Chairwoman Chin

Table for Two at the Tower of Babel: In print and radio ads, Leeann Chin's "Yeung Chao" fried rice becomes a more Minnesotan "Young Jewel."

THERE AREN'T A lot of Asian voices in Twin Cities broadcast media, so the Leeann Chin radio commercial stood out in my mind. In the spot, a woman with a noticeable (though not parodic) Chinese accent explains how Young Jewel Fried Rice got its name. The dish, she says, hails from the Chinese city of Yeung Chao, so it was referred to as Yeung Chao fried rice until it came to the U.S. Cut to an American voice: "Yeah, y'know, I'll have some o' that Young Jewel Fried Rice there." Then our kindly hostess returns to inform us that "Unfortunately, no one from the ancient city was there to correct them. And the name Yeung Chao--ahem, Young Jewel Fried Rice, became close enough."

That the actress was playing out the stereotype of the Asian woman as an accommodating matron hardly occurred to me at first; almost all commercials are based on stereotyping, and this is certainly not the most malign Asian stereotype around. Still, I know at least a few Asian Americans who resent this kind of mispronunciation. So I couldn't help wonder if the good folks down at Leeann Chin--with their radio spot and accompanying newspaper ad campaign--realized that they might've been toeing their way into controversy.

Apparently, they didn't: Judging from the panicked Minnesota Nice I got from both Leeann Chin and its ad agency, my calls were probably the first time anybody had raised the question. And here began a series of blow-offs, delays, and runarounds with all the sense of--should I say it?--a Chinese fire drill. Leeann Chin corporate offices referred me to their ad agency, Foley Sackett. First, the folks at Foley Sackett promised to send me a package that never arrived; next, they reminded me that Leeann Chin is herself Chinese (!). The voice talent who narrated the commercial, they elaborated, is also an Asian woman, and she consulted a relative to work on her "accent." I neglected to ask if any of their best friends were Asian.

Foley Sackett then referred me to Pat Cox, senior V.P. of marketing back at Leeann Chin. Cox, it seems, was either perpetually indisposed or out of town--perhaps waylaid in the ancient city of Yeung Chao. A series of calls went unanswered. A week passed, then almost two.

Meanwhile, the commercial kept airing. Each time, it reminded me of my own experiences with people who couldn't be bothered to get foreign names right. Like the time our family was living in Edina and our next-door neighbor asked my mother--whose name is a relatively easy-to-pronounce Hesook--if she wouldn't mind being called Sue.

My mom took it in stride, but Johnny Cash never would, and neither could I. Now I'm in no position to tout a line of racial purity: Beyond the fact that I'm the biggest banana I know, my first name's a very Catholic "Francis." My parents changed my name to Francis when I was six, and it's been good enough for me ever since. But if I went back to my Korean name, Pyoungwoo, and some stranger decided it was easier to call me Benjy, he'd have one pissy banana to deal with.

Of course, it's that kind of resentment which Leeann Chin is joking about, making the American the butt of the joke, and the inclusion of "y'know" makes the target specifically Midwestern. Still, the humor doesn't go very far: The narrator says the mispronunciation is "close enough," and then continues to speak it herself, letting the white Americans in on the joke without bothering to correct them. I'm not sure who to be more embarrassed about--the Midwesterner who could care less how it's pronounced, or the successful Chinese entrepreneur who promulgates this farce.

 
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