Language After the Fact: Rey Chow’s “Not Like a Native Speaker”

By Nan Z. DaJune 2, 2016

Language After the Fact: Rey Chow’s “Not Like a Native Speaker”

Not Like a Native Speaker by Rey Chow

  1. HERE’S AN UNHAPPY TRUTH about using language. Every minute of your life feels like l’esprit de l’escalier: replaying in your mind the too-late retort. This wretched condition that overcame Denis Diderot as he was leaving a party afflicts particularly the non-native speaker. He is put in his place long before he can come up with a comeback, which can itself feel like self-stereotyping. For the non-native speaker, the fantasy of having said things otherwise provides a kind of poor man’s counterfactualism. But l’esprit de l’escalier can be used to describe a more universal and egalitarian phenomenon: that, just by using the language that’s available to you, you’ve already made things wrong for yourself and others. Without exactly intending it, you’ve misdescribed the world and cannot go back.

  1. Let me give you an example. When I was a little girl, before our family had immigrated to the United States, I spent a lot of time listening to stories on cassette tapes. At the time, the most famous children’s raconteur in China was a TV and radio persona by the name of Sister Ju Ping 鞠萍姐姐. Sister Ju Ping’s voice and perfectly intoned Mandarin (in mainland China, Common Speech or Putonghua 普通话) conditioned the speech of Chinese children who grew up in the ’80s and early ’90s. We were fixated by the voice mediated by the new kind of sound production and sound editing. Sister Ju Ping’s stories, most often cautionary tales set in nondescript places, de-nationalized the narrative space and at the same time hyper-nationalized the language used in the telling. The deliverance of the endangered animals and children in her stories seemed tied to the accurate pronunciation of the “zhi,” “ci,” “shi,” “zi,” “si” sounds, precision environments in which dialects, accents, and speech pathologies can have no part. In these programs, Sister Ju Ping would gather a group of red-kerchiefed students around her using the simultaneously endearing and menacing address of “little friends 小朋友们.” The slight threat in her narrative voice, as if to speak is always to speak in warning, was a large part of her appeal. Perfect Putonghua, which in reality exists nowhere but on CCTV broadcasting and in Sister Ju Ping’s studio, became associated with vignettes of the not-too-late.

  1. Last summer I accidentally followed a CCTV youth opera-singing competition for which Sister Ju Ping served as honorary judge. Unsurprisingly, Sister Ju Ping, like the other household Chinese language authority, Yu Qiuyu 余秋雨, is and has always been a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, doing its ideological work through her speech. Perhaps we all knew it back then. And yet my parents, who could sniff out party propaganda in just about any place and who were otherwise immune to centralized “education,” loved Sister Ju Ping and welcomed the standardization of the Chinese language. For people who had just witnessed and endured Mao’s China, Putonghua promised a move toward greater communicative clarity and transparency and also more geographical mobility. It signaled the turn away from megalomaniacs with thick dialects and the emergence of student-led grassroots politics. When Deng Xiaoping opened his mouth after the Tiananmen Square massacre, both assumptions would prove false. And despite this, despite their forced name changes during the Cultural Revolution, despite their Chinese language use being circumscribed by apparatchik in so many ways that it could no longer be called the same language, my parents were still emotionally invested in Putonghua. Independently of the impact of English on Chinese, the intense desire to normalize language emerged when China introduced (relative) freedom of speech in the ’80s and many people could finally speak for themselves.[1]

  1. Given that just 20 years later schools in South Africa have started swapping out local languages for Putonghua and the post–British-handover government in Hong Kong has systematically cut Cantonese out of the classroom, such personal reflections on the psychological politics of Putonghua inevitably arrive after the fact. Indeed, after the fact is exactly the time at which linguistic insight on colonialism emerge. L’esprit de l’escalier. A world of regrets.

  1. The CCP’s decades-long mediation of national language gives us an important context for a truth that Rey Chow has been arguing for a very long time — that a postcolonial subject does not automatically have a postcolonial relationship to language. The argument takes a new turn in her most recent book, Not Like a Native Speaker, Chow’s latest intervention in the language politics of postcolonialism. In relation to the concept of l’esprit de l’escalier, this book suggests unique positions from which to survey what, in speaking for oneself, one has done, and understand the full ethical and theoretical implications of being able see that it could have been otherwise. 

  1. Not Like a Native Speaker stages many postcolonial language scenes, some from Chow’s own experience growing up in British Hong Kong as a Cantonese and Mandarin-speaking Muslim. In part, these scenes log the precarities and inequities wrought on languages by what Simon Gikandi called “the afterlife of colonialism,” specifically the phenomenon of Global English. But look a little closer and the fate of world languages, something that has preoccupied the humanities, takes a back seat to a prior consideration: how, just by using language at all, colonized subjects can sometimes become colonizing subjects. The central confrontation in the book is between the colonized’s use of language and Jacques Derrida’s still-startling assertion that “All culture is originarily colonial.” When “language is at one’s disposal to freely make one’s case,” that is precisely when we “want to impose some politics of language on others.”

