Fake Asian accents don't have to be racist
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.