Words Like Me
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
On USC’s response to Greg Patton and the marginalization of Chinese/American voices.
By Benjamine Mo
I imagine a language chewed and rendered a fragmented commodity, stamped MADE IN CHINA and imported. This is to say that I will negotiate with Mandarin Chinese as body, living, and not prop at play—that in engaging with Mandarin in this way, I will engage with Chinese bodies as living, too, and not as collateral labor force or Oriental ornament. And I realize this may seem unnecessarily heady, but I defer to that sense of disembodiment that so many diasporic Chinese individuals feel when inherited language and culture are brought to market—an American one—and parsed, interrogated, and remodulated without their volition.
I found myself spectating, ghost-like, as news came to light of USC Marshall School of Business Professor Greg Patton’s controversial actions and subsequent removal in late August. In his course Communication for Management, Patton discussed the use of breaks in speech, incorporating a global example: 那个, a common Mandarin Chinese filler word, which he pronounced as nèi ge and repeated in succession. The following day, a group of students enrolled in the course, self-identified as the Black MBA Candidates c/o 2022, emailed the USC Marshall administration and reported the incident, citing duress caused by Patton’s use of the term. Patton, they argued, was not only aware of his wrongdoing, but attempted to evade scrutiny by ending the recording moments before arriving at his example. USC Marshall Dean Geoffrey Garrett announced the following week that Patton would no longer teach the course.
Following an influx of criticism, Garrett has clarified that his intention was not to “cast any aspersions on specific Mandarin words or on Mandarin generally.” USC’s Office of Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX has decided that Patton’s actions did not violate university policy, and that he was not, as many were led to believe by the Dean’s ambiguous communications, suspended. Rather, he had simply stepped away from teaching this specific course. These delayed clarifications were needed due to a lack of transparency on the part of USC’s administration.
First and foremost, it is necessary to clarify the use of 那个, translated in English as “that.” In Standard Mandarin—普通话 (pǔ tōng huà), the official language of the People’s Republic of China—那个 is often pronounced nèi ge with no pause between its two constituent words when used as a filler term. This pronunciation is a common portmanteau derived from the phrase 哪一个, which provides a more accurate numerical specification as a measure of “that.” Phonetically, this use of 那个 is equivalent to nay-guh. 那个 can also be romanized as nà ge, pronounced nah-guh. When used to fill pauses analogous to the use of “um” in English, 那个 may be rapidly repeated. Patton’s use of the term has been defended by approximately 100 USC alumni, the majority of whom are of Chinese descent, in a letter to the USC administration.
Confusion regarding the term’s pronunciation is one technical aspect of the case against Patton. Clarification of contextual use such as this would undoubtedly have helped Patton to establish an accurate understanding of Mandarin Chinese from his lesson’s onset. Indeed, in the report by the Black MBA Candidates c/o 2022, students pointed out that previous encounters with the phrase, especially in academic settings, had been framed with such awareness.
In the same email, students also explained that after reaching out to Chinese classmates, “It was confirmed that the pronunciation of this word is much different than what Professor Patton described in class.” The administration did not evaluate these assertions in their discussions or response. It remains unclear how they arrived at their determination and why countering testimonies by native Standard Mandarin speakers were not considered. There are no diverging arguments to be made about usage, a fact that has unfortunately been ignored in deliberations regarding 那个. Instead, by discussing it as if it were an abstraction with no definitive pronunciation and usage, institutional discourse undermined the immense consequence of the Chinese language as life for many who are of Chinese descent.
Regarding accusations of cultural insensitivity, Patton demonstrated a lack of discretion by not effectively prefacing his example. As an authority on global communications and actor in a broader American social and cultural consciousness, Patton should reasonably have been aware of the possible misinterpretation of his nonchalant usage of the term due to its phonetic proximity to an American English slur. The shock that the term 那个 produces when heard by those unfamiliar with its true usage has been the butt of comedy sketches and jokes that testify to the discomfort of speaking one’s mother tongue in the United States.
