Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Pronunciation of Asian food: I’m guilty, guilty guilty of mangling
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Pronunciation of Asian food: I’m guilty, guilty guilty of mangling

The food at Thai Garden ranges from Thai to Chinese to Vietnamese.

Ouch. I stand humbled… and embarrassed. I’ve changed my views on my long-held need to have Japanese words (especially food) pronounced correctly. I was such a purist about it that in the past I’ve even offered a pronunciation guide for often-mangled Japanese words.

But tonight, I realized that despite Erin and my interest in and curiosity for all Asian cultures — especially when it comes to food — and our efforts to pronounce words correctly, I blew it when it comes to some of the most common Asian words we eat: Chinese food.

We had dinner with Yutai Guo, the founder of Asian Avenue Magazine, as part of a monthly feature we write under the nom de mange Wasabi and Shoyu (Erin’s the wasabi), at Thai Garden, a nice little strip-mall restaurant in southeast Aurora. These articles are called “Restaurant Peeks” and they’re not reviews. We describe the food and meet and interview the owner to get the stories behind each restaurant.

An official “restaurant critic” from a newspaper would never do this, because they need to be incognito and unbiased. While it’s true that we wouldn’t write something nasty if a restaurant isn’t very good, we do take the opportunity to speak to the proprietors about things we notice. For instance, tonight we thought the Pad Thai and Panang Curry were both sweeter than we’d had at other Thai restaurants. Ming Mei, the owner, says she and her husband, the chef, adjusted the dish to appeal more to her non-Asian clientele. We can’t fault her business decision, and the food was overall flavorful and satisfying — we’d go back there as customers in a second, if we’re in the neighborhood. Ultimately, I wonder if out feature stories are more helpful to readers than some self-proclaimed expert’s opinion on the quality of a restaurant’s food.

But I digress.

The point here is that Mei, who is from Guangzhou (also called Canton), worked for years as a server for one of Denver’s premier Chinese restaurants, Imperial, and got the entrepreneurial bug. Eight months ago she took over Thai Garden, which serves Thai, Chinese and some Vietnamese dishes from a huge menu.

Mei speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin; she kept a running conversation with Yutai, who is from Taiwan and speaks Mandarin, in between running the restaurant and bringing us food.

When Mei brought dessert — I ordered lychee ice cream, Erin got ginger ice cream and Yutai got mango ice cream and I’d love to know the distributor — Erin and I realized how we’d been unconscious about our own pronunciation inadequacies, while criticizing others who don’t say Japanese words correctly.

Yutai said “lychee” in Mandarin, and I processed what she said in my brain and immediately blurted, “Oh, you mean “LEE-CHEE?” as if was correcting her.

I caught myself, and Erin did too. I realized that of course, Yutai’s pronunciation was correct, and I was being an ugly American and saying it wrong. Erin pointed out that I did what we accuse people of doing when they mangle Japanese words: It seems like they’re trying to correct US when we’re the ones who know how to say it right.

Actually, it’s possible those people, like non-Asian servers at Japanese restaurants, simply do what I just did: They hear me or Erin say a Japanese word, but they have to translate it in their heads and when they figure out what we said, they blurt out the word to verify it… the way they learned how to say it.

The Mandarin prounciation for the fruit (nut?) is something like “LEE-chueh.” In Cantonese it’s “LIE-chee.” I’ve said “LEE-CHEE” all my life. Yutai said she’s fine with people saying it wrong because she’s used to it. But that doesn’t make it right.

We ended up having a hearty laugh and great conversation about Chinese words and Americanized pronunciation, and how many dishes Americans think of as Chinese aren’t Chinese at all, but Western inventions: Chop suey, sesame chicken, egg foo yung. (Read Jennifer 8 Lee‘s terrific book, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” for a history of Chinese food in America.)

Language evolves, as I said in my rant about pronunciation. As foreign words become commonplace in American English, they get adapted to American language patterns. That’s why I, in my hypocrisy, say “burrito” American-style when I’m ordering at Taco Bell (or at Los Arcos, for that matter).

And now that I think about it, there are many, many words in all Asian cultures that aren’t familiar to me, so I don’t say correctly. For instance, “Pho” is easy but “Bun Dac Biet” is hard because of added intonation. And, Banh Mi (the wonderful Vietnamese-French sandwich) is even harder for me, and I know I mangle it every time I say it. I appreciate my Vietnamese friends’ patience.

My lesson learned is that although I still wish people would say “karaoke,” “panko” and “udon” correctly, I’m not gonna get uptight about it. I might not be able to resist the urge to pipe up, but instead of snidely correcting, I’ll try like hell to merely suggest and educate.

Meanwhile, I’m gonna surf the web and find a pronunciation guide for Chinese words.