Wednesday, February 18, 2009

laugh at english that they associate with asians

There's been a lot of discussion and outrage in the race-oriented blogosphere lately about this photo of teen idol and Disney money-maker Miley Cyrus, yukking it up with some friends.

Maybe the white folks around this Asian guy thought that exaggerated squinty eyes and buck teeth were some sort of affectionate tribute to him? Whatever. It's just wrong, because it's racist. As I've heard from more than one person of Asian descent, using your fingers to do that to your eyes is the equivalent for Asian Americans of the n-word.

Got that, you decent, well-meaning white folks? As I understand it, pulling the sides of your eyes like that is pretty much the same as calling a black person that word you would never, ever call a black person.

Okay. So, what about basically doing the same thing with your tongue? That is, instead of trying to provoke laughter by distorting your eyes, doing so by distorting words instead?

I don't mean imitating an Asian language, as in the Rosie O'Donnell debacle, when she said "ching chong ching chong" on TV. I mean messed-up English. English that's supposed to be funny because it's messed-up.

I think a lot of non-Asian Americans already know what's wrong with saying "ching chong ching chong" and the like. However, I think a lot of those same people still see nothing wrong with laughing at "bad" English supposedly uttered or written by Asians.

This kind of humor is widespread among white Americans who would never consider their actions racist. Actually, I've done it too. It wasn't long enough ago, for instance, that I finally stopped trying to amuse children with the following riddle. This one went along with a non-racial joke, "Why is six afraid of seven? Because seven eight nine!":

When is it time to go to the Chinese dentist?

Um, I dunno.


Terrible jokes, both of them, but they sometimes got laughs. Now, however, I regret teaching kids that it's okay to laugh at what amounts to "bad Asian English." And to in turn associate real Asians and Asian Americans with bad English. And in the process, to feel sort of, superior to Asians, because your English is "better" than theirs.

As I said, this kind of humor is widespread, and I'm wondering just what lurks within the non-Asian laughter it provokes. Superiority, I think, for one thing. Condescension, too, which goes along with superiority. It's in those innumerable blog entries that find humor in the broken English splashed across various Asian products, like t-shirts and lunch boxes.

As Lorain Blanken notes in a brief article on Japanese t-shirts, this kind of English is sometimes called "Engrish":

In case you haven't heard of it, this is a phenomenon on the internet that has proficient English speakers chuckling at their laptops. 'Engrish' is the result of the Japanese producing t-shirts with English screen print without the consultation of an English speaker. Some of my favorites are 'Donkey Brings You Happy with Joy!', 'Truck, Smell the Pleasure', 'Cute Numb, Strenuous Heartthrob' and the one pictured here, 'Your Boyfreind Seen Nice'.

The ostensible purpose of Blanken's article is to admonish Japanese clothes makers: "What happens to the people wearing these shirts when they go on vacation overseas?" Blanken can't seem to stick to that point, though, and her overall message is that for proficient English speakers, these t-shirts are just good, chuckle-inducing fun.

Ashley, a commenter on Blanken's article, agrees:

this was one of my favorite things about Japan!! trying to decode their “english” shirts was so much fun. many people on the trip bought them to bring home, a popular one was something about ridding a pirate . . .

my favorite one was “the story end with happiness and deeply love” . . . i have a framed picture of it and it makes me happy every time i read it.

Now that I see what amounts to racial condescension in this kind of humor, I don't find it funny, and it doesn't make me "happy." It makes me cringe. Pretty much like I did when I recently watched Breakfast at Tiffany's again, and white American actor Mickey Rooney's sickening yellowface shtick came on:

This morning, I encountered another example of "Engrish" humor, one of those "fun" emails that people keep forwarding, seemingly forever and ever. Here's a taste of it; notice how the "bad" English is supposed to enhance the humor:

Confucius Say:

Man who run in front of car get tired.


Man who run behind car get exhausted.


Man who scratch ass should not bite fingernails.


Man who eat many prunes get good run for money.


Baseball is wrong: man with four balls cannot walk.


War does not determine who is right, war determine who is left.


Wife who put husband in doghouse soon find him in cathouse.


Man who fight with wife all day get no piece at night. . . .


Crowded elevator smell different to midget.


Person who deletes this has no humor!!!


Now send it to 1 or more people. Nothing will happen but 1 or more people laugh.

Again, what's really behind the humor here? And who is it for?

I think that before people who are not of Asian descent forward or otherwise relay such humor, or for that matter any other racial or ethnic humor, they should think first about whether a member of that race or ethnicity would find it funny. And about how it would probably make them feel.

I'm sure that like many white Americans, the friend who sent me this email could easily see what's wrong with the ugly yellowface antics of Miley Cyrus, Rosie O'Donnell, and Mickey Rooney. But apparently this friend did not see anything wrong with laughing at "Engrish." I hope that soon, more people will see that attempts to provoke non-Asian laughter at renderings of "Engrish" are just as ugly as white people become when they narrow their eyes, stick false buck teeth or chopsticks in their mouths, and babble in fake foreign tongues.

