The Hongcouver
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 8:55am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 8:59am

‘Mama, I don’t like Chinese people’: Primal fear and the Vancouver signage debate


Ian Young is the SCMP's former International Editor. A journalist for more than 20 years, he worked for Australian newspapers and the London Evening Standard before arriving in Hong Kong in 1997. There he won or shared awards for excellence in investigative reporting and human rights reporting, and the HK News Awards Scoop of the Year. He moved to Canada with his wife in 2010 and is now the SCMP's Vancouver correspondent.

What is it about Chinese-language signage that annoys some Vancouverites so much?

The Hongcouver blog last week looked at the campaign to have such signage removed from Vancouver’s international airport. At the same time, a mini-row flared up over a Chinese-only bus shelter ad for toothpaste; a couple of weeks before that, it was an ad for an anti-gambling programme

Those opposed to such advertising claim that it sends the wrong message about the need for immigrants to try to integrate into broader Canadian society. But I wonder whether there are more fundamental concerns at play here – primal ones, even.

Vancouver blogger Melissa Carr this week told a story about how she encountered a Chinese group at a local community swimming pool, prompting her five-year-old son to tell her, sotto voce: “Mama, I don’t like Chinese people.”

Understandably appalled, Carr pressed him for his reasons. It turned out although he had plenty of Chinese friends, it was hearing people speaking in Chinese together that made him feel uncomfortable. “Maybe they’re talking about me,” he feared.

I’m unaware whether the discomfort felt upon being subjected to foreign-language signage has received scientific study. However, the phenomenon of annoyance upon being subjected to a discourse that cannot be fully understood is well known.

One of the most famous recent studies of the subject was conducted in 2010 by Cornell University psychologists led by Lauren Emberson, who considered why loud cell phone users were so irritating. They found that overhearing half a conversation (dubbed a “halfalogue”) was far more psychologically stressful than hearing a whole one, since the mind of the eavesdropper was forced to try to fill in the gaps, based on limited information. 

“Less-predictable speech results in more distraction for a listener engaged in other tasks,” they concluded.

In 2012, behavioral economist Dan Bennett conducted an ad hoc experiment based on Emberson’s cell phone study that took things a step further. Bennett, of Ogilvy Labs in Britain, tried to confirm Emberson’s results by comparing the level of irritation among English speakers upon hearing “halfalogues” in English and Chinese. “People definitely couldn’t follow the content of a Chinese conversation,” went Bennett’s argument; if listeners were just as annoyed by the Chinese halfalogue, then that would undermine the argument that the irritation resulted from filling in gaps in a half-understood conversation.

“It turns out people aren’t bothered about overhearing Chinese conversations,” Bennett wrote. “It also rings true that people are much more annoyed by English mobile [conversations] than English face to face. This suggests that the theory is correct and people do [try to] follow the conversation.”

Yet I doubt that Bennett’s results are fully applicable to Chinese signage (as opposed to conversation) for the reason that we extrapolate meaning from signage in many ways. Chinese conversations were totally inexplicable to eavesdroppers, so they shouldn’t have been (and weren’t) bothered by them, Bennett  argued. But Chinese signage offers plenty of other cues about possible meaning – location, illustrations, and known context. Such non-written cues could constitute the halfalogue.

Is it conceivable that irritation occurs for a non-Chinese speaker upon encountering a Chinese sign because the viewer’s brain goes into overtime, trying to figure out meaning from contextual cues?

Frustration was clearly evident in a submission to Richmond’s city council last year by some aggrieved residents. Their presentation on the perils of Chinese signage in the Vancouver satellite city was captioned: “What am I buying?”, “Looks good but what is it?” and “Read all about it, what does it say?”

Carr’s young son was quite clear in expressing his dislike of overheard Chinese conversation (in contradiction of Bennett’s conclusions), and he was just as put off by Chinese signs at their local community centre. But his mother told me she isn’t too worried.

“He’s pointing to an Asian sign and he’s saying ‘see? I don’t even know that that means’.” Carr said with a laugh. “It’s kind of ridiculous though. He can’t even read English either.”


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