Arthur Chu has a very interesting essay at NPR’s Code Switch site that begins by describing how he speaks English in a “Chinese accent” for a video and goes on to unpick the complexities of such an accent:
Nearly every Chinese immigrant I’ve met does, in fact, “talk like that,” because it’s almost impossible not to have a thick accent when your first language is as fundamentally phonetically different from English as Mandarin or Cantonese is.
But it’s equally true that every single Chinese-American kid born here I’ve met emphatically does not “talk like that.” In fact, there isn’t a Chinese-American accent the way there’s a distinct cadence to how black Americans or Latino Americans talk. Most Chinese-Americans have a pitch-perfect “invisible” accent for wherever they live.
If anything, the thing that made me weird as a kid was that my English was too perfect. My grammar was too meticulously correct, my words too carefully enunciated — I was the kid who sounded like “Professor Robot.” In order to avoid being a social pariah in high school I had to learn to use a carefully calibrated proportion of slurred syllables and street slang in my speech — just enough to sound “normal,” not enough to sound like I was “trying too hard.” […]
The “Asian accent” tells the story of Chinese-American assimilation in a nutshell. Our parents have the accent that white Americans perceive as the most foreign out of all the possible alternatives, so our choice is to have no accent at all. The accent of our parents is the accent of the grimy streets of Chinatown with its mahjong parlors and fried food stalls and counterfeit jewelry, so we work to wipe away all traces of that world from our speech so we can settle comfortably into our roles as respectable middle-class doctors, lawyers, engineers, hundreds of miles from Chinatown.
No wonder we react so viscerally to the “ching-chong, ching-chong” schoolyard taunt. To attack our language, our ability to sound “normal,” is to attack our ability to be normal. It’s to attack everything we’ve worked for.
I liked this anecdote about interpreting between English and English:
Most vividly I remember being on vacation at the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border, bemusedly translating between my dad and a park ranger, both of whom were speaking English. One of them would say something. The other would blink in confusion. Only when I repeated it did they understand. And suddenly I realized my dad’s Chinese accent and the ranger’s Canadian accent were too far apart from each other to be mutually intelligible.
And if you’re interested in the history of the “ching-chong” thing, by all means click on the link within the quote. (Via MetaFilter.)