by 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.