Clark University, include: “Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say ‘you guys.’ It could be interpreted as leaving out women.” The orientation at Clark mentions as well “environmental microaggressions” with the example given: all pictures of professors in the Chemistry Department lecture hall are of white men, causing non-whites and women to feel marginalized. The article continues:

A nonverbal microaggression could be when a white woman clutches her purse as a black or Latino person approaches. Another subset of microaggression is known as the microinvalidation, which includes comments suggesting that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes, like “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.”

Also discussed in the article are other terms frequently heard in this context, namely “safe spaces”, where marginalized students can come together on campus, and “trigger warnings”, advance notice given to students of a topic about to be raised in a class which might upset some students. The orientations follow a series of incidents of racist speech and behavior at campuses last year, including the University of Missouri and the University of Wisconsin.

The Dean of Students at the University of Chicago provided a quite different perspective from Clark and other universities striving to limit students’ exposure to potentially harmful speech. In a letter to incoming students, he wrote: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” This is a view which has been aired by others as well, particularly alumni and conservative commentators, some of whom are cited in the article. They view the idea of safe spaces and trigger warnings as coddling students, ill-preparing them for the real world, and cutting off free speech on campus.

A compelling counter-argument has been supplied by a Black graduate of the University of Chicago, writing on Vox, “I’m a black U Chicago graduate. Safe spaces got me through college,” in which he describes how important the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs was throughout his college career, providing a respite from the frequent discrimination he encountered. He wrote that he used this safe space “not to ‘hide from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own,’ but to heal from relentless hate and ignorance, to hear and be heard. My ideas were always challenged, but never my humanity. I mattered.” There is an interesting interview with him on NPR’s On the Media. Recently 150 U of Chicago professors signed an open letter in opposition to the welcoming letter from the Dean of Students.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Mandarin


Mark Zuckerberg speaking Mandarin at Tsinghua University

The Facebook CEO recently gave a talk at a Beijing university (Tsinghua) in Mandarin Chinese. This follows a public question and answer session in Mandarin with Zuckerberg conducted last year in Beijing. The reaction to his talk has been mixed, with many praising his courage to give a 20 minute speech in Chinese, given that he has not studied the language that long. James Fallows had some interesting comments in the Atlantic. There has been an interesting discussion on the languagelog blog. Victor Mair commented:

He’s intelligent, he’s confident, he has a nimble tongue, possesses strong communicative skills, and is blessed with all the other attributes that make him potentially an excellent speaker of Mandarin. But Zuckerberg has gotten off on the wrong foot with his Mandarin learning. I don’t know what methods he is using, but they clearly are not the right ones.

Mair says the grammar and vocabulary were fine, but the tones were way off. Using the right (of the four) tones right is essential to understanding what a specific phoneme means, as the same short syllable can have 4 or more different meanings, depending on the tone. It’s a similar issue for non-native speakers of English who do not use standard intonation and stress patterns, but can be even more problematic in tonal languages (which include Thai, Vietnamese, other Asian languages and some African languages). Still, Mair says he was able to understand almost everything in the speech, although other linguists who asked native speakers to listen, indicated that for them there were some parts of the speech which were difficult to decipher.

One commenter on languagelog pointed out that how problematic getting tones wrong is in terms of comprehensibility depends on the context:

There is a pretty low upper limit to how complex your vocabulary can get with bad tones. When you are using very common words and constructions, people can infer most of what you mean even if it isn’t clear. But once you are trying to quote weird technology terms from a newspaper or use words that native speakers might themselves have only heard a handful of times, poor tones will make you completely incomprehensible.

In my experience, if you provide enough context (i.e. speak not too slowly and say more than a few words) and have some tones wrong, you are likely to be understood. Despite pronunciation problems, many on languagelog and elsewhere praised Zuckerberg’s willingness and courage to give a public speech in Chinese. Native Chinese are appreciative (and surprised) when non-Chinese (especially Americans) make the effort to speak their language. In fact, the Washington Post last year, after Zuckerberg’s first public use of Chinese, ran an article entitled “A brief history of white dudes wowing people with Mandarin.” It certainly does not harm the cause of promoting Chinese language learning in this country to have the CEO of Facebook make the effort to learn and use the language. And that in a country in which Facebook is banned.

