The180·The 180

Fake Asian accents don't have to be racist

Culture writer Adrian Lee used to be bothered by actors, mostly white, faking accents. But he's come around. Lee explains why faking a good accent is cultural appropriation in the good way.
Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in the 1961 film version of Breakfast at Tiffany's has been the subject of extensive criticism. (AP/Warner Bros.)
Listen9:57

As a Chinese-Canadian, Adrian Lee has always felt uneasy about accents. 

"Accents really, for me, and for a lot of Asian-Canadians like me, can be a really tricky subject that gets our hackles up."

Those hackles are raised by a long history of Asian caricatures in North American pop culture: from Breakfast at Tiffany's Mr. Yunioshi, in 1961, to Sixteen Candles' Long Duk Dong in 1984, to Rob Schneider as an "Asian Minister" in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry in 2007.

Accents really, for me, and for a lot of Asian-Canadians like me, can be a really tricky subject that gets our hackles up.- Adrian Lee

"The shadow of Long Duk Dong is a long one, and I think a lot of Asians who engage in pop culture specifically in North America, really cringe when they hear accents, as a result."

Lee says the bad accents, and the stereotypes reinforced by Asian characters who are sidekicks, kung-fu masters, or "the sort of socially-awkward eunuch who has no idea what he's doing," cause immigrants of all backgrounds to worry about what they'll sound like, and how they'll be perceived in North America. 

But a new wave of TV shows about immigrants, and the children of immigrants, has Lee changing his mind. 

Among them is Kim's Convenience, CBC's new comedy set in a family-run Toronto convenience store.

Actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee plays the family patriarch, and does so with a Korean accent. The actor himself doesn't have an accent, but Adrian Lee says the one he puts on finally made him see that accents can be done right.

"What I realized is that this is actually part of his character. You, know it's not a caricature. The joke is not on the accent, the accent is part of who this character is. This character who immigrated  from Korea, who made a life for his children, and started this store...is a very smart person but simply cannot engage in English yet, because it's not his first language. And I think that's a totally reasonable and understandable, appreciable way to deploy an accent."

What I realized is that this is actually part of his character. You, know it's not a caricature. The joke is not on the accent, the accent is part of who this character is.- Adrian Lee

And as the child of immigrant parents himself, Adrian Lee says there's a lot of humour to be found in the misunderstandings that come from both linguistic, and cultural differences. 

If it's done right, he says, this a great time for comedy.

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