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.

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7 Responses to Pronunciation of Asian food: I’m guilty, guilty guilty of mangling

  1. Jen says:

    HA! I’ve gotten mad at people for correcting me when I say “LIE-chee,” because that is what I learned as a kid. I finally changed it because I was tired of white kids telling ME how to say it when I am a Filipino with a varied background and a lot of exposure to various Asian cuisine and thus different words and pronunciations that we have borrowed.

    And many Cantonese go to the Philippines. So it makes sense.

    I am going back to saying “LIE-chee”!!!

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    You go, girl! Glad to have helped clear it up for you…

  3. Diamondswamp says:

    I asked my Filipina wife to say lychee. She said Lee-Chee. I’m sure there are others foreign words that we are mispronouncing until we are corrected by a native. There is a car dealer in Southern California who sells Toyotas with his dog, Spot. I used to cringe when I heard him say, “ToYAta” on his commercials. I don’t know if it’s considered butchering the English language, but the Japanese have their way of Romanizing gaijin words. One of my favorite sodas in Japan, besides Bireley’s Orange Soda, was a popular carbonated lemon-lime drink called “Ramune”. I realized in later years that the word was derived phonetically from Lemonade. Jim

  4. Wanda says:

    Gil, I welcome correct pronunciations of Japanese or words from other Asian languages. As a child, I was encouraged to pronounce Japanese words the way Americans would. Now I am re-learning correct pronunciations. However, when I get the pronunciation right, I have found that the person I am speaking with starts talking to me in that language and I am in a precarious situation to where I have to tell them that I don’t actually speak the language. Makes me feel like I should stick to mangling non-English words.

  5. Kalani says:

    So at what point does the word actually switch languages? How many of us pronounce “hors d’oeuvres” the way the French do? Or how many of us learn in elementary school that “Hawai’i” has a glottal stop? I think it’s valuable to learn to say a word properly, but sometimes those of us who have never been to Asia still want to order “that thing on the menu there”. The way I see it is that language is about communication– sometimes you just want to order food, and sometimes you want to tell someone that you care enough about them and their heritage to learn to pronounce it properly. Both are important, but sometimes in different situations.

  6. Gil Asakawa says:

    Good point, Kalani. There’s definitely a bit of over-thinking involved here, but then that’s what I do with this stuff. In the real world applications, I probably will think about lychee and maybe make an effort to sya it right, but maybe not. However, I do say “Hawai’i” with the stop, and put the apostrophe in there as well…

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