“Nèige” and Cultural Understanding: What We Can Learn From USC Placing Business Professor on Leave


Professor Patton was placed on leave after using a Chinese word in class.

Last September, University of Southern California’s (USC) business professor Greg Patton was suspended after a recording of one of his communication lectures went viral. In the video, where he discusses the use of filler words, he can be heard saying the Mandarin word “nèige” (那个) to a group of 70 MBA students. “Nèige” is a commonly used Chinese filler word that translates to ‘that’ and is used similarly to the English words “um” or “uh”, but is phonetically similar to the English racial slur, the n-word. 

In the video, Patton says, “This is culturally specific . . . Like in China, the common word is that—that, that, that, that. So in China, it might be nèige—nèige, nèige, nèige. So there are different words that you’ll hear in different countries, but they’re vocal disfluencies.”

The outrage following the release of the video was immediate, yet polarizing. USC’s action to place Patton on leave incited even further factioning – on one side, those who supported USC’s action, and on the other side, those who cited the dismissal as cultural insensitivity. 

This incident, however, is not isolated. The misunderstanding stemming from the use of the word “nèige” is extensive, with the word often being misinterpreted by those who do not speak Mandarin for the derogatory racial slur. In 2016, an argument broke out at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris after an African American man misinterpreted a group of Chinese tourists who had used the word. Even at Village, misunderstandings have occurred with international students for the use of the word. 

There is no doubt that the n-word is vile, diminutive, and inherently racist. The historical use of the word stems from generations of prejudice and discrimination, coined in order to oppress the Black community and justify decades worth of injustices. Today, as we become more acutely aware of these grievances, the n-word has become unacceptable and justly recognized as a word that only furthers marginalization. Understandably, this has led to the abandonment of sound-alike English words, that, while phonetically similar, share no etymological relationship to the n-word. 

Yet, it would be insensitive for English speakers to expect such linguistic taboos to apply to all other foreign languages, including the most commonly spoken language in the world, Mandarin. Homophones across languages are not novel. The word ‘tak’, for example, has distinctive meanings in nine different languages, ranging from ‘branch’ in Dutch to ‘yes’ in Polish. If ‘tak’ happened to have an offensive definition in one of the nine languages that use it, it would be incomprehensible for all other eight languages to simply strike it from their dictionary in response. Moving to censor all cross-language homophones that might be deemed offensive in one language is not just impractical- it is culturally insensitive. 

The same applies for Professor Patton’s situation. Him speaking Chinese that was preceded with appropriate context and relevant to the topic at hand does not warrant placing him on leave for the entirety of the semester. That reaction from USC’s administration was brash and, in some ways, an act of censorship. The actions taken set a precedent for censoring non-English languages in a country with no official language and unintentionally adopts a xenophobic attitude. 

That being said, this incident points to an even larger issue that stands at the root of that situation – the reality of American diversity. 

Firstly, it is important to realize that The United States of America is a diverse country, often lauded for being the international ‘melting pot’. Yet, within recent years, a rise of xenophobia bolstered by some of our own President’s remarks, a surge of anti-Asian hate crimes triggered by COVID-19, and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have led to tension in the national conversation of race and culture. Heated debates and extensive news coverage have only accentuated such tension. Cultural and racial understanding is a difficult conversation to have and is often resisted, but is crucial nonetheless. An understanding and respect for the differences between cultures and races is something that we should strive for and something that would ultimately have prevented incidents like Professor Patton being placed on leave.