Friday, July 30, 2010

Please don't call me Oriental

The other day an old man made a comment to me that my oriental children were well mannered. I said thank you and tried not to let the oriental comment bother me. After all, he is from a different generation where oriental was the correct term to use for Asians. But it got me to thinking about the word and why it bothered me and I started doing some research and stumbled upon a forum with over 10 pages of back and forth on why it was insulting or why it was ridiculous. And the one comment that really upset me was when someone said "Oriental offensive? Since when did we let foreigners dictate how to use our language?"

It is a telling comment. Its roots based in the notion that Asians are foreigners. The term "oriental" comes from the "orient" which refers to the east. A term that was based on the Eurocentric belief that the Orient was a barbaric and exotic place east of Europe. It is why the word itself is considered derogatory, for it casts "orientals" as different, as foreigners. And when you think of yourself as American, being reminded that you are "foreign" hurts.

When I first started having conversations about race with my children, they would ask me if they should tell people they are Korean. I said no, you say you are American. "But I can't say that," my then 6 year old said. "They say I don't look American." I think as a parent, there are moments that just break your heart because you want to protect your children from the harsh realities of life and you find that you just can't.

The reality is that my kids, me, my sister, my husband - we are as far from being Korean as we are from being Egyptian or Russian. We might look like a Korean and pass for one on the streets of Seoul, but as soon as we open our mouths, our Americanism pours right out. Not just in what we say or how we say it. But in how we think, walk, laugh, carry ourselves, etc. For someone to say "You're not American because you don't look like one." Well then, you might as well strip us of our complete identity. It's like every time someone shouts out "Go back to your own country!" Something inside of us dies just a little bit.

This past spring, youngest came home from kindergarten deeply upset. When I asked her what was wrong, she explained that she was sitting at lunch with 2 of her friends H and M, who are both blond and blue-eyed. Two boys were sitting across from them and were commenting on how pretty H and M are, listing how pretty their eyes were and their long hair, etc. They then turned to youngest and began to comment on how ugly she was in comparison. Youngest was devastated. I was proud of her for standing up to them. Telling them to stop or she would move to another table. When they didn't stop, she made good on her threat and moved away. I was proud of her for taking a stand, but my heart broke for her. She asked me if she really was ugly because she didn't have blonde hair and blue eyes. "No," I said, "you are beautiful inside and out but some people just are blind and can't see a diamond shining so bright in front of them. But that's ok. It's their loss so don't even waste your time thinking about them."

Even in kindergarten, children learn to recognize differences and to comment on them. While I did call the school and had the teacher have the boys apologize to youngest, can we really blame children for deep rooted societal prejudices? They told youngest she was ugly because she was different. Her eyes were different, her cheeks were different, even the one asymmetric dimple she has was different. I told her different is good. I hope she remembers that and never lets this become insecurity.

Many people complain that we've become so PC that we can't say anything for fear of someone getting offended. To some extent, I agree with that and I don't ask for people to be so careful with their words. But ultimately it isn't the words that hurt but the intent behind them and sometimes the words themselves become synonymous with the intent. Calling someone oriental or making chinky eyes might not have been made with a racist intent, but the word and the action have become synonymous with an intent to be racist. So why use them? Yes we are different and I truly believe different is good. But when these differences are used as a way to stereotype people negatively, it becomes racism.

So please, don't call me oriental. I am no devious, slant-eyed, exotic foreigner that speaks cryptically of ancient Chinese secrets. That stereotype needs to die. Help me kill it once and for all.


Charles Gramlich said...

By my teens I was using the terms Oriental for folks from Asia and Occidental for folks that were from Europe. I never thought of the terms as anything other than a simple indication of general geographical origins. I still think of those terms in exactly that way. Although I would certainly respect your wishes, I actually don't see any reason why oriental should be insulting. Certainly, some will use it that way. But, if the term Oriental was eliminated entirely from the language, then the same people who called Chinese folks "Oriental" in a disparaging tone would be calling Chinese folks "Asian" in a disparaging tone. If "Asian" was then eliminated, those same folks would find some other disparaging term to use against those formerly known as Asians. The problem lies completely outside the terms themselves. The problem lies in people. Some people are assholes and will use any term or technique they can to humiliate and torment others that they don't like. The people who will respect your wishes and not use the term oriental are exactly the kind of people who 'would' use the term appropriately to reflect general geographic origins. Anyway, that's my buck, fifty. I hate to hear when anyone is treated unfairly simply based on physical characteristics or what have you. It diminishes us all.

fairyhedgehog said...