Assuming Patton’s intention was to familiarize his students—many of whom would presumably identify as American—with the contours of multilingual communication, he should have approached the matter with more of a grounding in the context of the United States. He failed to appropriately account for an obvious potential misunderstanding. Viewed in this way, the students’ initial irritation is valid. Auditory perception of the term by anyone whose primary frame of cultural reference is situated in contemporary America—with its perennial racial strife—may readily and naturally produce unpleasant associations. Wouldn’t this shock consequently contribute to the sort of exhaustion expressed by the Black students in Patton’s class?
To acknowledge this is not to justify censorship of the Chinese language. The simple phonetic alignment of 那个 with the English n-word can be grossly inappropriate and injurious. This imposition stipulates subjagative demands on an entire language and those who speak it, denying Chinese speakers the right to claim their own language as distinct from the horrific history and present condition of white supremacy in the United States. Western imperialism in East Asia still lives, its haunting consequences ranging from economic destabilization to the intergenerational trauma of mass death, and it has and will continue to drive many to seek America, to seek English-speaking, as ideal. In this light, the establishment of American English as supreme builds upon a legacy of militaristic silencing, de-voicing.
I recognize that I may approach this with a certain bias as an American child born to Chinese immigrant parents whose primary language at home is Mandarin Chinese. I have been aware, as many Chinese speakers in the U.S. seem to be, of the term 那个’s possible misinterpretation in contexts where I am not speaking to others who are familiar with its usage. Such misunderstandings can be frustrating but also present opportunities to bolster cross-cultural sensitivity and insight when approached with nuance. And while I had to acclimate to this state of mind, Patton’s initial linguistic and cultural context was most likely not grounded in Mandarin Chinese. We should expect, then, that Patton be considerate of a dominant American cultural awareness, one that many must struggle to learn through unlearning, when using Mandarin in contexts that advantage him as a scholar and businessman.
Of course, I found myself observing the controversial backlash from a distance, attending college on the opposite coast from Patton’s students and reading a limited assortment of viable reports. But I could also identify another frame of spectatorship I found myself at odds with. Although the Chinese language centrally figured into the discourse between administration, faculty, and students, the direct involvement and invitation of native Chinese speakers or experts on Chinese language usage was jarringly lacking. Instead, Chinese usage and pronunciation, as well as the language in its historical and cultural context, were discussed in an unsettlingly demeaning manner by individuals not of Chinese descent.
“There are 10,000 characters in the Chinese written language and to use this phrase, a clear synonym with the derogatory N-word term, is hurtful and unacceptable to our USC Marshall community.”
Email from Black MBA Candidates c/o 2022 to Dean Garrett
This assertion confuses me. The Chinese language, comprised of thousands of characters with fascinating etymological and anthropological lineages, cannot be arbitrarily used. No character can clearly and exactly substitute another; no manipulation should be at play, especially by individuals of non-Chinese descent, to dictate what phrases mean what, what can and cannot have certain meanings. 那个 is 那个: it is not a synonym for the n-word, with no shared historical origin or definitional context. My claim regarding reasonable cultural sensitivity and awareness still stands, with one foot in each context; here, I argue that such a constrained understanding of the Chinese language is fundamentally flawed and contributes harmfully towards the marginalization of the Chinese language as exploited object, product.
We are all too familiar with the Chinese, indeed an abstraction of China itself, as an ornament in the United States. Chinatowns are tourist destinations in our American cities. In Manhattan, Chinatown means cheaper rent or an eccentric day trip; seldom does a contemporary American consciousness remember the residents who call it home, the struggles in its creation, the blood spilt and bodies laid down. And on non-Oriental bodies, Chinese characters for “water,” “fire,” and “mountain” are tattooed and displayed in their exotic splendor. Yet despite this extravaganza of the fascinating Orient, Chinese bodies themselves are not so celebrated. They are job-stealing, virus-carrying, the ones to blame when plastic purchases break. These conceptions inform, in part, the allocation of human sympathy that dictates the being and belonging of diasporic Chinese individuals, especially in the United States. This America is quick to sacrifice humble respect for all that is captured by the Chinese language for aesthetic exploitation and commodification. In certain cases, the immense significance of the language meets an underhanded refusal to accept it in any context besides its imported one.