Character amnesia


Typing Chinese characters in the 1970’2

I’m at the LEARN Conference on autonomous language learning and have just had the pleasure of hearing the keynote today from Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania (I gave the opening keynote yesterday). Mair is a sinologist and regular contributor to the LanguageLog, a wonderful resource for informed comments on issues related to language. He is an entertaining speaker as well as an excellent blogger – his posts are both informative and entertaining. He had a lot to say both about how the Internet is changing the Chinese language and about his views on teaching Chinese.

He talked about the different ways that Chinese characters have been typed over the years, which given the number of characters in Chinese (over 50,000), is a challenge. Early solutions featured elaborate typewriters (see image above), huge keyboards, or keys on a rotating drum. The early keyboards required use of a stylus, as there were so many characters to fit in. Today, Chinese is typed by using Pinyin, the romanized writing of characters. This has led to a de-emphasis on the ability to write characters, which has been a concern in China in recent years, similar to the issues in the US on cursive writing no longer being taught in primary schools. Mair has coined the term “character amnesia” to describe this phenomenon. In his talk, he showed an example of a grocery list by a native speaker of Mandarin in which there was a mixture of characters and pinyin, with some of the words having been begun to be written in characters, then scratched out and written in pinyin, indicating that how to write the characters had been forgotten. Mair calls this “creeping romanization” or “emerging digraphia”. One consequence of the concern over this loss of character literacy is the emergence of Chinese versions of spelling bees, with the contestants having to write the characters that had been read aloud.

Mair says that with the availability of tools for working with Chinese characters, this is a great time to learn the language. He has little good to say about traditional teaching methods, which rely on memorization and writing. He advocates (at least for speakers of European languages) learning to speak first, then learning the characters. He describes the typical four skills approach to beginning Chinese as “inhumane”. He sees no point in teaching characters early.

One of the most interesting remarks from Mair’s talk was his take on his contribution to the Languagelog blog. He writes regularly and estimates that it takes about a third of his professional time. In addition to writing the blog posts, he responds to the many emails he receives asking Chinese language related questions. This “public teaching” activity points to the changing role of language teachers today. For many teachers, this kind of extracurricular work has become a major regular activity. In fact, Mair stated today that he sees this as the most important work he does – more so than classroom instruction or scholarly research and publication. This corresponds to the trends of more and more people learning language outside of formal classroom settings. Internet technology enables this in many different ways.

“Frozen” goes international

frozenThe Disney film “Frozen” has been a big hit, and not only in the U.S. It’s been dubbed into 41 languages and has played to audiences throughout the world. Interestingly, Disney made an unusual decision with the Arabic translation, dubbing it into Modern Standard Arabic. As pointed out in a story on NPR, in the past Disney dubbed movies such as Snow White into Egyptian Arabic, the dialect with the most number of speakers in the region. While native speakers of Arabic understand Modern Standard Arabic, it’s not the language they speak daily. Rather they speak their own dialect such as Moroccan Arabic – which like other versions of the language is very different from Modern Standard Arabic (and from one another). Apparently, Disney has awarded distribution rights to its films to Al Jazeera, which has a policy of using Standard Arabic. According to the NPR story, the reaction to the dubbed version in the Arabic-speaking world has been mixed.

Versions of the song “Let it go” sung in numerous languages have gained interest in the media. Disney has responded to that interest by putting together a clip which splices in 25 different languages being sung:

There has been an interesting discussion on the Language Log about the Chinese version of the song (ràng tā qù 讓它去 in the most literal translation. There are three different Chinese sets of subtitles for the song (and the entire film), in Mainland Mandarin, Taiwan Mandarin and Taiwanese. Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania) points out in the post that contrary to the popular view, it’s not true that the written language is used to render all the different Sinitic languages (those spoken in China):

If anyone ever tries to tell you that Taiwanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and dozens of other Sinitic topolects are “all the same when written down”, you can politely inform them that they simply don’t know the grammar, lexicon, and syntax of these different languages. As has been pointed out again and again on Language Log, especially with regard to Cantonese, normally what gets written down is Mandarin, not Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and so forth. In other words, native speakers of Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, etc. must learn a second language, Mandarin, if they are to become literate according to the standards of educational authorities.

To write spoken Cantonese or Taiwanese in Chinese characters is to give an approximation based on coming close to the meaning and the sounds but not giving a precise equivalent. Victor Mair has another interesting post on the mutual intelligibility of Sinitic languages – a short summary: they’re not.

