Speaking English as an immigrant often comes with its obstacles. However, acclaimed author Gish Jen says there’s another side to the struggles of conversing in a non-native language.
In an interview in this week’s New Yorker, the Asian-American author explains why the narrator in “No More Maybe,” her recent fiction piece for the outlet, is an immigrant from China who uses English to tell the story.
The narrator’s English isn’t without errors, and that’s far from a bad thing.
“For all the challenges of representing her English, there is something so hopeful and poignant about an immigrant telling a story in her adopted tongue,” Jen told The New Yorker. “She tacitly assumes an interested reader, and she has tacit faith that she can reach that reader.”
Jen explains that, as someone who is no stranger to “Chinglish” ― the seamless mixture of Chinese and English ― she can identify with two sides to an immigrant’s language struggles.
“I sometimes remember, when I am writing a story this way, how I myself feel when trying to relate something in Chinese,” she said. “In one way, it’s hopeless. In another, there is the listener, trying hard to make out what I’m saying.”
Of course, non-Asians’ portrayal of Asian-Americans’ imperfect English and accents have been a source of hurt. Often mock Asian accents and broken English have been employed to poke fun at immigrants, underscoring their “otherness” or foreignness.
But as actress Constance Wu pointed out in a recent social media post, the language of immigrants should be a source of pride. The actress had been addressing questions about her decision to take on roles that involve Asian accents.
“There is nothing shameful about knowing 2+ languages and having an accent. It’s not a joke,” the “Fresh Off The Boat” star wrote in her post.
She added later in the post that “accents are not inherently shameful. ... People who are immigrants deserved to have their stories told, not avoided, and not watered down.”