The Tongues Issue


Courtesy of Gemma Bou,

Tongues are funny things. Most of what makes up the tongue is invisible—and much of what we use tongues for is similarly ineffable: to taste; to speak; to kiss; and.. other things we’ll tell you about when you’re older.

But somewhere in that fuzzy mix of taste, language, and sensuality is culture itself. At the tip of the tongue is where both the impossibility of translation and the ecstasy of mutuality are found. So here in the Ethnic Aisle’s “Tongue Issue”, we’re all about that most sensitive of organs, and how it stands for how we communicate and connect. Follow along why dontcha’?

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Here are Kelli Korducki and Chantal Braganza with Goodbye, Mother Tongue, a look at the loss of bilingualism, and the many benefits that come with speaking more than one language.

Helen Mo ruminates on the experience of taking Chinese classes and seeing many when before there only seemed to be one.

Would you dirty talk in your mother tongue? That’s what Bhairavi Thanki’s asking.

Jaime Woo takes a look at how foreign names can be turned into jokes and the very real negative effects that can have.


A Shout-Out To The Harry Koks Of The World

holeechitblk1-300x300If anyone were to challenge me to find the tackiest, gaudiest souvenir in the world, without a moment’s hesitation I would book a ticket for Orlando, Florida, and then drive to nearby Kissimmee—home of Walt Disney World.

I know this because for many years some hours of our annual family vacation there would be spent in stores filled with stringent fluorescent light sifting through crap for something that evoked the Sunshine State.

If we didn’t choose the replica conch shells, bottles of sand, or plastic picture frames, there were always a wide selection of T-shirts with crass jokes printed on cheap fabric. I haven’t checked, but I would bet money that Florida is the birthplace of the fratty shirt: it was in Kissimmee that I learned FBI could stand for “Female Body Inspector.”

The shirts that drew the biggest laughs from my family, however, were ones printed with mock Chinese menus, bawdily offering items like Sum Yung Ting and Wan Tu Fuk. My parents would laugh good-naturedly, amused by not just the outrageousness of the phrases but the reference to the Chinese language as well. It never occurred to us to find it insulting because the jokes were so elementary, too basic to assume malice. After all, gag names didn’t appear any different from Bart Simpson calling up Moe’s Tavern asking for Seymour Butts or Amanda Huggenkiss.

It’s a rare, but not impossible, occasion on which someone mistakes these names as real. Take Henry DiCarlo, the Los Angeles weatherman who in a list of shout-outs gave one to a “Hugh Janus.” The anchorman began laughing, catching on almost immediately, and soon so did DiCarlo. The two took it in stride. Pranks happen, right?

So why did it feel so different when Oakland anchor Tori Campbell read out four Asian-sounding names from the deadly Asiana flight 214 plane crash: “KTVU has just learned the names of the four pilots who were onboard the flight,” she said seriously, “they are Captain Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk, and Bang Ding Ow.” After the break, the anchor apologized for the mistake, and noted that someone at the National Transportation Safety Board had erroneously confirmed the names, despite the correct names Lee Jung Min and Lee Kang Guk having already been released publicly.


Twenty years since looking through jokey shirts, the incident reminded me that Asian languages remain a joke to Westerners. (This is partly why Stephen Colbert and Comedy Central touched a nerve with the “Ching Chong” incident.) Sure, other languages may be used in humour, such as Swedish on the Muppets Show and Norwegian on the Golden Girls, yet there is a key distinction: mock Western languages are funny in that they are unintelligible cartoonish sounds, but mock Asian languages are funny because when Anglicized they create a sort-of fool’s English—not just foreign, but stupid. There’s a signal being sent when a language gets subsumed in service of a juvenile joke: a signal that robs that tongue, and the people who use it, of authenticity, of veracity.

That’s also the demarcation between the Simpsons’ name gag and the Asiana flight prank: it’s coincidental that “Amanda Huggenkiss” sounds like something different, a witticism, but as viewers we inherently get that that name probably doen’t exist. But Wi Tu Lo is in a liminal space where it could appear true but could also be balderdash. There’s a resulting condescension toward someone so otherly they don’t know that their name is a joke.

Many immigrants choose to Anglicize their names in hopes of making their new lives easier, but sometimes this can backfire. I once heard of a man named Harry Kok who had to change his last name to Kwok after one too many awkward phone calls. (“Harry Kok here.”) A line could be drawn between the two ideas: if there are actually Harry Koks, who’s to say there might not be some Sum Yung Tings!

