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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

"Your English is so good"

In a feature on the Chinese pianist Yuja Wang in the latest The New Yorker, written by the famed writer Janet Malcolm, I was struck by a particular paragraph ---

Yuja speaks in fluent—more than fluent—English, punctuated by laughter that gives one to understand that what she is saying is not to be taken too seriously, and that she is not a pompous or pretentious person. Occasionally, there is the slightest trace of an accent (vaguely French) and a lapse into the present tense.

This attention paid to Wang's English, in her accent and grammar, is fascinating to me, probably because I have been told many times something similar. "Your English is so good. You hardly have any accent. How old were you when you came to America? Where did you learn English?"

Do I feel offended by this? Well, oddly enough, not when I was on the receiving end of what is intended as compliments, but yes when I read this paragraph by Malcolm.

I have heard that such compliments are considered a "microaggression" nowadays, which I do not necessarily disagree with. Contrary to the movement about microaggressions, however, I don't want to tell people to stopping saying such things to me. I don't want people to stop expressing aggressions, especially micro ones, to each other.

I don't know if I can explain clearly why I think that. There are many reasons. At least one of these is that the expression of microaggression reveals something about the person who is delivering it. The expression itself reveals something about Janet Malcolm, and my reaction to it reveals something about myself. Exactly what that something is is not easily described.

What exactly is it that drove Malcolm to comment on Wang's English? Did she expect Wang to speak English with a Chinese accent or Chinglish and was surprised? Wang started living in North America since 14 (she's now 29). Is it surprising? Or is it because, as a writer, Malcolm is particularly sensitive to languages, particularly accents and grammar? Or did she feel threatened by Wang on an unconscious level and felt the need to emphasize Wang's otherness?

Why am I touched by this paragraph? Perhaps I have always wondered why people complimented on my English and the lack of accent. I shouldn't have dismissed it as mundane compliment and missed the opportunity to understand them more deeply.

In principle, I do not think it is good to prohibit people to express microaggressions, or even macroaggressions. I do not believe in repression and suppression because I believe they lead to explosion. To deny others' aggression is to deny my own. If I want to be allowed to express a full range of my own emotions, then everyone must be allowed as well. As long as we don't kill each other, some verbal expression of aggression may be more healthy than pretending to be perfectly harmonious and perfect.

Without aggression, life would be so lifeless, and we would never have a glimpse into Janet Malcolm in a piece she wrote. We'd never get to know each other, even if such knowledge is always colored with our own projection.

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