This hits close to home. Just a few years ago, Columbia students with romanized Chinese names were targeted in brazenly discriminatory vandalism in which their residential hall name tags were ripped off of doors. In response, the targeted students garnered international attention with a video project, sharing the significance of their names when de-romanized. In a heartening display of pride in the Chinese language, they outlined the meanings embodied by each character and in so doing gave life to the millennia of history they communicate. The moment we treat Chinese characters as devalued commodity and object, we devalue the people that they identify and the heritage they pass on.
At its root, we can recognize this act of othering as a denial of belonging. Such othering has not only materialized in this instance of discrimination; in fact, sinophobia has permeated discussions of higher education for decades, coinciding with an influx of Chinese-born students attending American universities. The federal government’s request for college administrations to spy on their Chinese international students, which President Bollinger publicly rejected, recently reminded the Columbia community of this fact. While our administration has taken such a public stance, we must consider the burden placed on Chinese/American students—indeed, any perceivably East Asian-American students deemed necessarily Chinese by a mass American consciousness—to prove that they are not suspicious, not a foreign threat.
The Chinese language itself is not immune to such distrust. In January of 2019, a Duke University professor sent out an email to students in response to faculty complaints about students speaking Chinese on campus. In it, faculty sought the names of the specific students ‘caught’ speaking Chinese in one instance in a student lounge, threatening to blacklist them in future academic and professional opportunities, citing their speaking Chinese to be evidence of a refusal to learn English. Such punishment suggests the shame that use of the Chinese language in the U.S. carries. And while this occurred at a peer institution, these broad trends of mistrust, reinforced by administrations and faculties, speak to national campus cultures of marginalization and alienation.
It comes down to a question of recognizing the worth of Chinese/American students’ voices; such a faithful and bona fide valuation would in turn suggest the individual value in the occupation of being and belonging that Chinese/American students embody. In recognizing the worth of voices, we also must consider the immense significance of each word and phrase that constitutes the Chinese language. Many students and alumni, even non-affiliates, of USC have demanded the reinstatement of Patton in a teaching capacity for the course in question. And much of this critique has arisen from those in the USC community who identify as Chinese, noting an unfair sense of alienation by the decision of the administration to act rashly without considering the possibility of misunderstanding. It is possible, I believe, to both validate the reaction of students who found Patton’s actions to be lacking a certain multicultural dexterity expected of someone in his position while also responding to the situation in a way that does not perpetuate histories of othering.
USC’s administration did neither. Instead, it rushed to take performative action. For an institution that touts its respect for diversity in all forms—look no further than the name of the Office of Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX—USC could not foster the kind of cross-cultural dialogue so clearly needed. Through the inadequate decision and lack of transparency by the Dean, Chinese/Americans now find themselves in a precarious position, needing to validate the Chinese language and its place in the U.S., especially in higher education, while feeling pitted against another community of color with its own struggles against violence and commodification in this country.
This controversy compels us to reflect upon the Chinese language as a body, and remember its own path of emigration and immigration into a mass American culture and attendant cultural consciousness. Let us engage with it in its complex entirety, and let us remember that those who speak it are not to be suspected as geopolitical threat. Let us protect it and, for a moment, survey what frameworks of understanding (and potential misunderstanding) we bring in our approach. Let us remember the immense potential for that kind of empathy so desperately needed now, one that reckons with challenges for mutual growth. Let us re-evaluate what we mean by a language that is MADE IN CHINA.