[This post was originally entitled "laugh at asian english," which was changed to "laugh at 'engrish,'" which was eventually changed to the current title. Thank you to Restructure! and resistance for posts and comments that pointed out the problems with those two titles.]

Update: Losts of excellent thoughts on racist jokes, and advice on how to handle them, at this Racialicious post.


  1. OK. A couple of comments on this. While I hadn't seen the picture of Miley, it is in very poor taste.

    However, Engrish is funny, perhaps part of it is condensation, but part of it is also looking at how language is used. I had a fellow teacher of mine while I was in Japan who had an apron on it that said "Welcome to the Cathouse." Wildly inappropriate for an English speaker to wear because of the double meaning to cathouse. In her case an apron with a house full of cats on it was just cute. There was also another one involving honey pots. Once again, a word in English that has by and large fallen out of use but in the correct context if funny.

    Language changes and evolves and is given new and deeper meanings by the cultures that use the language. I actually consider the use of cathouse and honeypot, while on the surface slightly offensive (if I was a Victorian lady) but more a reclaiming of words, language and ideas that had fallen out of favor in the current usage. Some of these words may come back into the language with newer, richer meanings that only happens because they were divorced from the original English. This can only be good for one of the more richly textured (ok bastard) languages that is spoken.

    As a student of the Chinese language, I hate the whole Confucius says jokes. Alas, Confucius was never that wise. Ironically what they manage to get right is that classical Chinese isn't very big on all the 'helping' words that give English its clarity--pronouns, prepositions, verb tenses, articles and so on a very basic, not cleaned up, context completely ignored, if Confucius had saying thing like that, that would be the most basic and literal translation. We didn't call him Confusing for nothing.

  2. i enjoyed your post (as usual), and am ashamed to admit that i frequently check out (i don't actually type it into my search bar, but it is related to icanhascheezburger so i do inevitably check out the engrish photos). at first i thought they were hilarious, but honestly i didn't think of them as being asian. i thought they were funny because of the poor grammar (i'm an editor of a magazine and it's not often i get to laugh at poor grammar) but now i see how it is racist. i also didn't really make the connection between the miley photo and the engrish thanks

  3. I've seen the "tooth-hurty" joke before but never with an Asian angle to it. It never made a ton of sense to me, but if it originated as an ethnic joke, that could explain it.

    When I was a kid, we'd slant our eyes in two different ways, one for Chinese and one for Japanese. Yeah, we didn't have many Asian-American families in town, that's for sure. We just didn't have a clue, and if any parents or teachers were watching, I don't think they told us to knock it off. But that was in the '70s. I don't know what the hell is wrong with Miley Cyrus, Spain's Olympic basketball team, etc. By 2009, it should be pretty obvious that it's racist.

  4. Another website that collects pictures of this nature is I had never thought of this as being racist, just as having a good chuckle at the translation errors. Something else I always wondered: if those tee shirts with asian lettering sold in the USA actually say something stupid or funny in Japanese or Chinese? I'd think that would be pretty funny too.

  5. The reason white folks like making fun of Asian English is that it reinforces the racist notion of Asians as "perpetual foreigners". This helps white folks forget the long history of Asian immigration to the US which began in the 1850s, long before many white ethnic groups began arriving. It helps exoticize Asian folks as weird wacky inscrutable sexless/hypersexual Others who are potential spies for communist China. These are foundational components of anti-Asian racism, which certainly helped Congress pass the Chinese Exclusion laws and helped white folks conduct their violent ethnic cleansings during the period known as The Driving Out. Some folks like that stuff, think it's funny, and want to keep it going.

  6. Along with continually portraying Asians as "exotic" and/or foreign, white people also think they can get away with it because, I dunno, racism against Asians isn't really racism. Also, there isn't a huge uproar from the AA communities, which lets people think they can get away with this shit and nobody will complain or speak up.
    I say it's about time that came to an end.

  7. It's a good point that it's not even seen as racist by many (most?) non-Asians, or it's not really racism. I definitely think the perception of "foreigness" is the big culprit, as Kai commented.
    This crap is deployed in similar ways against Latinos, specifically Mexicans, whom are seen as fair game.

  8. Macon, I laughed as soon as I read the title because I knew exactly what you were talking about. It's not just a white thing, it's an American thing, and probably a human thing to laugh at differences in other cultures. No, that doesn't make it right, but I'll bet Asians laugh at us too.

    There's something about humans that's innate in poking fun - or being hostile - toward other groups and even within their own racial or cultural group and between genders.

    It unfortunately reinforces beliefs in the worst stereotypes and can fuel hate, and there lies the problem. Thank you for this post, as it heightens awareness of it.

  9. Watching that "Breakfast at Tiffanys" clip made me want to punch my monitor.

    On the flipside, I remember watching an old Eddie Murphy clip where he makes fun of white people making fun of Asians, and impersonates an Asian making fun of whites. I can't find the clip online, but it's simple and humorous in its point.

  10. I am offended at your post. I am Asian, but I don't speak with an accent foreign to the country I'm residing in. Accents come from culture, not race. Asians don't inherently speak with accents.

