Perhaps it’s because Fala Chen (陳法拉) has proved herself to be remarkably adept at reinventing herself – when I read her recent furor-causing Instagram post, I was surprised to discover that her drive for self-improvement didn’t extend to her writing skills.
In response to President Trump’s move to christen the coronavirus as “Chinese Virus,” Chen wrote:
“Why does he have even the energy to make up shit like that, when we have so much to deal with and heal from?
This is intentional racist.”
The first thing that struck me about Chen’s copy was, despite four years at Juilliard, everyday English usage has yet to become second-nature to her. She should have written:
“Why does he EVEN HAVE the energy to make up shit like THIS, when we have so much to deal with and heal from?
This is intentional RACISM.”
But the problems with her text don’t stop here. Granted, these days, using an expletive is (generally) no longer considered vulgar, but the fact that Chen’s command of English is somewhat shaky prompts one to wonder whether she was using “shit“ to save herself from the effort of spelling out her meaning: reach out for “shit,” her thinking goes, and she gets a convenient label she can apply to a myriad of situations.
What should Chen have written instead? If Chen’s intention was to put Trump to shame, then “why does he have even the energy to make up shit like that” deliver a blow that is too soft to make an impact; the only thing it may do is to leave the reader wondering, Trump probably doesn’t find tweeting energy-consuming. The wording below is more accusatory in tone, and therefore more effective as a censure:
“In these trying times, such a blatant display of racism is so unworthy of the highest office-holder in the land.”
Should Chen wish to swipe at Trump harder, I’d suggest changing tack. A good option would be to induce the reader to fixate on a possible aftermath of Trump’s remark:
“Mr President, have you not considered the possibility that your words might incite the impressionable to vandalize mom-and-pop stores owned by hardworking Chinese immigrants?”
Considering that Chen she is now trying to make a name for herself in Hollywood, she would do well to remember the example of Eliza Doolittle in the film version of My Fair Lady: the scene at the embassy ball, where the former Cockney flower girl carries herself with such aplomb that all the aristocrats in attendance are convinced she is one of them, and her hostess appraises her and muses, “such a faraway look, as if she’s always lived in a garden.” The reality is, a Chinese person’s facility with English can have an outsized effect on the way she is esteemed in the west – a curious form of reverse soft power, if you ask me. Granted, to attain proficiency, one must endure a learning process not unlike what Eliza went through under Professor Higgins. But in return the rewards are many, not least of which is the fun that comes from mastering the art of the put-down.