The Tongues Issue

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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.

Can you translate the erotic? Tiana Reid examines the theatre of “pussy talk”.

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

Sam Tecle wants a new agenda for TVO’s The Agenda: to make accents boring.

 

Ontario Oreo: Court the Ethnic Vote, Keep the Centre White

Paikin's non-indian tweetBy Desmond Cole

How do you court the approval of white voters while trying to make everyone else feel included? In Ontario, you do it very carefully. Our province is home to a large percentage of Canada’s visible minority population, and has received the biggest share of immigrants to Canada for the last 10 years and beyond. But you wouldn’t know it by following our political campaigns.

As Ryerson professor Myer Siemiatycki pointed out in a recent Toronto Star piece, white voters need to believe they are at the centre of political conversations. Politicians seen as giving too much attention to immigrants and people of colour face potential backlash. Immigrants and people of colour are disproportionately struggling in today’s economy, but saying so during an election is risky because it may make white people feel left out. When party leaders do talk about immigrants, the piece illustrates, it is most often to celebrate their vague potential value to the economy.

This dynamic is real, and it only works in one direction. There can never be too much focus on issues that appear to impact middle-class white voters—especially since such voters are rarely named and scrutinized as a group.

Politicians dare not campaign on the health of Ontario’s immigrants, even though many of them are being denied basic health care. They can say little about the disproportionate numbers of black and aboriginal people incarcerated in provincial jails. Our politicians refuse to address these issues directly–they seemingly prefer to pose for selfies with people with dark skin, or turbans, or exotic flags.

The standard of white-centred political discourse in this province and country is so ingrained that political observers dutifully uphold it, often without realizing it. In their coverage of last year’s Liberal leadership race, columnists from each of the four major newspapers in Ontario called out former Liberal MPP Harinder Takhar for what they called his “ethnic tactics” and racial opportunism. Three of them accused Takhar, who hails from India, of appealing too heavily to South Asian voters.

Before we examine the meaning of these insidious charges, we must acknowledge that similar accusations against a white politician of British heritage courting similarly identified voters are practically impossible to imagine. White voters are the majority in nearly all Ontario ridings:  to win, candidates need the support of white voters. Yet conversations about ethnic pandering to whites do not apply.

Not so with the brown-skinned, accent-bearing Takhar. Steve Paikin, in profiling the Liberal leadership race, tweeted a photo of Takhar’s supporters with the observation, “For what it’s worth, not a single non-indian face among @harindertakhar’s backdrop.” Such commentary applies exclusively when people of colour are the centre of attention.

Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn was the most vicious, accusing Takhar of making “a mockery of multiculturalism” by “ghettoizing himself rather than broadening his base with multi-ethnic outreach.”
“Takhar clings to that anachronistic, patronizing view of his own self-importance and the blind loyalty of ethnic groups — which many of them find embarrassing,” wrote Cohn. The white columnist somehow knew how Takhar’s South Asian constituents felt about being defined by their ethnicity, although he didn’t cite any of the “many” who apparently held this view.

Yet two months later, Cohn actually praised Takhar for hiring staff “who tapped into Sikh temples, networks of truck drivers, sports clubs and seniors’ associations to sign up new party members.” The  problem, Cohn concluded, was simply that these organizers and prospective voters deserved a better candidate. His contradictory statements on tactics and his posturing on behalf of Indo-Canadian voters reveals another feature of white-centred political discourse: the assumption that white people are uniquely qualified to represent the interests of groups of which they are not members.

Ron Leech, a Wildrose Party candidate in Alberta’s 2012 election, unwittingly explained this dynamic in a radio interview during the campaign. “I think, as a Caucasian, I have an advantage,” Leech said in an attempt to sell his candidacy. “When different community leaders, such as a Sikh leader or a Muslim leader speaks, they really speak to their own people in many ways. As a Caucasian I believe that I can speak to all the community.” News reports of Leech’s comments completely failed to mention that he was competing with a Muslim man and a Sikh man, Manmeet Bhullar, who won the seat.

While Leech eventually apologized for his comments, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith shrugged them off, stating that candidates simply put forward their best arguments in an election. No kidding. Leech’s argument may have resonated deeply with his mainly white electorate, but there were no major columns about his pandering for white votes.

