The Asian Accent: A Curse or Source of Pride? | Haiyun Lu | 5 Min Read

Dec. 23, 2022

This is part three in Haiyun Lu’s Little Things Matter Series.

Just a few weeks ago, Licorice Pizza began showing in selective theaters. While the movie has been receiving positive reviews, there are a couple of scenes in which a white restaurant owner speaks with a fake Asian accent and has a replaceable Japanese wife hanging on to his arm. Many Asian people found this offensive. The producer was called out by Asian communities for incorporating racist stereotypes in an otherwise well-done movie. This whole experience reminds me of a memory, which I have been subconsciously suppressing.

21 years ago, when I first landed at the Milwaukee airport, a friend asked my first ever American neighbor to pick me up. Since they were running late, I sat on a bench outside waiting for them.  In my mind, I rehearsed two lines of English that I was confident I could say: What’s your name, and how are you?

When my friend and the neighbor arrived, I saw a 6’7” giant loom over my head who stretched out his enormous, long arm. I began to panic. Then he said: “Hello, my name is Andy. Nice to meet you.” That sentence froze me for a few reasons. First, he stole my lines to inquire about his name. Second, I did not learn the phrase “nice to meet you” from my textbooks, so I did not understand him. Third, he spoke too fast for me.

Although I knew a lot of English vocabulary, the traditional language instruction based on thematic units and vocabulary lists turned out to be quite useless in prompting authentic communication. My first encounter with a native English speaker silenced me for months. Initially, I only smiled, nodded, and pointed to express myself. After a long “silent period” and many hours of watching television, I consciously began to speak English with people who were patient and had previously dealt with non-English speakers.  

However, communication was often slow, painful, and unsatisfying due to my heavy Chinese accent, especially if people often asked me to repeat myself. My desire to talk could be shuttered in an instant. A year later, I found a subletting opportunity with three other American roommates. I hoped that by living with them, I could develop English proficiency in leaps and bounds and acquire an American accent.  

A week before I moved in, I received a…

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Haiyun Lu

Haiyun Lu, a Chinese language teacher at the University School of Milwaukee (WI), is also a writer, blogger, trainer, curriculum designer, meditator, and Co-Founder at Ignite Chinese.