Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Asian Names, Qingdao Beer, and Marilyn Chin

Roger Pao has an interesting blog entry on variations of the question, "Where are you from?" so often posed to Asians living in America, Canada, Australia, Europe, etc. Check it out. I responded that an even more annoying question (to me) is when someone asks "What are you?"

I responded that I sometimes think of saying "I'm about to smack you."

On a related matter, it's discouraging how few people can even pronounce basic Asian sounds. Sure, some people can't roll their r's while speaking Spanish, but at least they know the r is supposed to be rolled! We have a long way to go as this relates to Asian languages, myself included. Languages are challenging. For example, in Mandarin, the Q makes the "ch" sound (as in chimney). So, that great city on the coast, Qingdao, is pronounced "Ching dow." And the great beer from that city, Tsingdao, was Westernized in spelling in fear that no one would be able to pronounce it, making it harder to sell. But this isn't really about beer. It's about names, languages, cultures, and power, and ultimately, probably money.

Can't we make some progress here? Why don't more middle and high schools offer Mandarin? Why are Asians still so exoticized (or absent) in nearly every major media market? Did I read correctly that among the regular television programs on all of CBS, one report showed there wasn't a single Asian actor/actress with a regular part on the whole damned network? (Please don't slam me with posts correcting me if that statistic is wrong; it may be inaccurate, but would it surprise you if it were true?) Please know I am asking these questions rhetorically. Believe me, I have my own ideas as to why these things are the way they are.

Well, I've vented again. I feel better. But I'm thinking of this because my oldest and closest friend is currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand and loves it. He's especially enamored with the food, which I told him might be the best food in the world. And he is planning to teach an Asian American Literature course at the college where he teaches (northern California), which doesn't have such a course, if you can believe it. He's not Asian, but he wants to teach it. I think the students there could use it. I've been giving him suggestions on reading--great work that speaks to many people, asks them to look at their own lives and shines light on others', as great literature will. So with Roger's blog entry in mind and in the spirit of names, language, and culture, I will recommend he start with "How I Got That Name," one of my favorite poems by Marilyn Chin.



mor x. chang said...


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Roger Pao said...

Thanks for the discussion! Here's another snappy comeback to the "What are you?" question: "I'm someone who thinks that question is rude and thoughtless." Not necessarily something that one would try in real life (unless one wants to potentially pick a fight).

On another note, yes, I definitely agree with you that more middle and high schools should offer Mandarin as a foreign language. I'm pretty sure that there would be at least some interest...And, yes, I like your recommendation of Marilyn Chin's "How I Got That Name."

JWG said...

first question I get here in Korea, "Where are you from?"
I say Thailand, but that does not usually suffice

Lee Herrick said...


checked out you blog...pretty cool. how long have you lived in korea? who's your team? i'm an old A's fan, but back in the Carney Lansford, Rickey Henderson era. are you from thailand or were you joking? born in s. korea?


JWG said...

Hi Lee,

No, actually I am from yr neck of the woods. Saw carney and Kingman and all those guys (Dwayne Murphy etc) play many times. In the series though i went with the giants and havent looked back. The DH is a sour thing.

I say Thailand bc I was there last year. Just that question. Hate it too. Dont mind it if it comes up in conversation, but usually, i will be minding my own and some foolio will just come up and ask me, "where are you from". For me, it isnt that big of a deal (it is an almost daily question and if i let it get to me, well, i'd have a tough time getting by), but I dont like it that people think they know more about me bc of the answer.

Now, if it is a good looking girl, the question is not minded at all...


Glenn Ingersoll said...

Did you really say, "Tsingdao was Westernized in spelling in fear that no one would be able to pronounce it, making it harder to sell" ... ? "Qingdao" is somehow less Westernized? I mean, don't you have to be pretty far along the Westernization road to use the Roman alphabet in a part of the world that had found its own solution(s) to representing language on the page?

Written English itself represents the sounds of spoken English imperfectly. though, enough, through and thought .... "ough" does not represent the same sound ... If the Q in Qingdao precisely corresponds to the Ch in Chimney why didn't the people who chose which Roman letters to represent Chinese (Mandarin?) sounds use "Ch"? Were they just stupid? Or did they have their reasons ...

There are plenty of people who have no idea what a rolled (or trilled) r is. OK? We need better & more education. We can agree on that! And the entertainment media need to represent us all better. We can agree on that!