Bad Language

While I was eating lunch at my father’s with my Chinese mother yesterday, she was telling us about a holiday party she had gone to with a mixed crew of local Chinese and a few of the “Buddha ladies,” as my father calls them, the pretentious white ladies who flutter at the fringes of our Chinese Buddhist community. We started out talking about the difference in culinary tastes between China and the United States; I for example love red bean paste buns, which never ceases to amaze her, since most Americans hate them.

She mentioned that one of the Buddha ladies there was awfully rude. Rather, she didn’t say that the woman was rude, but the things she told us about her made her sound like a real piece of work. Apparently she whined about all of the ethnic Chinese dishes at the party, saying things like “this is disgusting” and behaving pretty childishly, and then she corrected someone’s pronunciation of a word; as it turned out, her correction was actually wrong, but my Chinese mother didn’t realize it at the time. Not only did the woman correct someone else’s spoken English, but she went on to say that “Chinese people just can’t speak English,” which begs the question of what in the hell she was doing at a Chinese Buddhist Christmas party, but anyway.

The point was, we started talking about language, with my father and I illustrating plenty of regional variations in the way that people say words. We also pointed out that the woman’s pronunciation was actually wrong, and we talked about regional differences for the descriptions of things; what, for example, do you call a sandwich on a long, large roll? A sub? Submarine? Hoagie? Poor boy? Grinder? Cosmo? Wedge? Hero? Once we got my Chinese mother thinking about it, she recalled trips to other regions of the United States, where people speak very differently, and started coming up with examples of the difference between Chinese accents and dialects.

The evolution of languages has always been quite fascinating to me, as are the subtle differences in the ways that people speak, but I kept coming back to this woman’s behavior, because it really flabbergasted me.

I definitely think that we have come a long way from the days when Chinese people couldn’t own land in California, but in some ways we haven’t come that far if behaving like an infant at a party is considered acceptable. Either this woman didn’t think that people understood her when she bitched and moaned about the food, or she didn’t care, and that’s deeply troubling to me. I feel like one of the first things I learned when I was a kid was “if you don’t like the food, you don’t need to share that information,” and apparently this woman missed the memo.

On what planet is it okay to talk trash about the food at a potluck, especially when you didn’t bring anything? And much of this woman’s criticism was leveled along ethnic grounds, like “ew, Chinese desserts are so gross, who would eat these!” She apparently didn’t think that the Chinese guests had feelings which might be hurt when she insulted the food that they had made; and given that some Chinese desserts are complex and hard to make, she was insulting literally days worth of work in some cases.

I was also pretty shocked that she made the comment about Chinese people not speaking good English, implying that they are pathologically incapable of learning to “speak properly,” which is a joke in a country where most native speakers slaughter the language. My Chinese mother is a polite, fairly mild-mannered woman, so of course she didn’t say anything, but I could tell that it upset her by the way that she talked about it. Every time I am reminded of careless prejudice like this, it saddens me.

I suppose it’s just as well I don’t go to these sorts of things, because I think that woman would have ended up with a platter of egg rolls upended on her head.