Vernacular ethnonyms

From the NYT print edition on Friday, a story on the new ethnic food culture of Orange County CA, with a reference to the vernacular ethnonym Chino:

So last year, Mr. Phan, now 35, began creating fusion dishes like coconut curry chicken with sour cream and roast pork with salsa verde, and taking them on the road in a food truck he has christened Dos Chinos. That’s Spanish for “two Chinese,” but more to the point, “Chino” is how many Spanish speakers refer to anyone Asian.

“Anyone who lives here gets it,” Mr. Phan said. “I don’t think anyone who grew up in Orange County would the word find ‘Chino’ offensive — that’s what they call us, so we might as well embrace it.”

Some background:

Blending of Cultures Visible in the Food Trucks
Published: April 7, 2011

… In the Vietnamese cooking of Hop Phan’s family, avocados were meant for sweet, not savory dishes. But in high school, his Mexican friends handed him a taste of the fruit mashed with salt and spicy beef in a tortilla. The shock of that first bite of a taco quickly turned to awe, not to mention a love affair with cultural culinary tourism.

Soon after they settled here, with thousands of other Vietnamese refugees, Mr. Phan’s father opened a string of restaurants that served pho, the traditional noodle soup. But his son had little interest in doing what generations of Vietnamese cooks before him had done.

Hop Phan in his element:

But on Chino: note the semantic extension of the ethnonym, from the more specific ‘Chinese’ to ‘Asian’; the bleaching of the offense in the term; and the (somewhat defiant) embracing of the term, at least by young people in Orange County (akin to the reclamation of  terms like queer and dyke).

That was case 1. Now consider the extension of Hawaiian Creole hapa (English half) from more specific ethnic mixtures (especially involving one white parent) to any racial/ethnic mixture, so that it merely conveys ‘mixed’ — along with what seems to be a diminishing of earlier offensiveness in the term (and its spread from Hawaii to the mainland).

My grand-daughter (like her mother before her) is often taken to be Chinese-American, but these days in California, she’s sometimes identified as a hapa, especially by parents with hapa children. Fortunately, she seems to be cool with this. Well, we do live in a place with multiple and blended ethnicities.

Case 3. A somewhat different example, from my childhood.

I grew up in an area that was heavily Pennsylvania Dutch, and “Dutch” ethnic identity was significant. The opposite of vernacular Dutch? In the old days, this was English, presumably a survival of the main ethnic divisions in the area in the 18th and 19th centuries; Welsh was a significant ethnic identity in the early years, but the Welsh got absorbed into Englishness.

Over time, the identifier English was extended to pretty much all the “white” — or at least, not “brown/black/yellow” — people who were not Dutch: Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Jews, my father and his Swiss family, John Updike’s father and his Netherlands-Dutch family. (So I am a kind of hapa, half maternally Dutch, half paternally English.)

(Of course, the central Dutch identity remained, associated in particular with characteristically “Dutch” family names — notable names like Dreibelbis, Finefrock, and Hinnershitz, but also names like Kachel, Kulp, Moll, Werner, Kreider, Kerchner, and Stroup. When the context called for it, the various kinds of English (Greeks, Italians, and so on) were freely distinguished, of course.)

Outside the Dutch/English dichotomy were the non-white folks in the area at the time, especially the Puerto Ricans, the blacks, and a smaller group of Chinese (almost every American city of any size had at least one Chinese(-American) restaurant, run and staffed by Chinese-Americans, who were called (of course) simply Chinese).

[Grammatical note: English and Dutch had uses as plural nouns: generic The English/Dutch are belligerent. Other plural uses — A thousand English/Dutch were in the square, Two English/Dutch were at the door — are variable in complex ways.

But then what’s the corresponding singular? An English/Dutch N (N = person/man/woman/…) is one solution, but another is to create a singular identical to the plural: an English/Dutch. This was the usage of my childhood: my mother was a Dutch, my father an English. (It would have been possible to refer to the Pennsylvania Dutch and Swiss-Americans together as Germans, but from World War I on that was not a popular scheme.)]

The racial/ethnic taxonomy and its accompanying labels have pretty much wilted away, as far as I can tell, though they might persist in the usage of the “plain Dutch” (vs. the “gay Dutch”), like the Amish and the more conservative Mennonites; I just don’t know.

A reminder: no one categorized the racial/ethnic world entirely in terms of Dutch vs. English. There were many kinds of Dutch and many kinds of English, each exquisitely distinguished and (mostly) labeled (though the modal subcategories, like non-“ethnic” English, tend not to have special labels.)

Lessons to take away from the three cases:

the category distinctions and the accompanying labels are local, geographically and socially;

they change over time, especially by changes in their status as slurs and by semantic extension;

and they are variable and so may be in dispute.

There are endless numbers of other cases, beyond the three I’ve sketched so briefly (Chino, hapa, Dutch). These were just the three that came to my attention last week.

One Response to “Vernacular ethnonyms”

  1. At 8 « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] first of these suggests why people so often identify Opal as Chinese (or hapa — see here): it’s the eyes, mostly. Seeing Opal with her mother, people assume Opal’s father is […]

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