Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | japanese language
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WendyWhile we're on the topic of pronunciation, I've been meaning to write this for a while, since Wendy's began airing TV commercials for their new Premium Fish Fillet Sandwich. The commercials seem to have stopped, but the sandwich is still available at select locations across the country. The commercial got Erin, our son Jared and me all riled up every time I saw it because it mispronounced "panko" whenever it was mentioned. Panko is the traditional Japanese breadcrumb coating for fried food, and it's become something of a hip ingredient in American restaurants and kitchens. So it's cool that Japanese food (starting with sushi a couple of decades ago) are catching on in the US and becoming mainstream. However, it irritates me that so many Americans, including the guy on the TV commercial, pronounce the word as "PAN-koe," like "pants." The Japanese pronunciation is "pahn-KOH," with the first part more like "pawn" -- almost like "punk" -- and the second like Homer Simpson's "DOH!" Here's a caveat about this rant of mine: Language evolves, and as cultures merge and are assimilated, words and pronunciation patterns change and are re-invented. I'm sure the British still think Americans are buffoons for mangling their language, mispronouncing words and using "incorrect" words like "trunk" for a car's "boot" or hood for a car's "bonnet." I'm the first to admit that I don't follow my own rules about Japanese words for other languages. I don't walk into a Taco Bell and order a "bu-RRRIT-toh." I don't order a "kwassahn" at the bakery when I want a croissant. I say "kraw-sahnt." Servers at Thai restaurants snicker when I ask if I pronounced "yum nue" (spicy cold beef salad, truly yummy) correctly. Vietnamese servers guffaw out loud when I ask if I've said "bun dac biet" (combination grilled meat over rice noodles) right. Amazingly, I always think I've nailed it, but the guffaws come anyway. And by the way, when you go to the Vietnamese restaurant for a bowl of "pho" noodle, it's NOT pronounced "foe" or even "fuh." A server explained to us that you have to add a slight upward lilt to the end of the word, as if you're asking a question. So it's, "Hi, can I have a medium bowl of fuh?" Erin and I may not get it exactly right, but the point is, we're aware of our inadequacy at pronouncing other languages, and we always try to learn and say it correctly. On the other hand, let's face it, people in other countries aren't any better at pronouncing English, so turnabout is fair play, right?

I had an interesting thread of conversation the other day on Facebook, after someone sent me a friend request that ended with the person (he's Caucasian) calling me "Gil-san." He wrote this in good cheer and good faith, and as a sign of collegial respect. I know that. But it struck me odd somehow, that non-Japanese people (usually Caucasians) throughout my life have assumed that it's perfectly normal to call me "Gil-san," or to say "konnichiwa" ("hello") or "sayonara," as if I speak Japanese, or better yet, that I appreciate someoe else assuming that I speak Japanese. I do -- a little. But I'm not Japanese, and the only time I try to mumble and stumble my way through a conversation in Japanese is when I'm trying to speak to Japanese people... from Japan. So I posted this on Facebook and Twitter: "Is it culturally sensitive, condescending or just plain goofy for a Euro-American to call me 'Gil-san'? I'm Japanese American, not Japanese." As is often the case, I got a flurry of responses right away on Facebook. Interestingly, Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans, as well as European Americans, had different perspectives on this topic.