This is heartbreaking to me. I'm glad you got the school to get an apology from those boys but it sounds like the school still has a lot of work to do in countering the prejudices that these kids are living with daily at home. Most schools here (UK) do a lot of work on diversity and I wonder if it's the same in the States.

I think each group is sensitive to the words that are derogatory to it and we have to listen. For me, it's using the word "girls" for all adult women, unless it's a women speaking. People who once would have been called "coloured" have taken the word "black" and use it with pride - I believe in the States the preferred term is "African American". I'll go with whatever is preferred by the person in question - they're the ones who know how it feels to be on the receiving end of the word.

I've not thought about the word "oriental" as it seems rather old-fashioned to me but now I'll know more about it's connotations.

Precie said...

Oh, E--my heart aches for Youngest. I know exactly what you mean. Earlier this week, I ended up debating about the controversial Arizona immigration laws that were partly blocked by court injunction. Your point about self-identifying as American but not being treated as such is one I can't seem to get people to internalize---"Why would you be upset about getting checked if you're a legal citizen?" 1) Because I'm Just Like You except for the color of my skin and 2) because that approach to immigration enforcement validates and perpetuates identifying people as "ugly" (on multiple levels) because of their race.

Preach it, sister!

Paula said...

This is heartbreaking. The school my kids attend is very proactive about embracing diversity and celebrating differences. It's up to us to help the next generation.

I say change the post title to: "Call me American."

Anonymous said...

I would say very, very few of us look "American". Not many "American"s remain really. We took all their land, gave them our diseases and broke our promises to them.

The old dude that said that to you, and the kids that said that to your daughter, are very likely not Native American. It most likely was not that long ago that their ancestors were the ones who were different.

Heck, my Dad's parents were immigrants from Greece to this country only a generation ago.

People need to realize that America is (or was at least) a melting pot and by definition there is no "looking American". America is everybody, or at least it should be.

I guess the best we can do is to teach our kids what is right, and make sure they teach their kids. And maybe someday, right will win.

Richard Levangie said...

This post is poignant and profound. I feel for youngest, and for you, and for your other daughters.

Many differences exist between Canada and the US, and one of the most telling is that we have eschewed the American melting pot in favor of multiculturalism. So we're encouraged to celebrate our differences because they enrich our society and our lives. Children are taught this policy in schools, and lesson plans explore our vibrant cultural differences. And so we have French-Canadians, German-Canadians, Chinese-Canadians, Korean-Canadians, and Mexican-Canadians.

I don't know if it is smart policy, but I think it is. Americans are often see as more patriotic, and there is a recent push in Canada to emulate that. Many who have lived in both countries do say that Canada is more tolerant, with less obvious racism.

But we still have so very far to go. Racism is alive and well here, especially where it concerns our First Nations. I live in a community with a large black population, and we're still fighting that battle each and every day. It's heartbreaking.

Alas, Max Planck once stated a scientific truth that probably applies to this situation, and much of life.

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

I hope we can get there a lot faster than that. But I feel that many battles lie ahead.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Thank you everyone for your wonderful comments.

Charles - it's a good point and I agree wholeheartedly with you on the fact that people who will use disparaging terms will always do so. But I do believe that Asian is in itself a word that is not derogatory. Like American, it is based on describing a person as from a country or continent. A person can be as nasty as they want but the term Asian won't offend whereas to many Asians being called Oriental is offensive.

Fairy - I had a conversation with a friend of mine who said not to call her African American because she was black and proud of it. Interesting, no?

Precie - Exactly!!!

