Max Ritvo

When you laugh at something horrible, you’re just illuminating a different side of it that was already there. If you make something sad funny you’re much more likely to remember it. It’s a mnemonic device that makes our suffering rhyme with joy.

—Max Ritvo, New York Times, WYNC, New Yorker

A Chinese Accent


Sometimes, I wish I had a Chinese accent.

My cousin recently said that when I was younger, I wanted to get away from being Chinese. He didn’t mean this as an insult, but as praise. And I don’t think he meant precisely what he said. What he meant, I think, is that I wanted to get away from the attitudes and habits and beliefs that my parents and my uncles and aunts had. I wanted to be less provincial, less culturally embedded, and more cosmopolitan.

He didn’t mean that I wanted to be white; after all, he didn’t say that. But it seems like that to me a little, because being white somehow means being non-ethnic. It is somehow the default in our culture. Any deviation from being white seems to need justification to those of us who are not.

I like to think that the truth behind what my cousin said is that from the very the beginning, I searched for eternal truths, that I wanted to get at objective truth, to get at something that doesn’t depend on anyone’s particular circumstances, let alone mine, that I wanted to view things sub specie aeternitatis, just as the philosopher I came to be.


But there’s some literal truth in what my cousin said. I did want to escape being Chinese. And to my shame, I did I want to be white. When I was about 7 or 8, I remember being shocked that I wasn’t. I had watched so much TV and so many movies, and I had always identified with the loner, the underdog, the nerd, who through his intelligence, virtuousness, and courage would be rewarded — in particular, I would be rewarded with the girl. This is a compelling trope, but it is ultimately a sexist narrative that hurts both men and women.

The point I want to make though is that that loner is more often than not a white boy. And I thought that I was that loner, until I watched a tv show where the underdog had an Asian friend. And then that, I realized, was me. I was not even the underdog. I was, at best, the underdog’s friend. I had no story of my own, only a bit part in someone else’s.

Over the years, a few people—almost always white—have told me that they don’t think of me as Chinese but as Canadian. They meant this as a compliment, which, under the influence of my own racial insecurity and self-hatred, I accepted and welcomed it. Anything to make me feel less alone. There was comfort in being told that I was Canadian, that I was accepted into Canadian society by its “old-stock” citizens. This was true even if I was born and raised here.


In high school, I had a classmate who was articulate, smart, but most importantly, he was funny. So I listened to him. He was Indian, but had a thoroughly English name, for Christian missionaries had converted his family long before they moved to Canada.

I remember that he once told me of a theory that there were three types of humans in the world: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. This was an 18th century anthropological theory, no longer in use and highly criticized as racist and unfounded. But the point he wanted to make was that I, being Chinese, was Mongoloid (a term also once used to describe those with Down syndrome) and not the “higher” type of human, that of being Caucasoid. This was not only a way of identifying and categorizing human beings, but also that of creating and maintaining a hierarchy of human nature.

This was made plain when he told me that Indians and other South Asians were also Caucasoid. And this meant that he himself was Caucasoid. And in making these points, he helped me develop a self-hatred that would take me years to shed. But I don’t really blame him for his racism, because there was self-hatred in him too. He wanted to be white too—or, if not white, at least in the same category as being white.


Admittedly, I have lived a life that has left a lot of Chinese culture and ethos behind. I have studied Western philosophy for over 20 years, wrote my PhD dissertation on Kant, who is about as western as Western philosophy gets. I’m no longer very good at speaking Cantonese or Taishanese, even though I spoke them as a child, long before I spoke a word of English. I do not watch Hong Kong movies or listen to Hong Kong pop music. And I do not believe in Chinese superstitions. I also do not follow the lessons of Confucius, of Mao, of the Buddha, or any Sifu. And despite what my parents’ wishes, I did not become a medical doctor, lawyer, or engineer.

I do love Chinese food though. And I enjoy watching kung fu movies. But these hardly count as ways of being Chinese. After all, the Wu Tang Clan loves these things as much as I do, if not more so.

I do not know how much I avoided adopting “Chinese” characteristics because I wanted to avoid being thought of as Chinese. I am, however, sure that I worked hard to pronounce words correctly, without a Chinese accent, so I would be taken seriously.

But whether one is taken seriously or not should have nothing to do with one’s accent, and a large part of me wishes that I had one—as proof that I am Chinese, as proof that I never hated myself.

Not that I, or anyone else of colour, needs such proof. Who would it be for anyway?

On the fear of not being special

I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter series, but I have seen all the movies. And strangely enough, I have read some Harry Potter fan fiction, namely, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

There’s one scene in the original where Harry puts on the Sorting Hat to decide which school to go to. Yudkowsky’s reimagines Harry as wanting to go to Ravenclaw and having the following telepathic conversation with the Hat:

Sorting Hat: “What is the real reason you must not go to Hufflepuff and be happier there? What is your true fear?”

Harry Potter: I must achieve my full potential. If I don’t, I fail.

“What happens if you fail?”

…I don’t know!

“Then it should not be frightening. What happens if you fail?”

There was silence for a moment in the caverns of Harry’s mind.

“You know – you aren’t letting yourself think it, but in some quiet corner of your mind you know just exactly what you aren’t thinking – you know that by far the simplest explanation for this unverbalisable fear of yours is just the fear of losing your fantasy of greatness, of disappointing the people who believe in you, of turning out to be pretty much ordinary, of flashing and fading like so many other child prodigies.’

The urge to work as hard as you can, to reach your full potential, can be motivated by the fear that you aren’t special – that you aren’t so great. But in reality, there’s nothing so bad about not being special and not being great. Happiness might be more important.

This fear can sometimes drive one to work hard, but it can also drive one away from working hard. Because the closer you get to working really hard, the more you see your limits, how much further you have to go, how much you cannot do, and how much others may be better than you. And then if you don’t work hard, you can always tell yourself, “I may not be great, but I always had the potential to be great.”

This fear is deep, but it doesn’t motivate for the right reasons. It cannot sustain your curiosity or creativity. Those need a life of their own.