Sounding real by speaking fake



Arthur Chu is apparently best known as one of the top Jeopardy! winners of all time, but since I haven’t watched Jeopardy! since the last millennium, I have no opinion on his style of play or use of the Forrest Bounce. I came upon him, instead, in an essay on his current voice-over work. Born to Chinese immigrant parents in the 1980s, Chu grew up “translating” their “broken English” into perfectly formed phrases, with rounded Rs and articles in the right places, so they could be understood at customer-service counters and restaurants. It’s an experience shared by many second-generation Americans, who go on to cultivate such accent-free pronunciation that, as Chu puts it:

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.”

I’ve now listened to Chu on CNN, and he does sound amazingly pitch-perfect American, perhaps slightly Midwestern in his determined rs and long ees, but ideal for the kind of bread-and-butter work he does as the voice of corporate videos and voicemail greetings. What’s more surprising is his being cast as the voice of a Chinese person speaking heavily accented English. “It involves a lot of leveling,” he writes, “a lot of smoothing”:

The tongue stays closer to the center of the mouth rather than doing the pronounced, defined highs and lows that shape the L and R sounds. The vocal cords vibrate in smooth, singing tones rather than doing the little hop up and down that makes for a normal American English syllable.

Chu does not find the stereotyping offensive, because the image he’s projecting is of a Chinese person introducing Americans to the tourist attractions or history of China. Here, I began to part ways with his thinking. He compares the use of a Chinese-accented English to that of a Southern drawl for a video on the American South. But people in the American South speak English, whereas those in China speak Chinese. The video producers have to seek out, first, an English speaker, and second, an English speaker who can sound “authentically” Chinese by faking the accents his parents had in Albany, N.Y.

The second aspect of Chu’s fascinating exploration of his participation in the accent business that bothered me was his comparison of Chinese-American speech to other forms of “code switching.” Emphasizing the determined assimilation of Chinese-American kids into mainstream vernacular, his claims that “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.”

It isn’t just that this statement vastly oversimplifies both the question of regional accent and the question of ethnic vernacular. It’s also that Chu is echoing a claim I’ve heard, without a shred of evidence, from white Americans who consider themselves completely unbiased: that they can “tell” when a radio announcer, for instance, is black, regardless of her origins or upbringing. That’s racism, and it’s disappointing to find it coming from a commentator whose own experience is so intertwined with questions of prejudice and assimilation. After all, as Chu writes,

To sound like a “normal” American is to wield privilege. … The English I grew up with as “real” isn’t the English I painstakingly forced on myself from listening to TV and my peers at school. It’s the English of my parents, complete with underpronounced L’s and R’s, dropped “and”s and “the”s, sing-songy and “broken” and embarrassing. That accent is real, but my use of it can never be. … After a lifetime of rehearsals and training, the “announcer voice” is my voice, and the only reliable way to sound “less announcer-y” is to put on an accent that isn’t mine, be it Brooklyn, Biloxi, or Beijing.

Now that is real, and requires no comparison to Texans or Latinos to get its message across.