Paula - Thank you. You completely understand.

Paul - Absolutely, but we can't change the fact that people still judge with their eyes first. But if more parents taught their kids not to do that, maybe things would change.

Richard - Racism is alive and well everywhere in the world. But celebrating our diversity is a wonderful thing and ultimately I do hope that it breeds more tolerance and acceptance all over the world.

Anonymous said...

As the mother of five beautiful Black children, I totally empathize with your pain for your littles. I will never forget one of my daughters coming home in tears when she was in Middle School after a boy to whom she confessed a crush told her he "wasn't into Jungle Fever".

It's hard to explain to kids that what truly makes a person attractive is their spirit, empathy and compassion for others - but when they realize the people they themselves are truly drawn to have those qualities, they start to get it. Kindness, intelligence and a sense of humor are all so much more attractive than one's hair or eye color.

But having said all that, it's still hard not to *want* to kick some parent's ass for raising kids who hold such crappy views - I have to keep reminding myself that you don't sink to that level, etc.

It's so hard to be good sometimes.


Unknown said...

I cried for your daughter, learning that some people perceive different as bad.

In my past six years of teaching high school students in a very rural area in the South, there were moments that made my heart sing. I grew up in a racist area with a family that was very racist--anyone who wasn't white was not to be trusted, was not to be considered intelligent, and was not to be considered a viable friend (let alone anything else)--even if the families had been living in the area for generations, anyone not white was not considered good enough. In the area that I worked, the attitudes were much the same among nearly all the adults--but I was often pleasantly surprised by students. Students who defied their parents for interracial friendships and romantic relationships. Students who didn't understand a racial joke because it didn't make sense to them or occur to them that a particular race was stupid. Students who called their friends out on being racist and put a stop to it.

But for every three things that made my heart soar with the idea that racism was fading, there'd be something else that reminded me it wasn't over yet. My first year of teaching, one of my students was the grandson of the current KKK leader. Some of my students were proud members of the KKK, just like the rest of their family. Some students would never partner in projects with students of color.

Still--I hope that with more awareness, more insistence of what's wrong and why, racism will continue to fade. It's less than it was in my generation; much less than my parents and grandparents' generations. I'll try to hold on to the memories of my students who reminded me of that fact.

Lou Anders said...

Thank you for this post. My biracial son was recently told he wasn't American at his baseball practice. When he said he was, the kid replied that he couldn't be because his mother wasn't either. I told my son that not only was his mother American, but she had chosen to be and worked hard to become one, while all that kid did was get born.

Jon F. Merz said...

Great post, thank you for sharing it!

My wife is Asian and we have two handsome sons. My wife and I have often experienced racism - with the statement being that she isn't "American." To which I routinely point out that she was, in fact, born here and when I was deployed all over the world for the military, she was right there being supportive every step of the way - in fact being more American than their own xenophobic selves. Fortunately, my sons have yet to come into contact with this narrow-minded thinking.

What I've also found amusing is that when my wife and her sisters travel back to the Philippines, they aren't even viewed as Filipinas, but as Americans.

Bob Fleck said...

I'm of the odd variety who's always felt it problematic to refer to only those of us in the United States as Americans. When I lived for a while in the Caribbean, I always said, "I'm from the States," since anyone from Patagonia to the Northwest Territories is American.

Unfortunately, though, the human capacity for differentiation and classification that has allowed us to develop a global technological civilization, also causes us difficulty in interpersonal relations. It's not unique to the US, and not at its worst in the US, but we still need to constantly work to remind ourselves that it's an issue.

Patti said...

you have totally hit on one of my pet peeves. i correct folks all the time on this point. but to be honest, i had no idea that the word oriental had racist intent.

pacatrue said...

When I was auditing a Korean class, there was a rather awkward moment in a dialogue exercise and in the book about learning to say sentences like "I am American" or "I am Japanese" to identify nationality. However, the book and the exercise really seemed to be labeling ethnicity so that "Bob Huang" was labeled Chinese and only the white cartoons got to say they were American. Almost the entire class would get an "Asian or Pacific Islander" label on the census, and you could see some bristling as all the kids born and bred in the U.S. were to take turns labeling themselves Japanese, Korean, Filipino, etc.