Update 2022

Moving rendition of the song from a Ukrainian girl in a bomb shelter:

Writing Chinese made easy?


Word group from Chineasy

There has been a lot of media buzz lately about Chineasy, a book and Chinese character learning method by ShaoLan Hsueh.  Her method was first publicized in a TED talk she gave in 2013 and recently published in Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese. As someone who has struggled for years to learn Chinese characters, I was intrigued.  It turns out that her method is not quite as revolutionary as she claims.  It boils down to associating an image with the character which both represents the meaning of the character and illustrates it graphically, so for 火 (huo, meaning fire) she shows the character engulfed in fire, or for 山 (shan, meaning mountain), a picture of a mountain superimposed on the character. In most cases, she uses the historical origin of the character for her mnemonic.  She then shows how characters combine to make new words, as in volcano, “fire mountain”  (火山). She is by no means the first to advocate using such a method.  Many learners of Chinese are familiar with Rick Harbaugh’s Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary, either the book or the web site, which presents a series of zipu or “character genealogies” which show graphically the close interconnections between over 4000 characters according to the  2000 year-old Shuowen Jiezi by Xu Shen and subsequent research by traditional etymologists. Another resource that explores graphically the origins of characters and associates them with images or little stories is the very well done Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters by Alison and Laurence Mathews.

What distinguishes Chineasy is above all the very nice color illustrations by Noma Bar.  Characters are grouped together based on the principal character used (such as a variety of combinations using the fire character).  The characters, however, are chosen not based on their use frequency, but based on whether they combine with other characters for which Noma Bar has found an appropriate illustration.  This makes for entertaining browsing through the book, but maybe not for practical vocabulary learning. Another caveat is that the characters used are the traditional character set, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but not in mainland China, which uses the simplified character set. This in fact makes it much easier to find appropriate illustrations, as the traditional characters reflect more accurately the origins of the characters.

Chineasy is not the first method to advocate learning characters first, before learning how to speak.  This was most notably championed by James Heisig in his series of books on Japanese and Chinese, starting with Remembering the Kanji.   This is not an approach widely used today.  In fact the all-oral approach of the popular ChinesePod podcasts assumes learners will probably not be interested in learning characters, or will do so later, after learning to speak.  At any rate, I would agree with the comments by Victor Mair on the LanguageLog blog, that the statement by ShaoLan Hsueh in her TED talk that learning to write Chinese is much easier than learning to speak to be very different from my experience and, I would venture to say, from that of the majority of Chinese learners.  However, given the difficulty of learning Chinese characters, I welcome any new thinking about approaches to keeping those pesky characters to stick in my brain. And the illustrations by Noma Bar are indeed very nice.

Chinese beer: getting the name right matters

Today I ate at J.W. Chen’s in South Bend, Indiana.  After being seated, the waitress asked if she could bring me something to drink.  I ordered the standard Chinese beer imported to the US, “Tsingtao” but used the standard Mandarin pronunciation for 青岛 which is Qīngdǎo.  A little later, the owner/chef came out of the kitchen, sat down at my table, asked me what kinds of Chinese food I liked, and suggested a couple of dishes not on the menu.  Something similar happened to me a while back at an Asian restaurant in Richmond, where I was eating lunch with my then boss.  I again ordered Qīngdǎo.  Shortly thereafter, the waiter broght out eating utensils for us, a fork for my boss, and chopsticks for me.  Chinese people are so surprised (and delighted) when Westerners try to speak their language and even occassionally get the tones right (a rare occurrence for me), that their perception of you and attitude may change significantly.

Product names: IKEA in Thailand

A local language team transliterates product names into Thai.

Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal on problems Ikea has with using its normal product naming process in other countries. The Swedish names sometimes don’t go over well. In Thai some of the Swedish product names had sexual overtones. Reminiscent of Chevy trying to sell “Nova” (Spanish: no go) cars in Latin America. They would like to keep the Swedish names (often from place names in Sweden) not out of nationalism but to reinforce the Scandinavian origins, with the hope that the association is with quality products.  Product names for American products in China is an interesting challenge.  The products should sound similar to the name in English but the characters used for the sounds should also have an appropriate and positive meaning.  Coca-cola’s name in Mandarin is 可口可乐 (kě kǒu kě lè), with the sound being close and the meaning something like delicious happiness.