    When you call that "Asian English", you are again reinforcing the idea that all Asian people speak like that and are foreigners.

  11. Yeah me too, V-Knowledge. Quite likely the low point of Mickey's long career.

    That Murphy bit sounds great--if you find it, please let me know!

    Yes to this, Kit: It unfortunately reinforces beliefs in the worst stereotypes and can fuel hate, and there lies the problem.

    Thanks for the links to those posts, Kai--great stuff, as usual. (I do wish you'd blog more often.)

    Yes, Levi, there's something about racism against Asians that makes it supposedly okay, isn't there? Including all those "positive" stereotypes.

    I agree, Todd, that jokes about "Mexican English" or "Spanglish" are similar, but it seems to me that most white folks are less okay with that than they are with Asian "Engrish" humor.

    Interesting points, Elizabeth. Odd how an accurate (overly accurate?) transcription of Chinese can come out as racist "Chinglish." But then, full translation means translating fully into the new language, so even though "Engrish" can be accurate that way, it's actually not. And again, condescending humor is often the point of leaving out the English "helping" words that you mentioned.

  12. Good post Macon, thanks, I had not thought about that kind of humor that way. Ya, it's more racist than I thought, I didn't think it was at all racist. . .

    Restructure, did you read the whole post? or did you stop at the title, cuz you already found there what you were looking for, something to pounce on Macon for?

    What sort of idiot would ever think that Asians inherently speak with accents? If this post or its title reinforce that for them who cares? People like that are already beyond hope. Anyway to me it's clear in the post and its title that Asian English is English spoken or written with a fake (and offensive) Asian-ness.

    What do others think?

  13. Restructure, thanks for saying that, as I was reading this post yesterday, I was thinking about how it is common to hear, "Do you speak English?" or "Where are you from?,no where are you REALLY from?" or the attempts by educators to place Asian American children in ESL classes, the idea of "Asian English" that Macon D posts about here are some of the contributing factors, in addition, Kai's comment is also very insightful, again, highlighting the hurtful stereotype of Asian Americans as the perpetual foreigner.
    Haley, you say that to you, Asian English is English spoken with a fake or offensive accent, but if that was so obvious to white people, then why are Asian Americans treated as the perpetual foreigner, how do you account for that?

  14. I think I see what you're saying, Restructure, but I'm not sure how to solve it. I pretty much meant the post to be about some different kinds of "English that's somehow connected to Asians by non-Asians," and I can see how "Asian English" could be interpreted in such a way that it reinforces the idea that all people of Asian descent speak like that and are foreigners.

    Would it solve the problem to write "Asian" English instead of Asian English? Apparently not, because while "Asian" English fits the fake Asian English that's in the "tooth-hurty" joke, it doesn't fit what's on the t-shirts and lunch boxes produced by actual Asians, that language called "Engrish" (which might in turn be called Japanese English, or Chinese English--though I see problems with those too). I could imagine a few people getting their false conception that all people of Asian descent speak English like that reinforced by the post's title, but not by the post itself. For now, I can't see how to rephrase the post's title to cover the different examples of English usage discussed in the post.

    Maybe "Asian English" is like the "people of color" vs. "non-white" problem, in that both of those are also imperfect terms, but useful in given contexts in lieu of something better.

  15. I too admit that I love the engrish sites. I hadn't thought of it in this respect though, mostly in the pop culture 'lets make this cool by slapping an english phrase on it' side I would see all the time when I was a JET. Is finding amusing poorly phrased, out of context english in a foreign environment, where it is not the dominant culture different, different from jokes and humor that rely on the stereotypical "asian way" of speaking english for the punchline?

    On the flipside, have you ever heard of a site called Hanzi Smatter? It's something of an inverse to all the engrish sites, dedicated to the misuse, mistranslation and incorrect execution of asian characters in western tattoos and clothing.

    How does this fit into the narrative? I realize that the engrish sites outnumber those like Hanzi smatter by a considerable degree. Are they as comparable as I think?

  16. Well, I'm white and I wasn't confused by "Asian English." I've done this kind of joking. No more, no more.

  17. Macon D,

    How about 'stuff white people do: laugh at "Engrish"'?

    I'm shocked that I'm being taken seriously this time, although I did expect some commenter to accuse me of looking for racism again in a closely-followed comment.

  18. Thanks Restructure, that is a better title. Probably more intriguing, too.

  19. Hi Macon, I think the overall intent of your post is up to snuff and everything, but it feels like some of it is a little outside the zone. Like the Miley Cyrus picture - while ridiculous - would probably be more fitting in a post entitled "assume their own physical features are 'normal' but think those of other races are abnormal."

    Anyway, I realize you only used it as a jumping off point. So on to my comment...

    There is a mainstream subconscious assumption that Asian languages are less complex and poetic than English. Like the Bacardi commercial where the guy sneezes and inadvertently insults the Asian guy. (Because their language is made up of sounds, not words, get it?!)

    Or the SNL sketch when Chris Farley went on a Japanese game show and won by stringing together random syllables.

    Or of course, "ching chong ching chong."

