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"The 'Asian accent' tells the story of Chinese-American assimilation in a nutshell," Arthur Chu writes. (ABC via Getty Images)

Breaking Out The Broken English

by Arthur Chu
Jul 31, 2014

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A little part of me cringes every time I do it, but at this point it's second nature.

It's hard to describe in words, but it involves a lot of levelling, a lot of smoothing. The tongue stays closer to the center of the mouth rather than doing the pronounced, defined highs and lows that shape the L and R sounds. The vocal chords vibrate in smooth, singing tones rather than doing the little hop up and down that makes for a normal American English syllable.

And after a few practice sentences, it slips effortlessly from my mouth. "Herro, and wercome to Beijing. Zhis is yoah guide to an ancient culchah..."

Lo and behold, I'm speaking English in a "Chinese accent."

I shouldn't complain — no actor can really get upset about a source of steady work. As I've pointed out, when Asian characters don't have accents it just means that white voice artists end up playing them. In all the kerfuffle about the "whitewashing" of M. Night Shyamalan's live-action version of The Last Airbender, people totally ignored that the voice cast of the cartoon it was based on was also almost all white people playing Asian characters.

Nor is there ever anything blatantly offensive in the content that makes me not want to take the role. I get uncomfortable with a narration having a "Chinese accent" just to give "color," so to speak, to a video set in China, but it's no different in spirit than having a Southern-accented narrator for a video set in Texas.

Most of my discomfort, I have to admit, is personal.

Because here's the thing. Nearly every Chinese immigrant I've met does in fact "talk like that," because it's almost impossible not to have a thick accent when your first language is as fundamentally phonetically different from English as Mandarin or Cantonese is.

But it's equally true that every single Chinese-American kid born here I've met emphatically does not "talk like that." In fact there isn't a Chinese-American accent the way there's a distinct cadence to how black Americans or Latino Americans talk. Most Chinese-Americans have a pitch-perfect "invisible" accent for wherever they live.

If anything, the thing that made me weird as a kid was that my English was too perfect. My grammar was too meticulously correct, my words too carefully enunciated — I was the kid who sounded like "Professor Robot." In order to avoid being a social pariah in high school I had to learn to use a carefully calibrated proportion of slurred syllables and street slang in my speech—just enough to sound "normal," not enough to sound like I was "trying too hard." I would actually sit at home, talking to myself, practicing sounding like a normal teenager.

I don't think I'm alone in this, though of my Chinese-American colleagues I'm one of the few who's taken the quest to develop a perfectly "neutral" voice so far that I now market said voice to produce corporate videos and voicemail greetings.

The "Asian accent" tells the story of Chinese-American assimilation in a nutshell. Our parents have the accent that white Americans perceive as the most foreign out of all the possible alternatives, so our choice is to have no accent at all. The accent of our parents is the accent of the grimy streets of Chinatown with its mah-jong parlors and fried food stalls and counterfeit jewelry, so we work to wipe away all traces of that world from our speech so we can settle comfortably into our roles as respectable middle-class doctors, lawyers, engineers hundreds of miles from Chinatown.

No wonder we react so viscerally to the "ching-chong, ching-chong" schoolyard taunt. To attack our language, our ability to sound "normal," is to attack our ability to be normal. It's to attack everything we've worked for.

And make no mistake about it, to sound like a "normal" American is to wield privilege.

I remember translating for my parents at customer service desks or in restaurants, where despite my youth my ability to carefully round my R's and use perfectly grammatical sentences made my complaints more credible. Taking my mother's scattered notes in "broken English" and crafting perfectly respectable job applications and cover letters out of them, all the while in the back of my mind wondering "What are they going to think when she actually shows up for work and I can't translate for her?"

Most vividly I remember being on vacation at Glacier National Park in Canada, bemusedly translating between my dad and a park ranger, both of whom were speaking English. One of them would say something. The other would blink in confusion. Only when I repeated it did they understand. And suddenly I realized—my dad's Chinese accent and the ranger's Canadian accent were too far apart from each other to be mutually intelligible.

I had the magic power, the royal privilege, of speaking the "correct" kind of English, the kind broadcast on the radio and TV. When I said something, people understood. My dad, who'd spoken English most of his life, and the ranger, who'd spoken English all his life, both depended on me to understand each other.

How strange, to be so important, to wield so much power, just because your version of the English language is the "right" one. How strange to be in a profession where people will pay you money to read words they wrote because their own, real, personal accent and dialect is "wrong".

And how terrifying it is to have that awesome feeling of privilege and safety in speaking the "right" language be attacked. When I was a contestant on Jeopardy! one of my quirks was that, having studied using books and flashcards, a lot of my pronunciations of words were unusual.

An enterprising YouTuber put together a supercut of all my pronunciation flubs—like saying "obstretrics" for "obstetrics" in the heat of the moment — and capped it with a clip from Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson screaming, "ENGLISH, MOTHER******! DO YOU SPEAK IT?!"

Of all the people making fun of me online for my weight, my appearance, my dour expression or my general unlikeability, the attacks on my ability to speak English cut deepest. More than all the other YouTube videos made of me, that one made me want to jump in the comments yelling, "Yeah, well, my wife until last year said 'rheTORic' instead of 'RHEtoric' but you wouldn't question her fluency in the English language over that because she's white and she was born here and that's racist!"

Luckily I restrained myself. But this weird fear of somehow losing my American-ness still haunts me.

So those embarrassing "Chinese accent" voiceover jobs? I don't think it's just the money; I think I go after them as a weird form of self-therapy, facing what you fear in order to master it.

I spent my entire childhood learning how to pass for "normal" in the way I spoke, to grasp for the privilege that came with assimilation. But as any linguist will tell you, the idea of "perfect" speech is an illusion. No one actually has a "perfect" accent; the definition of "proper" English is arbitrary and fluctuates wildly over time.

