English as a Second Language

From 'Memoirs of a Geisha' to Gwen Stefani's Harujuku Girls, Asians get lost in translation

Maybe it's a thing with bigwig white musicians who are attempting to straddle the cultural divides of urban America. In a New York Times Magazine cover-feature interview with Beck in March, the Los Angeles darling of white funk recounted how difficult it was to find a Japanese woman to speak fucked-up English on "Hell Yes," a track off his album Guero. Apparently everybody his producers' assistants solicited in the local L.A. sushi bar scene spoke pitch-perfect English, so Christina Ricci ended up standing in to do a rendition of Engrish. (According to producer John King, "She was sounding so good and it was so funny to all of us that we just kept feeding her lines.") I don't see the point of either the story itself or its recounting in one of the world's highest circulating newspapers. Have we come so far from the days of Long Duk Dong that now only Engrish can represent serious Asian roles?

As I ponder the limits of ridiculousness in Asianica, I begin to feel less and less offended. While there was in fact a moment when I worried Edward Said (who coined, defined, and criticized the term and concept of Orientalism) was turning in his grave for today's broadly defined Oriental, I realized soon thereafter the poetic justice. Things like Memoirs of a Geisha and The Joys of Engrish and the Harajuku Girls are, in the end, just kitschy, cliché bird droppings of consumerism— the equivalent of a mini bamboo tree that had sex with a kimono, gave birth to Mishima, and then got a tattoo in Chinese and put on cowboy boots before heading to Pearl River. No real harm done. Said could give two squirts about this stuff. He's got more important things to turn in his grave about, like the fact that Zizek and Derrida got movies before him.

Zhang in Geisha
photo: David James/Columbia Pictures
Zhang in Geisha

Anne Ishii is director of marketing and publicity for Vertical Inc.

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