• Sun
  • Sep 21, 2014
  • Updated: 5:26pm
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.”


For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

Bo Xilai
Ian, I heard the same story about a 4 year old boy in Vancouver tell his mother "I don't like Black people". What does that tell us? Young Vancouverites are racists? Donald Sterling has a love child in Vancouver?
I think there's a risk of extracting too many conclusions from anecdotal evidence - especially one from a 5 year old. I think kids that age are probably hard-wired to be scared of the unknown and they're just a little more verbal about it.
Hi Bo Xilai: The fact that a child would make such comments about race (Chinese or black) does not tell us that Vancouverites are racists, and its inclusion as a point of reference isn't intended as evidence one way or the other about Vancouver as a society. But it does tell us something: Even though young master Carr, in fact, has lots of Chinese friends, his off-the-cuff comment helps demonstrate that some people feel uncomfortable when confronted by foreign languages on a level so basic that it can be experienced by a five-year-old. It's certainly not evidence of any problem that is particular to Vancouver (which is kind of the whole point of the blog). Your comment about "hard-wiring" suggests to me that you actually agree with the hypothesis that fundamental psychology may be at play.
Ian Young:
If the comment by the child is "rather trivial" than why is the whole story framed by that odious headline? "Primal Fear" suggests a societal problems. The headline is designed to provoke unkempt opinion. Once upon a time, an article like this would have been only printed in what was called the "yellow press" (which had nothing to do with skin color or nationality, but to the color of paper that cheap, sensationalist tabloids were printed on).
In fact, very few Vancouver folks object to signs in Chinese or Persian or Punjabi, languages far more used than in this town French (which along with English is an official language).
But if you get rid of the headline, ahem, the story with its pseudo-psychology falls apart. Tabloid, sensationalist mentality drives this article. Much ado about nothing, as my first comment states.
Hi ******:
'Primal fear', and the fact that the quoted comment was made by a small child, are quite clearly intended to suggest this is NOT a societal problem in Vancouver...in fact, they are intended to suggest that a psychological factor may be at play. Discussing perceptions of race should not be conflated with racism.
Wow, look how calm and objective everyone is. Chinese characters, it's no biggie right?
Just take the same scenario, but place it in Hong Kong. Traditional Chinese being substituted with simplified Chinese characters. Now let's see the reaction.
When in Rome...
If you decide you want to go live in a country then you should accept that you need to integrate and take on that country's culture and language. It is plain common sense, it is also inevitable that the people living in a country will become unfriendly to a group who seem to refuse to integrate and seem to try and 'take over' the neighbourhood.
I was born and grew up in England and only learned to speak English, when I was a kid one of my older relatives who had lived in the country for many years couldn't speak a word of it - in effect we never communicated. Her lack of desire to absorb the local way of life and integrate also meant we had very little in common besides being relatives. I often wondered why she bothered emigrating from Hong Kong to the UK.
I myself went through a phase a few years ago where I wanted to emigrate to Hong Kong, despite the fact that quite a few Hong Kongers can speak some level of English I made an effort to learn to communicate in Cantonese. If I decide to emigrate to another country in the future, say Spain, I would make an effort to learn to communicate in Spanish or Catalan beforehand; to be honest I would be downright embarrassed to turn up ready to live in a country and not be able to communicate in their official language(s).
...do as the Romans do.
From what I've seen, most Chinese immigrants and even the elderly want and do attempt to learn an official language of the country, but it is not easy for all of them because many are not be able to converse comfortably with the fluent (vice-versa) and ease of talking in their first language comes naturally at home. They are not little kids anymore. I've encountered English teachers coming back from China and Korea who have made practically no effort to learn the language as foreign workers living in there for a couple years. It is as if they expect native speakers to understand only English.
I hear comments from local kids in China all the time when they see couple of foreigners. People not used to difference and diversity respond with fear. This applies to little people as well, and if generally magnified by parents and other environmental factors, even at age 5. Same is true in Hangzhou as may be true in Vancouver. Sameness is comforting, but not conducive to having an open mind.
Ian Young:
I just did some research and found the story: ****thethirtiesgrind.com/2014/04/28/is-my-kid-racist/.
After reading the article from the source and the 2 comments left, I think you might have over-reacted.
I agree with ******, this is "much ado about nothing".
Signs are there for a reason - economics. If the signs are not attracting business, they will change.
IMO, Melissa should consider sending her boy to a Chinese school so he can understand what is said around him instead of being scared.
Hi Baysidedweller: this blog is not about the comment by Ms Carr's child, and nor is it in reaction to it. It's about the signage debate. The rather trivial comment by Ms Carr's son is only used to illustrate the possible psychology at play. Also, this blog already contains a link to Ms Carr's blog ... no research required.




SCMP.com Account