'Neige controversy': US professor's suspension sparks debate over a Chinese word

WION Web Team California, United States Sep 11, 2020, 02.33 PM(IST)

Professor Greg Patton at the University of Southern California and the Chinese flag Photograph:( Agencies )

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News of the spat reached China, where many posted on social media saying they thought Professor Patton's punishment, conversely, was discrimination against speakers of the Chinese language. 

The suspension of a US university professor has ignited a debate over the use of a seemingly innocuous Chinese word.

While communicating with his students during a lecture, Professor Greg Patton at the University of Southern California (USC) said "in China, the common pause word is 'that, that, that'. So in China, it might be na-ge, na-ge, na-ge."

In Chinese, the word "na-ge" (那个) is a common filler phrase that people use when they're hesitating or trying to find the right word. It literally translates to the word "that".

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Annunciated, na-ge sounds like the n-word, which led several of the professor's students to complain to the university. Responding to the complaint, the dean of the university, Geoffrey Garrett, told students that Prof Patton would no longer be teaching the course.

"It is simply unacceptable for the faculty to use words in class that can marginalise, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students," he said.

Also see: How US-China relationship took a turn for the worse

However, the word's usage has a wholly different history and language in a lecture on communication in international business.

News of the spat reached China, where many posted on social media saying they thought Professor Patton's punishment, conversely, was discrimination against speakers of the Chinese language. 

Also read: 'There will be no extension': Trump says on TikTok deadline

Lost in translation

There have been many documented incidents of the word being used innocuously and leading to misunderstandings, and even violence.

In July 2016, a fight broke out on the subway in the city of southern Guangzhou, after a black man heard a Chinese man saying na-ge and mistook it for the n-word.

Footage went viral online showing the black man slapping the chinese commuter and shouting "you dare try that again" and "never say that again"

More recently, in April this year, Taiwanese news website UDN reported that two men nearly came to blows on the island outside a restaurant over the same misunderstanding.

Even Chinese basketball star Yao Ming has spoken of how the word brought him "some trouble" while playing in the US for the National Basketball Association (NBA).