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:
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.