Indeed, the single biggest barrier I have to getting voiceover jobs now is that my voice is too perfect, that the most common note you see from producers on spec sheets is "Not too announcer-y, must sound like a real person." The "proper" English that was on TV when I was a kid isn't "proper" anymore; the definition of proper English keeps updating itself, keeps readjusting to match what people think of as "real."

Well, the English I grew up with as "real" isn't the English I painstakingly forced on myself from listening to TV and my peers at school. It's the English of my parents, complete with under-pronounced L's and R's, dropped "and"s and "the"s, sing-songy and "broken" and embarrassing.

That accent is real, but my use of it can never be, not after so many years of renouncing it and avoiding it and exterminating any trace of it from my day-to-day speech. After a lifetime of rehearsals and training, the "announcer voice" is my voice, and the only reliable way to sound "less announcer-y" is to put on an accent that isn't mine, be it Brooklyn, Biloxi or Beijing.

What a paradox. When I sound real, I'm fake, and when I sound fake, I'm real. I can only wonder how many of my fellow hyphenated Americans can say the same.


Arthur Chu is a bi-coastal Chinese-American nerd who's currently settled down in Cleveland, Ohio. An actor, comedian and sometime culture blogger, he somehow captured national attention for becoming an 11-time Jeopardy! champion in March 2014 and is now shamelessly extending his presence in the national spotlight by all available means. He lives with his wife and an indeterminate but alarmingly ever-growing number of cats. Follow him on Twitter at @arthur_affect.

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How will you die? (for NPR)

How Will You Die?

Jul 31, 2014

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So let's cut to the chase. Depending on where you live on Earth, cooking dinner, having sex and going to the bathroom are either three of life's many pleasures or they're the riskiest things you you can do.

Why?

When you dig into global statistics, two interesting facts pop out. The first is that, from a scientific perspective, we all pretty much die the same way: lack of blood to the brain. But how we get to that last stage varies quite a bit. And in a global sense, it varies depending on where you live and how much money you make.

The World Bank says there are 213 countries (but the specific number depends on how you count). It divides them into three groups based on average income per person: high-, middle- and low-income countries.

Two of these groups probably make less money than you'd think.

Here's the rough breakdown, in average dollars earned per person each year: High income $39,312, middle income $4,721, low income $664.

Most people in the world, about five billion of them, fall somewhere in the middle-income category. Then there are about a billion people in high-income countries and a billion in low-income countries.

So if you live in a high-income country, the top three ways to die are heart disease, stroke and lung diseases, including lung cancer, the WHO says.

But if you live in one of the world's poorest countries, the top killers are lower respiratory infections, HIV/AIDS and diarrhea.

In rich countries, 7 out of 10 people make it past their 70th birthday. In poor countries, that percentage drops to 2 out of 10 people. In fact, in the 34 poorest countries in the world, only 6 out of 10 people make it past their 15th birthday.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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The full moon rises above the castle of Somoskoujfalu, northeast of Budapest, Hungary, earlier this month. (AP)

Scientists Say The Moon Is Hiding A Lumpy Middle

Jul 31, 2014

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What shape is the moon? When it's full, we'd all agree that it looks perfectly round. But careful measurements by a team of scientists have shown that's not the case.

Like many an Earth-bound observer, it turns out that our nearest neighbor in space is hiding a slight bulge around the waist. It's less like a ball and more like a squashed sphere, with a lump on one side.

That's according to Ian Garrick-Bethell, a planetary scientist at University of California, Santa Cruz, who is the lead author in the newly published findings in Nature.

"If you can imagine a water balloon flattening out as you spin it," Garrick-Bethell says, describing the slight "lemon-shape" of the moon.

How did it get that way? It all goes back to a time when the moon was formed after a collision between a very young Earth and an ancient body known as Theia. The crust solidified, but the moon's center was still largely molten.

According to The New York Times: "Efforts to pinpoint the moon's exact shape have long been stymied by the presence of large craters on its surface that formed after the crust solidified. There have also been inconsistencies between its measurements and what we know about its past."

The Times says:

"To overcome the crater problem, [Garrick-Bethell] and his colleagues used highly accurate maps of the moon's topography, made with a laser altimeter, then ran calculations to see what the surface could have looked like before the craters formed.

"The measurements that emerged help explain how the moon acquired its shape, the researchers say. Its squashed appearance is probably a result of the gravitational process called tidal heating or acceleration, which stretched the moon's crust as it was being formed. The equatorial bulge probably dates to a later period, when the moon was still spinning but was slowing down and moving away from earth, freezing a tidal surge in place."

The BBC says Garrick-Bethell and his team were inspired by similar research in a 2013 study by researchers from the University of Texas at Austin. They calculated how tidal heating caused by Jupiter's massive tug was causing warmer water under the ice crust on Europa.

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The full moon rises above the castle of Somoskoujfalu, northeast of Budapest, Hungary, earlier this month. (AP)

Can I Kick It? No, You Can't

Jul 31, 2014 (Ask Me Another)

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Listen, we're not your parents. We're not about to tell you what you can and can't do. Besides, the songs in this game, all of which contain the word "can't" in the title, take care of that for us.

Heard in Episode 323: Smitten With The Mitten State

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The full moon rises above the castle of Somoskoujfalu, northeast of Budapest, Hungary, earlier this month. (AP)

Movie Math

Jul 31, 2014 (Ask Me Another)

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If Pythagoras were alive today, we think he'd be a movie buff. Multiply your film knowledge by your math skills in this quiz that asks you to perform computations with the numbers in movie titles.

Heard in Episode 323: Smitten With The Mitten State

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