Arthur Chu: Faking a Chinese Accent Is a Fraught Task

By Julianne Hing Jul 31, 2014

Arthur Chu, best known as a controversial Jeopardy gameshow champion, happens to be a voice actor. And along the way, picking up work has meant being asked to fake a Chinese accent, one he grew up around but worked hard to wash clean from his diction. 

It’s an irony not lost on him, and he explores the sensitivities of it over at NPR’s Code Switch. Chu writes:

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.

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’d caution against Chu’s generalizations about the speech and assimilation patterns of Chinese or Asian-Americans raised in the U.S. I can think of second-generation Asian-Americans I’ve met, for instance, who may not have an identifiable "Asian-American" accent, but do speak with tones inflected by the Latino or black and even Asian immigrant neighborhoods they were raised in. Still, it’s a thoughtful take from a person with a unique perspective on the voiceover industry. Read the rest at Code Switch.

Want to hear Arthur Chu’s voice? Listen to his demo. (Sorry, none feature a Chinese accent.)