    What's so aggravating is not that people are making fun of the way English is being used ungrammatically so much as it feels like they are denigrating actual human beings. There's often an undercurrent of "look these people can't even bother to learn English..."

    When someone speaks English with a heavy foreign Asian accent, the automatic leap that some people make to "ching chong" is almost like saying "By saying 'ching chong' I am speaking your language as well as you speak know, since your language isn't a real language and mine is."

    When my mom makes grammatical mistake, I can feel free to think it's funny. And I may even tell a white friend who I would also say could think it was funny. But funny in the way it is when someone missed a spot while shaving or wore mismatched shoes - it can and does happen to everyone. It doesn't debase that person's value as a human being; but joking about it in that way does. I feel like this is somethign that can't really be examined in the space of this reply.

    Grammatical and pronunciation "mistakes" can be made by anyone - it's only when it's made by Asian people that it gets turned into more ammunition for an unfunny joke.

  20. I think it's a case of access, too. In my work, I am constantly talking to people from other countries with varying degrees of English knowledge, so I've learned that a person's ability to speak English has nothing to do with his/her intelligence. I laugh at these things, but I also laugh at the Russian's, Argentinian's, Frenchperson's, German's, Italian's, etc. attempts to speak English can come out, and indeed at my own pathetic attempts in German, Swedish, and Spanish.

    But most white Americans do not have a lot of contact with people for whom English isn't their first language or who don't speak much English - often because of the belief that lack of proficiency in English means a lack of intelligence, which makes the white person automatically write off anyone who doesn't speak nearly perfect English as not worth talking to. And most Americans don't know how difficult it can be to avoid the humorous traps of an unfamiliar language. That ultimately begins a reinforcing loop, since they are never forced to see the intelligence and humanity of someone with terrible English like I have been.

  21. "There is a mainstream subconscious assumption that Asian languages are less complex and poetic than English."
    I thought the assumption was that it was the other way around...

  22. I grew up in Hawaii and we had a little "game" we'd play while looking at each other. We'd slant our eyes up, straight back, whichever way really and in the end smoosh them. While doing each eye shape we'd sing, "Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Squash!" and then laugh. I cannot say this was a bad thing to do even though there are all sorts of eye shapes within each "race" or country.

    On Engrish... well, I find it cute and funny. I think it can be funny for both parties. It's always fun to try and find out what the other person is trying to say and when it comes out cute, it just does! When I try and speak Japanese, it's the same thing. It can be hilarious at times. I realize sometimes or most of the time I'm not in on the joke, but at least I know I did something incorrect. =P

  23. Hmm. I don't know. The squinty eyes thing is wrong. And Kai is right about the perpetual foreigner thing. Restructure, someone did accuse you of looking for racism. I would have had it not been done. As far as being taking seriously, stop seriously picking at every little thing and we won't take you serious every time you do it.

    I also think Elizabeth is right about the humor being about the way language is used. So, the "confucious says" stuff is funny. And as far the t-shirts - hire a translator!

    Don't get me wrong. I roll my eyes when in an attempt to mock or otherwise portray "ghetto" blacks, people use the verb "to be." Though, I do think it's telling that the "be" is hardly ever used properly.

    And I do think non-Asians do things that would be considered racists if done to African Americans. But I think they do so mostly because Asians have "marched" about it, so to speak. I don't think most white people, sorry to be so blunt, know what's really racist and what's not. They just know what someone will be offended by even if they don't stop to take a walk in someone else's shoes.

    And that's my immediate take on things.

  24. wtf. that picture makes me wanna vomit in empathy. and honestly even some of the defenses on this comment thread leave me shaking my head.

  25. Hey Macon, I found the clip I was talking about:

  26. It still says "Asian English" in the actual post.

  27. Katherine, thanks for the link to Hanzi Smatter. I used to read Tian's other blog, and didn't know about this one. I think what it's saying about language is very different from what my post is about, because it amounts to laughter coming from the other side of the table. Or maybe, lower on the racial totem pole? Anyway, a site that points out the often absurdly bad characters that non-Asians adorn themselves with seems like good, corrective laughter to me, not the condescending and dehumanizing kind I'm pointing out in this post.

    Giles, I'm not sure where you're saying my post is "outside the zone," but I do agree that, again, when people laugh at "Engrish," "it feels like they are denigrating actual human beings."

    Thanks for the video, V-Knowledge! I wonder, what do you think of it after seeing it again?

    Yes, Restructure, the phrase "Asian English" still appears in the post, three times actually, but with qualifying words before it, or quotation marks around it, that block the kind of negative reinforcement that you initially pointed out.

    Thanks for the image of empathetic vomiting, nezua. I think that one's going to stay with me for awhile.

  28. After watching that Eddie Murphy clip again, Macon, I still find the Chinese & American bit humorous. But the whole Arabic portion is pretty cringe worthy.

    Then again, a few key bits of his "Delirious" stand up simply couldn't fly as humor today. Look at what he says about AIDS and the gay community as an example. This particular bit was largely informed by the nationwide ignorance of the AIDS epidemic at the time.

    These parts aside, "Delirious" is indeed a hell of a standup, as well as "Raw".