When whiteness is accidentally exposed as the invisible centrepiece of our political discourse, white people often try to change the subject. Alternately, they suggest that their racial comments are throwaway arguments unrelated to some larger point, which is what Cohn did when I shared and condemned his “ethnic tactics” commentary on Twitter.

If we are going to talk about racial and ethnic identities in politics, we should talk about how they actually affect people in our white-dominated society. As our political leaders should know, the people whose clothing, dances, and exotic foods make for great photos-ops are also those least likely to be thriving in today’s Ontario. The humanity of people of colour and immigrants is far more important than the discomfort white voters and observers might feel in acknowledging them.

The Agenda For Tonight: Making Accents Boring

WHITECHAPEL HIGH STREET, LONDON, BRITAIN - 21 SEP 2005by Sam Tecle

Recently, The Agenda with Steve Paikin—that old reliable Ontario current events show—recently had an entire episode devoted to ‘Speaking with Accents.’  The question that underpinned the episode: “How does it feel to live in a multicultural society speaking in a way that betrays the fact that one is not born in Canada? I cannot help but think that conversations like these that seem to have the potential to go bad. Real bad.

Consider: The conversation that took place in this episode centred on the niceties and pleasantry associated with an encounter with “accented English.” Do we ask “them” to repeat the question? Do we hang up on the customer service rep that is being outsourced from “some Asian country” that took our call? Is there such a thing as “proper” pronunciation and should we adjust accordingly. Modes of accent regulation, heavy accents and light accents…and more of the same fills the rest of the episode.

Where does this conversation get us? How does this help us better understand the experience of living in Toronto with “accented English” when the conversation is shaped by such banal questions and predictably dull conversation? The answer is not much. The norm on The Agenda: many guests are white males, but every once in a while they will invite guests who are meant to represent, contain and deploy diversity. And they seem to find a way of putting all these guests in one episode—a most efficient way to check a box!

As much as The Agenda might hope, this is not a discussion about language, or about difference – if at all, it is a conversation about difference-lite. This is what happens when power is not part of the conversation. When it comes to race and difference, this is the type of pseudo-intellectual debate that dominates not only The Agenda but much of popular mainstream Canadian press. Why throw power and opportunity into the mix, those ideas that are the heart of Canada’s imaginary? It would make this conversation messy—and just might make it a serious one, too.

Talking about accents the way The Agenda did is like talking about food-as-multiculturalism: the conversation ceases to be interesting, very quickly. Angela Davis once said multiculturalism is like a salad, and conversations tend to centre around who gets to consume the salad.

The Agenda, shot in Toronto and is, dare I say it, Canada’s flagship daily intellectual news show revealed how banal such a conversation can be. Should we not expect or rather demand more of our premiere daily? Accents are echoes of the diasporic experience. They are the first sign of an experience of elsewhere, of displacement, of travel, of love and ultimately of loss—what Paul Gilroy called that “special stress” always involved with having to look both ways at the same time. There is so much pulling to a past that cannot be anymore but does not allow itself to be forgotten, an accent is one type of reminder.

There are ways that the accents people carry and bring to Toronto is on the cusp of an interesting conversation and there are ways it is not. Accents and their reception is not a productive conversation about difference or the struggles and troubles, pleasures and terrors of making a life for oneself, elsewhere. There are much more substantive conversations to be had and accents can mark the entry into rich and layered conversation, so they should always be discussed – but the questions have to be good ones. And we cannot start with the notion that accents and Toronto, even Canada, are a novelty. There is a diversity of accents across Canada – this is fact. Canadians and Canadian mainstream press would do well to rather than exoticize and marvel over them, deal with the reality that this is what Canada sounds and speaks like, and it isn’t changing. Now can we move on to more interesting conversation?

Full disclosure, I tune in to The Agenda daily despite its chronic misses in areas of race and difference, why? Because it is one of the rare places for sustained debate on both Canadian and international politics, but the potential I have marked with The Agenda is wearing thin when this is what is being called smart debate – especially when the show’s tag line is ‘makes you think.’ Unless something changes quickly, I’ll have to make an adjustment in my nighttime viewing habits. My ears won’t be able to take much more of this, no matter the accent.

A Shout-Out To The Harry Koks Of The World

holeechitblk1-300x300by Jaime Woo

If 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

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by Tiana Reid

Two 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!

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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

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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.