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my thoughts

The Social Media Trend I Wish Would Go Away Forever.

There’s a particular kind of social media post that haunts my timeline: the white person surprising audiences of locals and/or native-speakers of Asian language with his amazing fluency in that language. On Youtube there are accounts with millions of subscribers who tune in for this gimmick. Of a similar vein there are several white TikTok creators whose entire brand is recreating encounters where their language surprised native speakers and some even offer instruction on how to sound more nativelike in the language. The common denominator of these videos and posts is the content creators’ capitalizing upon associations between language and race. From time to time I come across these videos and feel the need to share them with friends and RAGE. I wondered if I was alone in my frustration but I found that my friends too would watch these videos and also RAGE. But what makes these videos so annoying?


Much of the frustration comes from our positionality as Asian American women.


For Asian Americans, the evaluation of language based on racialization is not a new phenomenon. A clear example of how this plays out is when, about a month ago, a Taiwanese American friend of mine was traveling in New York City when a man approached her to strike up a conversation. He asked, “Where are you from?” She replied, “California.” His response? “Wow, your English is so good.” This might seem like benign small-talk but the implications of this microaggression are that my friend--who has lived the majority of her life in the U.S. and is dominant in English-- must be a foreigner/outsider based on no information other than what that man could see-- based on how she was being racialized. You see, it works the other way too-- when an Asian person speaks English-- they also get surprised reactions, but this isn’t used to accumulate views and social media clout. It is a product of the perpetual foreigner myth which has led to the social and political exclusion of Asian Americans.


For a fun reversal of the perpetual foreigner myth and the “Where are you from?” microaggression, check out this skit on Youtube.


I can also contrast the surprised reactions that these speakers get with my own experiences as a mixed-race Asian American speaking my heritage language. “Oh, wow! How do you know Korean?” might sound like a compliment but the underlying message is that I don’t look like I speak the language--for more on looking like a language (and sounding like a race) check out Rosa (2019). While language is a way for me and other mixed-race/multiracial folks to access and connect to our heritage communities, there is also a history of exclusion/marginalization of mixed-/multiracial individuals from Asian American communities.


Another reason why these videos are frustrating can be found in the comments section. They are almost always accompanied by comments like, “I am Chinese American and I can’t speak that well” or “Wow, you speak better than I do!” Again, a common element of these videos is that the speakers in fact have achieved very high levels of fluency in these languages. And kudos to them! It probably took a lot of hard work and dedicated practice time. So maybe we’re just jealous? But more than simple jealousy-- of wanting something that we cannot have-- we feel a loss-- of losing something we once had. For Asian Americans, the stereotype of the perpetual foreigner myth and just the experience of being a racial minority creates enormous pressure to ‘fit in’ and go along with the status quo. Whatever made you different had to go-- that includes cultural markers like food and language.


The image below is a screenshot of a conversation I had with a friend after she posted one of these videos of a TikToker speaking ‘perfect’ mandarin.



Second generation Asian Americans grow up internalizing this discrimination and prioritizing English over their heritage language only to then enter college where bilingualism in that language suddenly becomes an asset or even ‘trendy.’ For example, the demand for Korean language education worldwide has undeniably increased in recent years. In 2016 the MLA reported that Korean was the 11th most studied language in American higher education institutions with increased enrollment by 14% in three years despite an overall decline in foreign language course enrollment. This increase in Korean learners has been attributed to the popularity of K-pop and Korean dramas; contrast this development with the Korean American community wherein assimilationist forces and lack of institutional support contribute to a swift rate of heritage language loss (proficiency in Korean is typically lost by the second generation) (Au & Oh, 2009; Cho & Krashen, 1998; Lee & Shin, 2008).


Rather than recognizing the assimilationist forces that pushed them to lose their heritage language, young people often blame themselves and feel like ‘bad’ members of their ethnic communities. We can see how this pattern can even have effects for third generation and beyond. In this heartbreaking video from 2020, a young Chinese-Canadian girl cries after watching the live-action Mulan lamenting that she should be able to speak Chinese, but her mother who was second-generation explained that as part of her second-generation experience growing up in Canada, bilingualism was not an option..



Regardless of the viewer’s fluency in the language, another frustrating element of this video trend is the way in which the creators are capitalizing on the associations of the language(s) with a specific racial phenotype and exercising a form of linguistic and racial privilege. For many Asian communities, the social construct of race was first introduced through colonialism/imperialism. For white, elective bilinguals to now take advantage of the racial ideologies that have now been embedded in the discourse of these communities for the purpose of garnering social media capital, is in some ways a continuation of those colonial processes.


Finally, an important context to consider is what Joey Kim refers to as “the paradox of anti-Asian violence” in reference to the Atlanta spa shootings. She says: “At the same time that Parasite, Minari, K-pop bands (BTS, Blackpink), streaming Korean dramas, and other Korean-authored works are gaining national coverage and fame, Asian Americans are being scapegoated and viciously attacked because of Covid concerns and frustrations […] This paradox is a constant oscillation between the Asian celebrity and the dehumanized or unnamed Asian victim. This paradox seems to continually sustain itself as a never-ending recitation of model-minority stereotypes, the proof that meritocracy works, and the silencing of the most vulnerable Asians in our country, including the women who died in Atlanta.”


This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of these videos: That while highly proficient white speakers of Asian languages are celebrated and elevated for their bilingualism, Asian American youth and their families are afraid the same languages will make them the next targets of racist violence.

This is not all to say that white people can't or shouldn't learn Asian languages-- in fact there are many studies that suggest that bilingualism can improve multicultural understanding. Instead, I would suggest that language learners and educators think more critically about our individual identities and positions as language users as we move throughout the world. Rather than thinking of these languages and race as inherently connected we can be better informed about the histories of these ideologies. And perhaps the next white person who uploads the video sharing their linguistic expertise could use that platform for social change and to promote important causes for that language community.


References

Au, T. K. F., & Oh, J. S. (2009). Korean as a heritage language. Handbook of East Asian psycholinguistics.

Cho, G., & Krashen, S. (1998). The negative consequences of heritage language loss and why we should care. Heritage language development, 31, 39.

Kim, J. (April 1, 2021). Opinion: The Paradox at the Heart of the Atlanta Spa Shootings and the Rise in Anti-Asian Hate. Shondaland. https://www.shondaland.com/act/a35995814/paradox-at-the-heart-of-the-atlanta-spa-shootings/

Lee, J. S., & Shin, S. J. (2008). Korean heritage language education in the United States: The current state, opportunities, and possibilities. Heritage Language Journal, 6(2), 1-20.

Looney, D., & Lusin, N. (2018, February). Enrollments in Languages Other than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Summer 2016 and Fall 2016: Preliminary Report. In Modern Language Association.

Rosa, J. (2019). Looking like a language, sounding like a race. Oxf Studies in Anthropology of.





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