  29. Macon D,

    Yes, Restructure, the phrase "Asian English" still appears in the post, three times actually, but with qualifying words before it, or quotation marks around it, that block the kind of negative reinforcement that you initially pointed out.

    I don't think so.

    You wrote: "However, I think a lot of those same people still see nothing wrong with laughing at "bad" Asian English."

    The quotation marks are around "bad" not "Asian", as if there is such a thing as "good Asian English" or "Asian English" in general.

    You also wrote: "Now, however, I regret teaching kids that it's okay to laugh at what amounts to "bad Asian English.""

    Again, this suggests that there is "good Asian English" and "Asian English" in general.

  30. Maybe I'm missing it, but what's so engrish about the joke: "Why is six afraid of seven? Because seven eight nine"?

    Maybe I'm completely missing something but I thought the point of the joke was to highlight english homonyms. if you could explain this that would be great.

  31. Mr. M, you're right, that one's not an "Engrish" joke. I just meant to say that it was my other standby joke/riddle for kids.

  32. I think it's problematic to mock the English (or what is stereotyped to be the English) of people who have moved to the U.S.

    However, I'm not sure it's so bad to be amused by odd translations done in Japan (or China, or other countries without a strong English-speaking tradition) because there's less of an issue of English being used to exercise power. That is, in the U.S. (or Britain or other English speaking countries), not speaking English, or speaking it incorrectly or with an accent carries social stigma.

    In contrast, I never got the sense when I was in Japan that anyone looked up to me for speaking English; it was much more "Oh, poor foreigner who doesn't know Japanese, let's try speaking it very slowly interspersed with a few words of English."

    I see amusement at "Engrish," e.g. at t-shirts produced, purchased and worn in Japan, as being similar to Japanese and Chinese amusement at silly foreigners who get random words they don't understand tattooed on themselves, believing that they're getting something high-minded like "universal peace" when it's actually "eggplant." It's finding funny the use of the commonplaces of your culture as something cool and exotic. Our language is commonplace to us, but I noticed in Japan that it tends to be used in a branding way; for example, the Japanese equivalent of Pinkberry used English to show that it's hip and oriented toward young people. Stuff that's marketed toward older people, however, rarely features any English.

  33. I wonder if instead of "Asian English," a better term might be "Asian ESL mistakes" or "Asian English-as-a-second-language." I'm white and probably missing some nuances here, but I thought I'd make the suggestion in case it is useful. Also I don't know if ESL is a well known abbreviation everywhere. Here in the pacific northwest it is pretty common. (ESL courses, ESL students, ESL teacher, ESL speaker, etc.)

  34. I agree with PG. Also, while examples from Japan and China are abundant, there are also bad translations from non-Asian countries (I remember seeing a few from Scandinavia in particular). There are also stories of English being badly translated by Anglophone corporations into foreign languages. (Snopes debunks the example I was going to use, Coke being called something that translated to "Bite the Wax Tadpole" in Chinese, but the fact that this story and its relatives are so popular demonstrates that it's not one-sided fun at the expense of Asians).

    Besides, I don't think it's a mockery of skill at the language so much as it is a mockery of corporate laziness in translation. No level of bad English skills could produce this error:

  35. Macon D,

    It wasn't long enough ago, for instance, that I finally stopped trying to amuse children with the following riddle. [...] Terrible jokes, both of them, but they sometimes got laughs. Now, however, I regret teaching kids that it's okay to laugh at what amounts to [...]

    Just wondering. When you told these jokes to children, did they include Asian children? Or were they all white children?

    Were these your children? How long ago was this?

  36. I should have posted my other comment on this post. Resistance at resist racism points out that the word "Engrish" is racist. I didn't think about that initially, and now I agree. Resistance has some better suggestions, but Macon D said that those suggestions "lack the racial and racist specificity".

    I tried Googling for alternatives to the word "Engrish", and then I found a Sociological Images post titled Laughing at "Engrish". Weird. It's almost the same title, with the scare quotes and everything.

    Anyway, I think the real theme of this post, including the Miley Cyrus photo, is "feel superior to Asians".

  37. I agree with PG too; I think there's a big difference between making fun of people's language ability when they're trying to communicate, and making fun of signs in a business or corporate setting that have been poorly translated, or where English/any other language has been employed for "coolness" purposes. The example of non-Chinese speakers getting tattoos saying silly things is very apt.

    As much as the translation being funny, it's the fact that no-one along the way decided to check the language. An example of this is that road signs in Wales need to be shown in both English and Welsh; recently one was erected with a Welsh out-of-office message from the translator because no-one bothered to check that the translation was correct.

    But I'm completely agreed that making fun of people trying to make themselves understood is unacceptable.

  38. Thanks for changing the title again, Macon D. At first I didn't get it, but now I see. Even though the concept it represents is being critiqued, using the word to represent the concept is still racist.

