Wednesday, June 13, 2012

My Fellow Humans

I love Andrew Ti (including, but not limited to, that way).  His tumblr Yo, Is This Racist? is smart, funny, and mean.  I've been surprised and delighted by the off-the-wall but still on-target answers he gives to tricky questions.  But today he pissed me off with this one.
There could be several reasons why someone would do shit like that, but I can't think of any bad ones at the moment.  Maybe someone might believe that the waiter will be all THANK YOU FOR BEING ONE OF US.  But that seems to me a relatively benign reason, if naive.  I can't see what is ever bad about trying to use any words one knows in a foreign language, and trying to discourage it is a bad thing to do.  Maybe even racist.

I speak decent though not fluent Spanish, much weaker French (both from high school, but I've used Spanish much more since then), a little bit of Russian (I took three semesters at IU during the 80s, but have hardly used it since then), a tiny bit of Korean (only one semester), and stray words and phrases in Japanese, German, and even Cantonese and Mandarin.  One of the things that drove me crazy about my fellow students in Russian was their reluctance, even refusal, to say a word in Russian when I encountered them outside of class.  If I greeted them in Russian, most of them would grimace and say "Hi."  This was less of a problem when I was studying Korean, since most of the other students in my section were Korean-American kids who were taking the course for their foreign-language requirement, expecting it to be an easy A.  It wasn't always, because they'd usually stopped speaking it when they entered school, and though they understood it when it was spoken (since their parents still spoke it at home), they'd gotten out of practice speaking it.  My Korean friends, by contrast, encouraged and helped me to speak and write, and I was more motivated than most of my classmates because I wasn't taking the class for a requirement, I wanted to learn Korean.

It is intimidating, though, the first time you try speaking a school-taught language to a native speaker.  John Holt wrote about that somewhere: you don't really believe in your gut that this is real until you say something to someone and find that it works: they understand, and you even understand them.  My first-year high school French class used a dialogue-based approach with recordings, and Madame Cohn told us the joke about the student who visited France after their first year.  "How did it go?" the teacher asked when the student returned.  "Not too well," came the reply, "I couldn't find anyone who knew the dialogues."

There was a Cuban kid in my second-year Spanish class, so I was able to talk to him sometimes for practice.  He told the teacher I did pretty well, which was reassuring.  (He grew up to be a stereotypical fascist Cuban exile, alas.)  But when I encountered some Mexican kids, migrant farm workers, near Plymouth the following summer, they said they couldn't understand me.  I don't think I believe them, my Spanish was better than average for a high-school gabacho.  Maybe they just didn't want to be bothered, which is their right.  But I was also right to try to talk to them.

When I'm in South Korea, I use the little Korean I have, and it improves as much as one could expect over the course of the four weeks I usually spend there.  No one says "Thank you for being one of us," of course.  What they say is "Oh, you speak Korean?  You have a good accent."  Which isn't just being nice, I know I have a good ear and good pronunciation.  The only problem is that people believe at first that I can speak more than I actually can, because I can get out basic phrases accurately.  But no one has ever said Who do you think you are, trying to pretend you're Korean?

As for English in Korea, though, like any visible foreigner I attract people who want to try their English on me.  Some are old people who worked for the US military when they were young.  Some are like the college student who politely asked me on the subway if I minded talking to him for a few minutes so he could practice.  Others are like the middle-school girls who say "Hi!" and then dissolve in giggles.  Are they racist?  Possibly; many Koreans are racist, in Korean terms, but if so it doesn't hurt me.  Do they hope I'll say "Thank you for being one of us?"  I doubt it.  The kids are like kids anywhere: poke the strange thing and see what it does.  The adults have more complex motives, some of which is probably just the satisfaction of having an opportunity to use their English.  (That's one reason I enjoy speaking Spanish: now that I can think in Spanish instead of having to translate laboriously in my head before speaking, it feels good to be able to do it.)

Why do I want to learn Korean, or any other language?  I don't remember why I got interested in Spanish, but it goes back way before high school.  My mother had studied Spanish in school and remembered quite a bit of it, so I practiced with her at home sometimes; I know she encouraged it.  I took French because our school was abandoning Spanish and Latin, and I thought Why not?  I took second-year Spanish and first-year French at the same time, which I wouldn't do today, but it worked fine for me then.  I picked up Japanese phrases from a non-Japanese boyfriend who was a Japanese major.  I took Russian because I'd become friends with, and developed a mild but not debilitating crush on, an American student who was majoring in Russian history.  It wasn't that I hoped that learning Russian would get me into his pants (and it didn't), but listening to him talk about Russian got me interested in Russian.  (I get interested in things easily.)  I took a summer class in German because my Significant Other at the time needed it for his language requirement, and he had a weird block against learning foreign languages that left him in tears when he tried, so I took the class with him to help him learn.  Besides, I'd wanted to study German for a long time.  I took up Korean because I'd become friends with some Korean students at IU, started learning about Korean culture, and got interested in it.  (See above.)

Why would someone want to use the only Chinese phrases they knew in a Chinese restaurant?  There are probably numerous reasons, as I said before, but I'd do it because I know that so many Americans think it's a friendly gesture to pull up the ends of their eyes and chant Ching Chong Ching Chong! when they meet an Asian, or that it's Communist (or Politically Correct) for an American to speak any language but American.  Actually learning and using even a few phrases of another person's language is a gesture of good will at the very least.  It's a kind of contact, as Samuel R. Delany developed the concept in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue a decade ago: "contact" means interaction between strangers, usually in an urban context, that has no aim except the pleasure of recognizing and enjoying common humanity.  (As opposed to networking, which has the aim of doing business, building a career, and so on.  But remember the risk of the false dichotomy: the two can and do overlap.  Networking is probably more pleasurable for everyone involved if a bit of contact is exchanged.)  I wouldn't say Xixi to a waiter in a Chinese restaurant with any goal in mind except a moment of contact in Delany's sense.  I try out my Korean in a Korean restaurant because I'm interested in other people and that's one way of showing it.  (In Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, one character asks another: “Do you think love is the greatest emotion?” “Why, do you know a greater one?” asks the second. “Yes,” answers the first, “interest.”)  It would be better to learn more than just a couple of words, but a couple is better than none.

A couple of weeks ago, someone wrote to Yo, Is This Racist?, asking if her dad was racist for telling her she couldn't dress up as Mulan as a kid, because she was white.  Ti dodged the issue with "Honestly, it would be problematic for someone of any race to dress up as any character from that racist-ass movie." 

This connects to issues of cultural appropriation that I won't go into today, and I guess I can't blame Ti for not wanting to open that can of worms either.  Is it racist if little white kids want to be rappers?  What about little Asian kids?  Ti does, I believe, and I've got the CDs to show the popularity of rap in South Korea. There isn't a clear dividing line between "race" and "culture," but I'm really suspicious when anybody tries to raise and reinforce barriers between cultures and between people, and on the most charitable reading I can't see Ti doing anything else in those posts.  We need to encourage white Americans to learn and use other languages, dammit, not discourage them.