More on Language Mismatch: Jackie Mason in Beijing

For the record, I have received one grumpy note about previous items (here, here, and originally here) on language/ethnicity mismatches. That response is as follows:

Strongly disliking your misplaced accents piece. Ultimately, it just says more about our own limitations than anything else -- much like the being stuck in airplane stories.

But maybe he was just joshing, because even he provided an amused link to a Daily Telegraph story about attitudes more Col. Blimpish than anything I have quoted:

Mainly I've received a ton of stories about people who have run into similar situations. A few for now:

Your post reminded me of something that happened to me a while ago when I was living in Beijing. My roommate and I were at the supermarket and wanted to buy some salt, which was complicated by the fact that we forgot the Chinese word for salt. So we were asking questions to someone who worked there, "We're want something that looks like sugar, but while sugar is sweet what we want tastes salty," and it just wasn't getting across. He was handing us mayonnaise, MSG, everything but salt. And then we heard someone say, "Ahh, you vant salt?" in a old school Lower East Side Jewish accent. Instead of the old Jewish man that we expected, it was a Chinese guy in his 30s who spoke perfect English, but sounded like Jackie Mason. We were too shocked to ask him exactly how he came to speak like that.

And also an anecdote I heard - Someone I know was in Boston talking to a white American woman who had grown up in Northeast China and spoke with a perfect Dongbei ["EastNorth" -- the part of China many Americans would call "Manchuria," though that term is not popular in modern China.] accent. People from the Northeast, as you may know, are known to curse up a storm, which she was doing. She walked away and a couple from China walked up to my friend and expressed their amazement and confusion. How could she speak such perfect Chinese, but talk like a foul mouthed peasant?


May I offer a small addition to the language and ethnicity discussion. I was an high school exchange student 40 years ago in a part of Brazil that has a strong regional accent (Minas Gerais). A few years back, one of my sons was a high school exchange student in Calabria, Italy, which also has a strong regional accent. We both picked up Portuguese and Italian, respectively, with the strong regional accents. The gratification of this was that when we travelled around the rest of the country, the first thing native speakers would hear would be the regional accent, so we both very often were mistaken for natives. I sort of looked the part (Spanish grandparents, well within the average for Brazil), my son less so (light brown hair and blue eyes from his mother are not the norm for Calabreses) but almost invariably it was the regional accents that made the dominant first impression.

This also happens in the USA, where given my strong NYC-Long Island accent, facial features and attitudes, I'm regularly assumed to be Jewish.

Both variants on the old phenomenon of "passing," as it were.

A few more after the jump. Others to come.

When I was in the renovation business, I had a very fine tradesman who had been born in Jamaica, raised in London, and then came here to Toronto. His English was, to my ear, perfectly Cockney. But his helpers were more recent immigrants who came straight from Jamaica to Canada. When he gave them instructions it was in the deepest Jamican patois--which is almost another language entirely. (When the Jamaican movie The Harder They Come was released, the dialogue was sub-titled, and needed to be.)

From a reader, on the Meaning of It All:

Thus my theory that the well adapted 21st century citizen will speak standard English depending upon circumstances (business, court appearances, interviews by Charlie Rose) and non-standard English in situations where establishing identity is important.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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