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.

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.

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The Agenda For Tonight: Making Accents Boring


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!

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Pussy Talk


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!


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):

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The Death Issue


Calavera Las Bicicletas, by the Mexican artists José Guadalupe Posada

It’s the time of year to honour the dead, usually by wearing outrageous costumes and eating too much candy. While we at the Ethnic Aisle love a good party where you can’t tell who anyone is, this year we thought we’d take All Hallow’s Eve and Día de Muertos a little more literally.

Here are some personal reflections by Torontonians of various cultures on death, dying and remembering both here, and abroad. They’re about ancestors, and decisions, and grief – and also about love, and how we choose to live.

In A Way of Death, Heather Li describes why her annual visit to her family graves is actually kind of fun.

Rawiya Kameir explains the Sudanese ritual of beit el-bikka for In the House of Crying, a dramatic display of grief that first annoyed, then comforted, her.

Perhaps it happens in many cultures, but Helen Mo has only seen Asian and South Asian families hide death and illness from older relatives. “With one act, it’s possible to both love and disrespect,” she writes in Don’t Tell Grandma.

In God Lives in India, Vivek Shraya writes about love, faith, disillusionment, and the death of his personal God, the multifaith guru Sai Baba.

After 40 years in Toronto, Septembre Anderson’s relatives still grieve using Trinidadian mourning rituals. She talks about the death of her uncle in Nine Nights and Forty Days. 

For many Torontonians, deaths of relatives we loved–or hardly knew–happen on different continents.

Adwoa Afful reflects on the passing of her grandmother and great-grandmother in On Death and Mourning From a Distance. 

While Pacinthe Mattar talks about how “shame and guilt move through my veins” when she missed the funerals of her grandmothers and uncles in Death Struck Where I Was Born, But Never Lived.