  39. Interesting distinction from PG:

    Is there a notable difference between mocking Asian-English snafus in the hypothetical (this would include the racist jokes and email fwds that are so abundant)and mocking actual products emblazoned with English mis-translations?
    I grew up in Japan, and while I learned early that it's not funny or polite to mock someone's accent or difficulties with English, we never stopped laughing at the commercials for "AMERICAN BAR" and other poor appropriations of English in products and ads.
    To be honest I've always assumed it's on purpose at this point, and that they are having a laugh at us too.
    I'm open to the idea that this also needs to change, but I feel like it's a different level of humor. One is mean at another's expense, the other (hopefully) expresses amusuement at harmless cultural cross-pollination.

    Great post, and thanks as always for provoking some critical thought during my day!

  40. I think exactly what people are laughing at when it comes to broken English really depends on the person. I don't think it's necessarily connected to racism or feelings of superiority - though it can be.

    I study Japanese and have a lot of contact with Japanese people. Many of my friends with English as a second language have different levels of English ability. Some have a stereotypical accent and others speak with barely any accent. And the important thing is that differences in ability among a group are acknowledged.

    I do tend to be bothered when East Asians are portrayed in the media 98% of the time as saying "rike" instead of like. I don't think it's funny when broken English is associated with a group of people as being one of their only defining characteristics. A lot of East Asian characters tend to be sort of two dimensional or maybe more like one dimensional. Their characters ARE stereotypes and nothing more. I remember I found the treatment of the Japanese student character in Revenge of the Nerds to be so distracting and unfunny. Sure, that movie relies on stereotypes for many other characters but why is utter reliance on the display of stereotypes so hilarious? I found it annoying rather than funny.

    On the other hand, I do find broken English in itself to be amusing. It just sounds cute and the unexpected phrases can be entertaining. I do have a friend who often says "angly" instead of "angry". This makes me think of angry triangles in my head. It's a strange image. But it's the word itself that I find amusing. It's not the Japanese man saying the word that I find amusing. In fact, this sort of "engrish" occurs in many other areas of the world and is still amusing. I remember coming across some Romanian restaurants with really interesting English names and I found them amusing too.

    But I am also a learner of several languages. While the mistakes are cute on their own, I think it can really discourage someone to always have people laughing and commenting about their level of ability. I know I feel that way when people mention my "cute Japanese". The words and phrases are cute on their own but the person uttering them is trying to improve...
    So, it's difficult.

  41. I think that native English speakers also like to show their superiority to other native English speakers who have regional accents. For example, western Canadians make fun of Ontario people who say "oot" instead of "out" and "aboot" instead of "about". In fact, I've heard Americans imitate Canadians this way. As an English tutor to immigrants from various countries around the world, including many Asian countries, one of the things I hear most from students is that they are often afraid to try speaking English in a public forum because they don't want to be laughed at by native English speakers. I sometimes think that mispronounciations are "cute" or "amusing" but I need to let students know that they are in a safe place where it is okay to make mistakes when learning English and that they will not be judged or laughed at for making mistakes.

  42. I agree with everything in your post except your response to Ashley whom you quoted.
    As a traveler and as a lover and learner of languages, I understand her reaction to the mistaken English very well. My cousin once said something like "it's very farty today" (meaning to say windy) in German while in Germany and everyone laughed, then corrected her. I'm sure they all went and told others who also laughed. It's not about race, but language. My German ex-boyfriend used to say ridiculous things; so do my friends who speak Portuguese, Spanish, Korean, Cantonese, and French. And I laugh at them as much as they laugh at me when I say something silly their language.
    But let me reiterate that I agree with the bulk of the post. Putting on an accent or incorrect grammar to imitate someone whose different from you can be really condescending.
    Screwing up other languages keeps me from getting proud when people make mistakes in English...Maybe that's the key! If we Americans cared enough to learn other languages we wouldn't be so cocky about

  43. I'm living in China, and the Japanese clothing maker is absolutely right, the Engrish is as funny to proficient English speakers from Asian countries as it is to native speakers. It's about the language. Quite a number of people wearing these clothes know perfectly well that it makes no sense or is quite hilarious. It's why they bought the shirt in the first place!

  44. I agree with practically all of this.
    But just one point: I do find poor, obviously machine-generated translations funny (eg: "Truck, Smell the Pleasure"). To me, it's the over-reliance on machines part that's funny. They can't do everything better. Not to mention the all-too-corporate "no need to check this; who cares" attitude. And this goes for all bad translations (of languages that I read well enough to understand, anyway). I've seen, and been amused by, bad French-to-English signs, bad English-to-Spanish signs, etc. (Can companies not find bilingual humans? Not even in the places where this signage is needed?)

    I have been known to crack myself up by putting text into Babelfish, and double-translating it to something else and then back into itself. It's best if the text is really figurative, or uses lots of idioms (poetry; song lyrics). The results are invariably hilarious!

    I doubt this stance is typical, and therefore it's probably not what you were referring to. Still, I just wanted to point out an alternate POV on the "Engrish"=funny issue. (PS&NB: I do have a problem with that word! And no, I'm not Japanese. Or Asian, for that matter.) (Nor am I white!)

  45. I think your post is interesting and overall very informative. You're absolutely right, most white folks do not understand how offensive some things they say are.