  1. For a relatively straightforward example of this Chow suggests that we look no further than the diagnostician himself. For Derrida, French was the only language he wrote in and therefore the only language he could use to make declarations about that language. Yet this made for exquisite forms of self-antagonism and self-discipline. It is well known that Derrida was extremely squeamish about poorly spoken, ungrammatical French — his own “Algerian French.” Through his example Chow reminds us that colonialism’s cultural program was never as simple as the phasing out or outright ban of the native language. Since taking apart the logic of colonialism requires using its languages well, colonialism naturalizes the correlation between language purity and cultural sovereignty. It suggests that there is a native language that exists prior to colonialism that must be reasserted.

  1. Just by using language, postcolonialism slides into colonialism. It is fair to say that this is a phenomenon that has preoccupied Chow since the very beginning of her career. As far back as Woman and Chinese Modernity (1991) Chow has been looking at the modern Chinese subject poised at precisely this juncture, a subject position that reveals to us the entanglements between East and West. When a Chinese person watches a film like Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, she identifies with its narrative of modern Chinese history and Chinese subjectivity, an identification not at all interrupted by her acute consciousness of the narrative’s constructed, mediated, or foreign nature. One of the entanglements between East and West according to Chow is that the latter provides very effective delivery systems for a painful/pleasurable nationalist consciousness that is then used to reassert national identity in the face of further colonization.[2] When nationalism follows upon the heels of decolonization, we get an artificial story, one that says monolingualism is the state to which we should return. This is swiftly followed by the practices of shaming, delegitimizing, and outright eradication of other languages in place long before colonization by Western powers. This is what Chow means by “the monolingualism of the other.”

  1. Years before I tuned in to Sister Ju Ping in Hangzhou, another child in Hong Kong turned on the radio. We learn in this book that Rey Chow’s mother, Ngai Mun 艾雯, was a famous public figure in the ’50s and ’60s, a radio host who would be stopped in the streets when people recognized her voice. One of her mother’s innovations as a radio host was to exploit the conversions between the media of film, radio, and script to correct the unnatural ascendency of Mandarin Chinese. Listening to her mother broadcast in Cantonese, the girl Rey Chow experienced a kind of sounding. For the Cantonese-speaking child, monolingualization for the purposes of Chinese nationalism in the classroom and other public spaces had meant “suppressing or switching off an intimate oral and aural code — the way things are said and heard in the medium of her primary speech — so as to conform to the correct, because standardized, manner of modern Chinese writing (based on Mandarin/Putonghua speakers’ oral and aural code).” In contrast, Chow’s mother repopulated the acoustic landscape with drama that was only rendered because it was rendered in Cantonese.

  1. So Chow listened. And kept listening. Chow’s mother also used her radio persona to withhold. As someone who was brutalized during the Japanese occupation, and therefore someone who identified strongly with the Chinese nationalists’ jiachouguoheng 家仇国恨, Ngai Mun refused to broadcast a script about the victims of Hiroshima. But we do not catch Chow flinching just because her mother’s radio programs were entangled with personal politics. One of the most remarkable things about Not Like a Native Speaker is that it ventures past the triumphant self-assertion of postcolonial language into more uncomfortable territory, the place of confession. If we do not mistake the title of Chow’s book for posture or injunction — “you speak like a native!” “No I wouldn’t want to!” — we will see that she is shifting the postcolonial Anglophone debate from speaking and other forms of self-realizing to the far more humbled position of accounting for what has already been said. Confession plays an important role in Chow’s account of colonialism’s time-delayed, operationally defunct lessons. A clear-eyed consideration of thoughts and actions that appear within a decidedly finite and compromising set of options always begins by getting personal.

  1. Derrida’s snobbery toward poorly spoken French; Rey Chow’s ambivalence toward recuperative portrayals of wartime Japan; my own family history of Putonghua policing. It does all seem embarrassingly personal. As the book makes clear, a curious feature of language-consciousness is that to come at it this personally means understanding at last language’s fundamental impersonality. The more we confess the more we cannot not hear that we do not really own the things we say nor come up with them ourselves, that we take our ideas, narratives, idioms, figures of speech, from those that are available and at hand. For this insight Chow draws on, and in so doing, makes fresh again, Michel Foucault’s concept of the déjà énoncé, the “already said.” Foucault, Chow explains, “dispenses both with the instrumentalist notion of language as a communicative tool and with the idealist notion of language as an inner, soulful trait.” In their stead, he posits “an assemblage of discontinuous, lived experiences […] the resonances, connotations, associations, and memories (voluntary and involuntary) that, having been uttered and heard many times, cling to or hover around even the most simple individual speech acts.” Confession, or the site of personal liability, is formed word by word with the found objects of discourse that cannot be said to originate from anywhere, or anyone.

