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English as a Second Language

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

Foreign is as foreign does. There really is no difference between any two cultures, except that they're totally different. An example: In The Joys of Engrish (just out from Penguin/Tarcher), Steven Caires puts together a humorous compendium of misused English phrases found mostly in Asia. Caires has a popular website (engrish.com) that I will admit to visiting monthly. Some of the Engrish examples, however, are not actually incorrect usages or spellings, but funny juxtapositions of things that shouldn't belong together. The oxymoron "Fight Peaceful" probably wouldn't be funny enough for Jay Leno, were it not found on a T-shirt in Japan. The key is irony: We presume that the double entendres are lost on Asians.

Hollywood especially loves unironic Engrish. No other industry makes its own language speak so proudly in foreign accents. We Americans have enormous respect for actors who can convincingly fake foreignness ("Meryl Streep has never used the same accent twice!"). This has nothing to do with authenticity. If we can love Missouri native Don Cheadle playing a Rwandan, then we can love Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese landlord. If we can love Hank Azaria playing an Indian convenience store owner, then by God, we can love Hungarian émigré Peter Lorre playing a Japanese spy.

At least in the movies and TV shows mentioned above, though, the characters would have in fact spoken English in their represented settings. This is what makes Memoirs of a Geisha so audaciously stupid: It's set in Japan (where, believe it or not, English is not the official language), with an almost entirely Chinese starring cast performing completely in heavily accented English. The only Japanese you hear is unsubtitled Foley meant to historicize the story, with an incessant wooden flute playing a bad appropriation of Kitaro. The movie's credibility is a lose-lose situation for those filmgoers with any respect for Asia. To begin with, a lot of people are complaining about the fact that the actors are Chinese. According to the New York Post, one Chinese blogger said Ziyi Zhang's playing a Japanese courtesan is a national insult and that "hacking her to death would not be good enough." (What would happen to James Gandolfini if he portrayed Chairman Mao in a biopic?)

But my damage is the fact that these women were cast on the condition that they would be handicapped of their talent for natural speech. Everyone's in raptures about how hell-raiser Gong Li says, "I shall destroy you," and later leaves the geisha house in flames, but that is nothing compared to her psychotic break in Raise the Red Lantern, where even the subtitles were truer to her Mandarin. Taking the natural speech from the actresses' performances in order to give them a bigger fan base is an irony paralleled in one of the movie's premises: that reclaiming the innocence of a girl by kidnapping and making her a geisha is the only way to make that innocence more valuable. If this sounds turgid and wrong (after all, the original book was in English, so it's natural the film would be too, right?), let's put it this way: The equivalent of the Memoirs production in Japan would be Pearl Harbor starring Russian actors playing American soldiers and speaking really poor Japanese.

And it really is poor English that's spoken in most of the movie, regardless of whether anyone is too impressed with the actresses' ability to memorize sounds to care. It gives new meaning to the climactic pickup line in Jerry Maguire, "You had me at hello," as in I didn't understand a word you said after that. Half of Ziyi Zhang's dialogue was totally lost on me, and I found myself mouthing along with Gong Li's lips in a desperate attempt to capture her lines when my perfect hearing failed me. I will admit to being impressed with rival geisha Pumpkin, played by Youki Kudoh, who does a flawless imitation of a tipsy Tara Reid, oblivious to the boob hanging out of her dress.

After I got used to the ESL pace of the story, my difficulty in following the dialogue turned into incredulity at the story. To sum up, the movie is an apology for sexism with two essential conflicts: the rags-to-bitches catfight for geisha supremacy, and the ill-fated love between Ziyi Zhang's Sayuri and Ken Watanabe's Chairman (who turns out to have been a pedophile: His initial attraction to Sayuri was when she was the ripe age of nine). Throughout, the film muses on what a geisha is exactly. Apparently, a geisha is not a hooker, but you can only become a geisha by selling your virginity. I guess the thinking is that if you only sell sex once you're . . . not a hooker?

The worst part of Memoirs is still that Ziyi Zhang speaks a slow and crude English that she learned in half a year. But even if God's wrath upon the Asian denizens of Babel is broken Engrish, at least it's not total silence. The Harajuku Girls are a quartet of dancers (at least one of whom is from California) on Gwen Stefani's solo music tour. They pose as avatars of the Tokyo neighborhood famous for being a spectacle of fashion and consumerism. Rumor has it that they were contractually obliged by Gwen Stefani (or her PR gurus) not to speak English while on tour, despite being fluent in the language. Love, Angel, Music, and Baby are, like the geishas in Memoirs, simply empty roles of Asian women who aren't allowed to speak openly. I hope that there is no doubt, but just to be clear, silencing people is the epitome of taking away their autonomy and subjectivity, even if Gwen Stefani thinks her silent Japanese fashionistas are part of an awesome and empowering counterculture. This raises the question: Why would an American entertainer who presumably knows cultural diversity (Stefani hails from a part of the O.C. not 10 minutes from my own provenance, where— unlike in the TV show—close to half the population is nonwhite) make such stupid demands specifically for Asian roles? What would be so wrong with Asian women speaking normally?

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.


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

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