    It goes both ways though. People who are not white often don't understand how offensive some of their remarks can be. That's right, it is possible to be racist against white folks. I know that is a smart ass remark, but I'm making point to anyone who might read this.

    For example, when I hear people who are Asian (or other races) say "man that is SO white" it annoys me. It's like we are the definition of "uncool" and have no culture.

    Another one, which really hits a nerve with me is the "white people are so disrespectful" speech. People of all races can be disrespectful. It's high context culture v. low context culture. Whites tend to be more direct. Some Asians see this as aggressive. Asians tend to be more subtle. Some whites see this as dishonest. It's a lack of cultural understanding.

    Just mildly offensive? No big deal, right? Just as "ching chong ching chong" is just mild insult and no big deal. No that pisses you guys off (and you have every right to be angry).

    Like I said you are correct about much of it what your discussing. But it seems your post implies white people are completely ignorant. We're not! Some of us are. But you know what? Some of you guys are too!

    So if you are going to bring up whites being racist, just make sure you look in the mirror first and check that you aren't being a little racist yourself.

    Oh and mocking peoples' accents, while very rude, isn't racist. I can't roll my r's in Indonesian. It's not because I'm white, it's because I haven't practiced enough. Ngomong-ngomong, kami bukan bule.

  46. True true. The article was very interesting and it's very good that you bring up the point, but not because I agree with your views on the entire subject. I say that because it's important for everyone to consider what exactly they're laughing at. These jokes really have nothing to do with race. They have to do with grammatical mistakes. It is the fact that whatever was said was so ridiculous and made so little sense, despite the fact that you know exactly what the person is trying to say.

    I'm white. Please don't pin this on my one race. It happens everywhere and in every culture. People make fun of differences. Many of us joke to find common ground. My gay friend told me to never say a gay joke again because they were too funny for him to handle. People make fun of me for being short. So f*cking what? It's the truth. I can take a joke about myself whether it be about appearance, grammar, physical abilities, whatever. The problem I see is that both sides are often too ignorant to see where the other one is coming from. People need to loosen up and realize that they are who they are and if they can't grip that, they need to learn how to laugh at themselves.

  47. Hey there. Rain Blanken here.

    Not sure how you interpreted my video about Japanese errors in translation to be racist. It's a common phenomenon that happens among ill-informed clothing makers who need better native English speakers in the company. This commentary certainly doesn't meant that everyone in Japan doesn't know good English, and I think that is clear in my video. To make me out to be racist is bordering on slander, considering all my other videos on YouTube are about LEARNING JAPANESE LANGUAGE.

    Obviously I have a deep respect for the language and people of Japan. I've spent YEARS learning the language and culture. Perhaps you should have done more research on my videos before posting this.

    As your reader evidently agree, bad grammar is just damn funny. It's just as humorous to spot those 'I'm an idiot' bracelets being sold in Hot Topic that people wear in America because they don't understand what they say in Japanese. Also, I'm a writer by trade. It's my JOB to spot typos and crap grammar.

    The next time Miley Cyrus slants her eyes at a camera, don't go finding the first YouTube video you can get your hands on to try to lump in with your 'news' on racism in America. Had you watched ANY of my other videos, this would have been evident.

    You know what would be racist? If we ignored the typos on their shirts just BECAUSE they are Japanese. How about that?

  48. Wow. What a completely racist post. Why is it that 95% of people complaining about racism are blatantly practicing reverse racism, and not being called on it?

    The actions you tout as being what 'white people' do (regardless of your pointless little blurb at the top specifying 'some' white people) can be completely and totally accurate without the 'white' adjective in there whatsoever. PEOPLE do this. Everyone.

    If this is the way you've found to bring people to your blog, more power to you, but reverse racism (even against your own race) is just as disgusting as 'regular' racism.

    * rac·ism
    * Pronunciation: \ˈrā-ˌsi-zəm also -ˌshi-\
    * Function: noun
    * Date: 1933

    1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
    2 : racial prejudice or discrimination

    — rac·ist \-sist also -shist\ noun or adjective

    Next time, try commenting on the sad state of the HUMAN race, instead of just the parts of it you don't like.

  49. Amanda, I don't get it -- all people do this? Are you seriously saying that Asian people laugh at English they associate with white people?

    As I've said here before, I don't believe that white people are essentially different from other people. I do believe that white people are trained to think, feel, and act in common white ways. Not "all people" get trained that way, nor even most of them -- only most white people.

    Do you see what I mean by making tbat distinction? And do you see how significant it is?

    Yes, in some of the posts here, some other people do what I say a lot of white people do. But even then, white people do it more, or they do it in a particular way or ways. And a lot of those ways are racist ways, even when the person doing it would never consider themselves a "racist."

    Do you consider yourself a "racist"? If not, then why would you want to continue doing racist things that your being categorized as white encourages you to do?

  50. i feel so sorry for the chinese guy, the white people seems to be taking the piss out of the chinese! they are damn racist, how would they feel if they were chinese and get laugh at all the time and making funny faces?