Of course, Chinese names aren’t the only ones to be mocked: you don’t have to be from abroad to be made to feel foreign. Much of the comedy around the tension between blackness and whiteness highlight seemingly “ridiculous” names. It happens in a sketch featuring Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch with SNL’s Sasheer Zamata after the two have a one-night stand: Middleditch awakens, stunned by having slept with a black woman (he blurts out “No way!” after noticing Zamata), then offers a few nonsensical answers when she asks if he remembers her name. (“Barack?”) It happens in a bit by Amy Schumer, who mocks her friend Temembe’s name, before noting that Google should be in the delivery room to help mothers who give names like Temembe alternate suggestions, like Jennifer. Schumer’s humour draws from playing off her own whiteness as a way of highlighting racism, and the real joke—Temembe isn’t real—is that white people are so self-absorbed they can’t remember and, in fact, reject a name that isn’t familiar.

The best sketch on the matter though belongs to Key and Peele. Entitled “Substitute Teacher,” Keegan-Michael Key plays a teacher from the inner city who for the day is at a tony suburban school. He does roll call, asking if there’s a “Jay-quell-lyn” to the confusion of the class—before a white girl asks if he meant “Jacqueline.” On and on, Key offers alternative phonetics for each name—“De-nice” for Denise, “Eh-eh-ron” for Aaron—skillfully confronting viewers with the assumption that pronunciations for names like Michael and Siobhan are fait accompli.

Sometimes, people want to have their cake and eat it too by laughing about other people’s names and then dismissing any perceived offense as trivial because anyone’s name can be turned into a joke. There’s a half-truth there: whether we like it or not, there’s a prejudgment made around the labels we give to one another. Reginald and Destiny bring up two very different people. But we should be careful to not make the easy assumption that because all names bear prejudgment that all are exist on an equal playing field: it does a disservice to the Harry Koks and Temembes of the world.

Names are clearly important not just to those bearing them but also those around us. As I was finishing this piece, I saw on Twitter an NPR link that reports discrimination against women and minorities by faculty in academic departments for more lucrative professions just based on viewing the names alone. Bang Ding Ow, indeed.

Pussy Talk

sexequiparleTwo summers ago, the popular play Pomme is French for Apple was running in a community theatre off of Bloor Street West. Written and starring Bahia Watson and Liza Paul, it got picked up by Fringe and eventually made it to New York. (The Ethnic Aisle interviewed the duo back in 2012.)

At first, I didn’t know what all the fuss was about. Though critics often compared the production to that paragon of white feminism, Eve Ensler’s 1990s The Vagina Monologues, Pomme wasn’t a forum for black women to talk about their vaginas; rather, they let their pum-pums talk for them. That, of course, led to many of the laughs: see the re-appropriation of the “shit my ___ says” meme, “shit pums say” on YouTube.

What’s pink and moist in Jamaican patois? Or even looser, as the artists themselves would frame it, what is vagina in “West Indian,” an even more expansive frame of language?  If pomme is French for apple and yardie for pussy, the two-woman playwas an investigation into not only language and translation but also the untranslatable. “Sometimes things are funnier in that West Indian intonation!,” Watson told Ethnic Aisle. “There’s a big role that language plays.”

What was most potent about the play is that Watson and Paul dressed up as vaginas on stage. This wasn’t simply women sitting around having brunch and talking about what their vaginas do or don’t do. They embodied and blew up a body part. They became their vaginas. The vagina, then, wasn’t just an “it” but, a “me” or “her.” Their movements in costume perhaps a language in itself: its own pussy talk.

Watson and Paul met when they were both involved in an artistic residency at anitafrika dub theatre, the art centre of Jamaican-Canadian actor, playwright and dub poet, d’bi Young. There’s no one in Toronto that has energized the black woman’s pussy more than Young. When I read her, listen to her, smell her, cunts emerge as spaces of imagination, not tied to depth and warmth. And you don’t have to have it to feel like a woman, or, become one. Continue reading

Dirty Talk? Sure, but not in that language!


by Bhairavi Thanki

Have you ever glanced at the cover of Cosmopolitan and thought, “Isn’t anyone enraged enough to ridicule this ‘The 26 ways you can seduce your man wearing a clown costume?’” Enter ShitCosmoSays, a section of Reddit dedicated to just that task.

There’s nothing quite like a bunch of Redditors, both male and female, collectively concentrating their meme-filled rage at a women’s magazine. One juicy screen grab shows an article claiming that learning a foreign language–especially the dirty parts—and then “surprising your guy in bed” is a great way to keep things interesting. The responses to this post ranged from broken French in which random words were replaced with the word “penis” to a full on foreign language dirty talk pissing contest. I cringed the biggest cringe I have ever cringed.

I grew up speaking three different languages, while understanding at least three more, and I am currently trying to learn French. And, as anyone who’s tried to learn a new language can attest to, I learned all the curses first. But would you learn how to talk dirty to someone in bed in another language? That’s really a whole other deal. You have to know how to word it just right and often times that’s a challenge. I wouldn’t even know where to begin saying something sexual in Gujarati, my mother tongue, or Hindi. It’s not that I don’t know the words; it’s just that every time I think about it, my brain screams in agony and disgust. Continue reading

Goodbye, Mother Tongue

fading-away by Chantal Braganza & Kelli Korducki

Immigration from one country to another can mean learning a new language. Along with that, however, comes a separate, if related, linguistic struggle: maintaining the family’s original language(s) and the associated cultural ties.

