Why People Who Know Better Still Laugh at Asian Accents

As a comic of Asian descent, I needed to know the answer.

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Jun 8 2017, 7:15pm

Notoriously racist characters Long Duck Dong (left) and I. Y. Yunioshi (right)| Photos via. YouTube

Sometimes I forget that I am Korean. I know that seems weird since the Asian thing is such an essential part of my carefully curated brand, but I was born in Canada; it's my home. So I always feel shaken when I'm reminded that the Canadians around me—especially the very vocal ones—don't seem to feel the same about me.

I was on a very warm and delayed streetcar a couple of weeks ago when a white woman yelled, "I hate the Chinese! They are so stupid!" The uncreative white woman was referring to an elderly Chinese man who was standing in the doorway with a cart full of groceries with nowhere to move. As she shimmied around the man's cart, still yelling in his face, she half-heartedly lurched at him. He warded her off with a resounding "No, stop!" and some teen boys that I smelled behind me snickered. I heard one of them whisper, "Herro!"

Since I didn't say anything (no one did,) that odious woman probably assumed that my accent was just as thick as the man's. To her and those freakin' teens behind me, my small eyes, my black hair, and my presumed "herro" accent are not Canadian. I don't speak English with a Korean accent since I don't speak Korean, and maybe I feel more acutely aware of how people with Asian accents are treated since watching Dr. Dao being dragged across the United plane . And I now wonder how many times my fluent English has saved me from being called "Chinese," stupid, and laughed at.

The mocking of my grandparents' accents seems to be an acceptable form of racial violence, whether it's in the world at large, or in comedy clubs in particular. I spoke to Asian American peers from around North America to find out why jeering at this part of our identity is such a low-hanging fruit, one which rarely garners any defending on a streetcar full of people, on TV, or otherwise.

"The Asian accent gets a shocking amount of laughter [on stage,] probably 200 to 300 percent more than for other accents," comedian David Fung of the popular Los Angeles YouTube duo, The Fung Brothers, told me.

His counterpart Andrew Fung added, "We don't have a history here, Asians aren't in the Bible. Our accents are comparable to having a lisp or some kind of speech impediment, they aren't used for authoritative voices."

In entertainment, the laughter that The Fung Brothers talk about seems to come hand-in-hand with the performance of any Asian accent. "I was called in to do a read-through for a pilot, the character was a Filipino nanny. I'm OK with doing a Filipino accent because a lot of people don't know it, so I actually want it out in the ether," the Canadian comedy show Air Farce actress Isabel Kanaan told me, "I wasn't trying to be funny but when I did the accent, people laughed."

Notwithstanding that Asianness is evidently not one monolithic identity, reactions to the charming British or romantic Italian accents are never so mocking as they are with ours. "People just think Asian accents are funny," Los Angeles comedian Jenny Yang told me, "They laugh at British or European accents done in a particular way but the funniness of an Asian accent is considered not cool or attractive." Unlike Asian accents, British accents have a wide spectrum of on-screen use. It can be suave in Idris Elba or snooty in Monty Python, while a similar multiplicity that currently seems unattainable for the Canto-Japo-Koreo-Mando-HK accent used on television.

It's clear that, to so many, the "Asian accent" is a mark of inferiority, but there is debate within the Asian American arts community about why it still causes so many to laugh.

For some entertainers, accents are a tool used to create identification within the audience, not just ridicule. Canadian sitcom Kim's Convenience actress Jean Yoon, whose character on the show, Umma, speaks with a heavy Korean accent, told me the reaction to any Asian accent must have nuance so that the audiences they represent can relate to it.

"We have a knee-jerk reaction to accents but it's not so simple sometimes. The laughter can come from the authenticity and the humanity of the moment," Yoon said.

Mickey Rooney probably wasn't concerned about whether his "Chinese" accent in Breakfast at Tiffany's had northern or southern roots, but Yoon explained that today precision and authenticity must be emphasized so that the accent is not caricatured like Rooney's was. "It's the actor's responsibility to be as precise as possible," she said.

For other artists, the attachment that comedy has to accents is necessarily driven by shame; it's easy to laugh at inferiority. "I know it's more nuanced than this, but at its core: People don't really respect Asian people," Fung said.

When someone—a friend's parents or a character on TV—is speaking with an accent, comedically or not, a feeling of discomfort is one that we Asians in North America know well.

"Whenever I hear an Asian accent in a play or movie, I immediately inwardly cringe and I can't always tell you why. It's my first reaction," playwright Lauren Yee told me.

On the first page of Yee's award-winning play Ching Chong Chinaman, a disclaimer reads, "Note: at no time do the CHINESE WOMAN or the CHINESE MAN speak with Asian accents. Or any of the characters, for that matter."

Like bringing a smelly lunch to school, our accents are one of the many signifiers of our decided hodge-podge Asianness that are paradoxical.

Yee says she made this choice to both alienate the characters from their culture and also to focus the attention on the narrative. "I was interested in presenting them on an even playing field with the quote-unquote 'American' actors," said Yee. "If there is an accent, it can be lazy shorthand for 'this character is supposed to be funny.'"

In the many viral instances of violence against Asians in the past few months, the victims' accents seem to tacitly reiterate a long history of their subordination. "American culture has a strong hold on Filipinx (gender neutral term for people of Filipino descent) lives and the accent is a reminder of never wholly belonging to Canada," said Casey Mecija, a PhD candidate studying Filipinx diasporic subjectivity.

Our history is fraught with violence but the future of our "foreign" accents in the western world, as Andrew Fung said, isn't going anywhere and neither are the simplistic, offensive representations of them.

The streetcar grandpa's Cantonese accent and my small eyes that are indistinguishable to mean teens are the same ones that make us feel united against the colonial history, which as Mecija puts it, "has rendered [us] outsiders who never fully belong."

"We all feel that visceral reaction of shame," said Jenny Yang, but she still thinks that the only way it will dissipate is when the representation of accents is widely and properly used. "To erase those accents only reinforces the value system that the dominant culture judges us by is to shame each other for the very thing that makes us who we are. That accented population is a part of us and if we honor it, it can't be used against us," says Yang.

According to Jean Yoon, it would also help if actors who speak with accents were better represented. "Accents will become normalized at the same rate as actors with those accents are promoted up the ranks of the cast list," she says. "It's not happening fast enough."

Like bringing a smelly lunch to school, our accents are one of the many signifiers of our decided hodge-podge Asianness that are paradoxical. The Asian Americans I spoke to seem to agree, albeit for different reasons, that Asian accents lump us all into one category, they mock us, and they simplify us.

All that's left to do is support the voices that don't make us feel so shameful and wait. Wilfred Chan says, "Let that fuel your work." Asian American work is motivated by hearing the taunts in the cafeteria and having the patience to endure them until salmon sushi and bibimbap become trendy and cool. Presumably, the same moment of relief that came for our lunch will happen for stinky, funny Asian accents. Until then I have to remember that I don't look as Canadian as I sound and I can still seem Chinese and stupid.

Follow Celeste Yim on Twitter.

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