  51. Ok, on Miley. Seriously, she's SEVENTEEN. Let they who are without sin cast the first stone. Can anyone honestly say they never made a mistake, ESPECIALLY, when they were a teenager?? I thought not. This picture was taken out of context and she was probably caught up in the moment. Was she wrong to do it, yes, but she issued an apology and, frankly, I think it makes her a better role model than if she had not done it. Teenagers make mistakes and putting a teenager up on a pedastal that's perfect, never messes up and pointing saying "Be like her" is just as bad as plastering pictures of super models all over and telling young girls they should look like them. Having a teen that makes mistakes then owns up to them shows teens how to handle it. Instead would you rather have a perfect teen role model that simply makes us mere mortals feel like dirt beneath their shining example?
    As for engrish, it's not racism. Racism is taking a persons RACE and making fun of it for the purpose of demeaning that race. First off, The way a person speaks is not a quality of their race. How many people do you know, of African decent, that speak Nigerian? Second, most Engrish sites I've seen do not make fun of the Japanese people, their customs, way of life, or physical appearance. There's a difference between "making fun of" and "having a laugh at." Engrish is has a laugh at how difficult it is to translate Japanese to English because of how different the languages are. There are few words that directly translate. For example, "Futari Onnanohito" means "Two women" but "Futari Tori" (tori is bird) is so horribly wrong I can't even post a literal translation because Futari can only be used to count PEOPLE. The closest translation I can think of is "Two people birds" and that's not even right because Furtari doesn't always translate literally to "Two people." Also "Teeburu no shite ni iro Onnaonoko wa warrate imasu" means "the girl under the table is smiling." Notice Table came first in the subject fragment (the part before the wa). If I said it (with an English predisposition, ie. Subject identified first) "Onnanoko no shite ni iro Teeburu wa warrate imasu" This would mean "The Table under the girl is smiling" to a Japanese person. I'd bet you they'd chuckle, then correct me and we'd all have a laugh and I'd never forget that the reference object comes first in a positional statement again. Is that wrong? Should I be offended and scold that Japanese friend? Maybe call him a racist and go cry in a corner? Or should I simply laugh with them and accept the criticism? I'll take the latter and learn to be a better Japanese speaker. As shown this is not a one way street. There are as many pitfalls for us learning Japanese as there are for them learning English. To me Engrish is a warning sign. It taught me that I should do my best to learn to speak Japanese properly so that I do not insult their culture and their people by decimating the language when I attempt to speak it. I'm not saying that it's wrong or that they insult us with Engrish. Like I said, people make mistakes, it's how they react. If they cry about it, and say they're insulted then go ask us never to criticize their language skills, then they'll never learn to speak English properly. As long as the commentary on Engrish stays away from "omg those japanese are soooo stooopid lolololol" and it remains constructive. Then it's fine.

  52. Hmm, I screwed up that should be "no shitA ni irU." What I said was "The girl hero the table color is smiling." But that's a perfect example of how easy it is to screw up, and how we can make "gaijin no nihongo" too. Oh and I found this gem Interesting view from the other side of the fence, and yes I feel the subject of that story IS far more racist because it calls out gaijin specifically, and indicates the speaker wishes to handicap them in Japanese society. Something no engrish poster I've seen has ever done.

  53. James wrote,

    Oh and I found this gem Interesting view from the other side of the fence, and yes I feel the subject of that story IS far more racist because it calls out gaijin specifically, and indicates the speaker wishes to handicap them in Japanese society. Something no engrish poster I've seen has ever done.

    Please read this post -- I think it describes the mistake you're making here at this blog about stuff white people do.

  54. Oh someone fell for it. I never said that two wrongs make a right. I simply said it's an interesting view from the other side of the fence. You assumed and put words in my mouth. Don't assume that A.) I'm white (only 1/4 caucasion. The rest is Arab and Mexican) B.) That being white means I would make the mistake of thinking two wrongs make a right, you racist :)

  55. @James

    To quote the great RVCBard, "Run along now, baby troll. Grown people are talking."

  56. While a lot of the ways people make fun of Asians is very offensive, I don't think the "Engrish" thing is one of them. A lot of those websites that supposedly make fun of Asian English make fun of the English skills of foreign white people too. A lot of the posts are from Russia, Bulgaria, and other places in Europe. While in Russia I often laughed at bad English translations and how my Russian friends spoke, but they made fun of how we speak Russian too. It's not a race thing, we just cant help but laugh at something that sounds funny in our language, and we see it as a simple miscommunication and not a way to demean people.

  57. And in asia, they can't figure out why white people wear tshirts with nonsensical chinese/japanese/some other language.

    I once saw a white guy with a shirt filled with chinese characters, except the characters are not only upside down but also flipped.

    americans, esp white americans, like to pat themselves on the back for having such a great mastery of english while the foolish asians can't seem to get it but they forget that asians also think it's hilarious when whites wear nonsensical asian words.

  58. bob, I think I see your point, but I don't quite get the idea that white Americans are proud to speak English well? Seems to me they just take that for granted about themselves. An irony I see in their condescending laughter at others learning English as a second (third, fourth, etc.) language is how relatively foolish they themselves look, for being rather self-satisfied with, in most cases, being able to only speak one language.


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