The Americano Dream?

Ten years ago, the late political scientist and policy advisor Samuel P. Huntington published his last book, Who Are We?—a highly controversial treatise on the origins and apparent erosion of the American identity. One of the threats? Mexican Americans who still spoke Spanish.

He argued that more than earlier European immigration waves to the U.S., Latin American newcomers were more likely to retain their mother tongue since, dialects aside, the Spanish they spoke was largely the same. For Huntington and likeminded thinkers, who believed English and America were inextricable, this was a problem.

“There is no Americano dream,” he wrote. “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.”

But the problem with Huntington’s assertion itself, aside from being presumptive and more than a little racist? He had his facts wrong. A couple of years after his book’s publication, sociologists from the Woodrow Wilson School and the University of California-Irvine scaled data from two recent immigration adaptation surveys. They found that even in areas of the U.S. with high Mexican and Latin American origin populations such as southern California, “language death”— not being able to even order at a restaurant in Spanish, even if your mother tongue is fluent— was pretty much a done deal by the third generation.

“The death of immigrant languages is not only an empirical fact, but can also be considered part of a widespread and global process of ‘language death’” wrote the study’s authors. “Whether or not this is desirable, of course, is another question altogether.” Continue reading

A Singular Excavation


By Helen Mo

Walking down St. George Street, the backbone of the University of Toronto’s downtown campus, is to weave through a cacophony of other people’s conversations. The intensity of academic debate, bursts of late-adolescent emotion, greetings arcing across your path—such is the soundscape of an urban campus.

Somewhere below the threshold of conscious thought you register the clouds of speech while passing through them. People’s mouths move and make meaning only if you share their tongue. Inflections and speech patterns send up flags: foreign; intriguing; friend material. Visual cues hint at who we are. The rest is clinched when we open our mouths.

Arriving in Chinese class, I am singular on the inside. I was a teacher before most of my classmates started high school. Many commute from family homes in the suburbs; my parental home is long behind me. The class is “beginner Chinese for speakers with prior background.” We were all once imprinted with a Chinese dialect, to varying degrees and for varying durations, and so our learning is as much excavation as acquisition. We are mostly Chinese. To the casual observer passing by the classroom we are a roomful of dark-haired and dark-eyed people, chiming the same melodic Mandarin phrases after our dark-haired, dark-eyed professor. To the casual observer we are perhaps alike.

As soon as we open our mouths to speak, we give ourselves away. Our exteriors conceal assorted dialects, accents, grammatical misapprehensions, migration histories, and affinities. Through mouths accustomed to Cantonese, English, French, or Spanish, Mandarin phonemes tumble out, off-key and misshapen. Some of us struggle to understand teaching assistants who are not from Canada but from an Elsewhere (China, we assume). We are told that the teaching assistant from Beijing will have the most correct pronunciation; we nod mutely. We run off to various departments and peer groups and futures. On the inside we each contain multitudes.

Released into the campus we are Asians melting into other Asians, I look at people who look like me and am disoriented by our sameness – I haven’t been surrounded by others of my ethnicity for years. It’s tempting to ask someone not-Asian: “What does it feel like to walk among us? Do we appear as alike to you as we appear to me?”

Somewhere below the threshold of conscious thought a new layer of the campus soundscape is resolving out of white noise with the coming spring. In September I passed uncomprehending through clusters of Mandarin speakers; now their words grow decipherable by degrees. It is a revelation, something that has been there all along and feels miraculous.

Walking down St. George Street is an exercise in aural archaeology. Weaving through linguistic microclimates, I sift through drifts of language for something comprehensible, for the emotion and urgency that animate all our tongues. We trespass on rich and singular worlds daily.

This One’s For the Children

N927S32ABy Denise Balkissoon

I’m a former child bookworm who was hurt and confused by the racism in some of my favourites (I suppose Frances Hodgson Burnett was just “a product of her time”). I’m also a very new parent who wants my babe to love books, but avoid those icky feelings. So I was unhappy to see the stark stats in a recent New York Times piece about characters of colour in children’s books–of thousands of books published in the U.S. last year, not even 500 have African-American or Latina protagonists–and pleased that it sparked some good convos on Twitter.

I figured that compiling all of the suggested books into a handy list would be handy. Thanks to everyone for their suggestions, most especially Amena Rajwani of the Toronto Public Library . If you’ve got more, add them in the comments!

After the jump: a WHOLE BUNCH of multicultural books for babies, kids and teens (in absolutely no particular order):

Continue reading