  1. For Chow, the “the colonized is much closer to the truth of the mediated and divisive character of all linguistic communication.” Ideas in the world, while seen to come from individual speakers, cannot really be attributed to any person; moreover, the individual speaker’s point of intersection with this process is always after the fact, or, to use Foucault’s more efficient formulation: we live in a world in which things have been said. Last month a Taiwanese K-pop starlet named Chou Tzu-yu was forced to apologize on social media to the Chinese people for waving the Taiwanese flag. “There is only one China and the two sides are one,” Chou said in the YouTube video. “As a Chinese person my improper words and behaviour during my activities abroad hurt my company and the feelings of netizens across the strait […] I have decided to stop my activities in China for now to seriously reflect on myself.” The video is hard to watch and Chou is just one of many to be bullied and humiliated in this way. The interesting moment came afterward when, on Chinese and other Sinophone social media, people started drawing attention to the mediated nature of this “apology.” Some remarked that we all know this genre already, that the girl was just following a form, a rite of passage. Some saw this as a publicity stunt for the Korean entertainment group, JYP. Others saw those who blasted her apology on social media as themselves pulling publicity stunts. If anything the blowback has shown a hyper-awareness of mediation and the receding role of human figures in the language politics of (post)colonial Sinocentrism.

  1. Language makes us obsess about origins and originality, ownership and sovereignty. But here’s something else about language in its mediated form. We can see how thought and speech lean on a multitude of compartments, makeshift and contingent. Elsewhere, Chow has called this the “objectifiability of sound,” “objectifiable” meaning the forms that language takes in the world, from “gests or gestures” to “titles, scenes, captions, posters, parables, verses, songs, and other visible and perceptible bits and pieces.” In radio, prerecorded sounds like babies crying and background noises are all there to authenticate the sonic environment; at the same time such authentications depend on and are introduced by new media technologies, and exist nowhere except in the media. When language is in this “spectrally withheld” state we experience the “uncertainty of origination.” Media prolongs and scatters the experience of lingual environments, and directs us to “entanglement,” the state that describes both simple technological dependencies and the compromised position of the postcolonial speaker.

  1. Under what conditions could forms of postcolonial language not veer toward colonialism? Recasting coloniality as prosthesis, Chow suggests that “[i]nstead of being tied to previously known communities, collective experience will henceforth assume the form of an open source characterized by unexpected comings and goings of strangers, juxtaposition of disparate things, and assemblages of distant or unrelated happenings.” What might it look like to claim language for one’s own experience while forfeiting “any form of substantiation, especially political substantiation (such as colonization)”? Arguably, there is no real way to preempt colonialism, or even stay its hand, as it is a trauma that clicks into shape after the fact. Chow’s book represents only one way — the l’esprit de l’escalier way — to disassociate language from ownership, which is the basic drive behind coloniality. The final section of Not Like a Native Speaker is a homage to a talented and beloved mother, someone who left to posterity “sixty radio plays, five film scripts, eight television drama series, and numerous synopses of other radio plays and film.” Yet Chow strangely concludes that “in its remarkable historicity and audiovisual versatility, her life’s work reverberates in my thoughts with a profound muteness.” How can sound reverberate with muteness? What might it mean to renounce the ability to say something about the rich, varied, and much-longed-for lingual and sonic experiences that have been restored to us?

  1. In September 2014, when cameras panned over Hong Kong, they captured a sea of color. Students and citizens occupied Admiralty, Causeway Bay, Mong Kok, and Tsim Sha Tsui with brightly colored umbrellas, both protection against the elements and symbols of the nonviolent nature of their protest against the Chinese encroachment on Hong Kong’s self-governance. Marking a turning point in the history of revolutionary semiotics, the umbrellas did not “speak” so much as point to what would come afterward, like a flinch before the punch. They poignantly represented a flimsiness against the punishment that would, and did, eventually rain down on the Occupy Central movement after mass media had moved on. This past year, little by little, the CCP-appointed Hong Kong government and the mainland have been “reckoning after the autumn harvest 秋后算账”: arresting, releasing, and re-arresting members of Scholarism, denying exit visas, revoking Home Return Permits, turning a blind eye to retributive acts of violence against the activists, tweaking faculty governance on campuses, and entangling Occupy in endless litigation. The umbrellas reverberate in my thoughts with a profound muteness. I don’t know what to say, nor do I quite know what they’ve said. The future of language in the new dystopic futures of colonialism is one for which we brace ourselves and try to hold our tongues.


[1] This is not to diminish the role that such unequal lingual encounters have played and continue to play China’s lingual modernity, as best researched and described in Lydia Liu’s Translingual Praxis.

[2] This can be seen in China’s May Fourth writers reacting to colonialism by creating the mythos of a unified national language and literary culture, finding in anticolonial resistance a new legitimacy for making Chinese a single script and a single sound.


Nan Z. Da is an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame. She teaches 19th-century American literature and literary theory and is completing book manuscript titled Within Formality: China, US, and the Intransitive.

LARB Contributor

Nan Z. Da is an associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Intransitive Encounter (Columbia University Press, 2018) and is completing a book called The Chinese Tragedy of King Lear.


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