Eventually, minor rebellions occurred with some answering that they were American no matter where their great-grandparents were born. Another woman who was biracial labeled herself Korean and English, since we were going with ancestry apparently. I think I became English as well. The teacher who was Korean (as in actually from Korea and there for grad school) did figure out that the exercise of only labeling the white guy as American in a class of Asian-Americans was a bit suspect and after a bit just let us give whatever answer we pleased.

Karen Ahlstrom said...

I have to put a disclaimer on that I really don't know how it feels to be discriminated against for my looks. I'm blonde and blue eyed and all that.

I did have an idea though, as I was reading your post, that might help myour daughters when people ask them where they're from.

As a Mormon, I'm very interested in geneology, and so are many of the people I interact with. One question we ask each other when we're trying to get to know each other is, "Where are your ancestors from?" It's a perfectly innocent question in our community -- much like asking somebody in college where their hometown is, or what they're majoring in.

Whe somebody asks your daughter where she's from, you could encourage her to answer something like, "I'm from Pasadena (or wherever)." and if they press the issue, she can say, "My ancestors were from Korea, but our family has been American for generations (or however long it was)" with as much pleasure as I get when I tell people my ancestors were from Sweden and England, and that while some of them came over on the Mayflower, at least half of my great grandparents came to this country looking for a better life.

jjdebenedictis said...

Charles Gramlich:
I actually don't see any reason why oriental should be insulting.

Yes, but it's irrelevant whether you think it should be insulting--what matters is that the people who are being called Oriental find it insulting. Those people who are not affected by this issue don't have any right to tell the people who are affected how hurt they're allowed to feel.

(I am making an assumption you're not Asian based on your name; my apologies if that's incorrect!)

I agree that harmful attitudes can warp any word away from its original meaning (for example, the phrase "mentally retarded" was introduced to be a kinder alternative to the words being used at the time, such as "moron" or "imbecile", because the public had started using them in a derogatory manner. Now, however, "retard" gets used as a derogatory term and is no longer considered appropriate. That fact absolutely confirms your point.)

However, once the meaning has twisted, it's too late to say, "Well, it didn't used to be insulting, so why can't I use it in innocence?" The baggage is now attached to that word and comes with it when you use it, regardless of whether you meant it to.

For example, it's useless to say the Nazi swastika used to be a benevolent symbol, or that the Christian cross is a symbol of torture--both statements are true, but that doesn't change the meaning those symbols now have in the world.

Kiki Hamilton said...

Ello - you brought tears to my eyes when I read of what Youngest went through. Good for her for standing up to those bullies. Good for you for calling the school and making those boys apologize. I hope they also took the time to talk to their entire student body about racism and what being an American means.

As strugglingwriter said, who can even say what "American" looks like? We are a blended family here in the States (as well as in the rest of the world)and our diversity is our strength. If we keep talking, keep explaining, (like with this post) hopefully the number of people who don't get it will get smaller.

Thank you for posting about this!

Hugs, K

Mary Witzl said...

Boy, I could write a book about this -- I really could. I try to keep track of what terms are current and unlikely to cause offense, and I always will do this. I accept what Charles says about some people just being assholes, but I think that we can all too easily appear clueless without meaning to do so by using a term that is outdated and associated with cluelessness (such as 'Oriental children are so polite!' and 'Oriental girls make such good wives!' -- I've heard them all and they make me grit my teeth), and because I really am not clueless and don't want to cause offense, I am anxious to use whatever the going term is. So I use 'Asian' and 'African-American' and most of the time everybody is fine with that. However, you really cannot please everybody. In Japan, I (very casually) told one of my students who wrote about being 'Oriental' that the current term was 'Asian'. She took umbrage! She claimed that if she were called Asian she would be insulted because in the U.K. (where she had spent time as a student) Indians and Pakistanis were referred to as Asians and she didn't want anyone to associate her with them. All I could do was stare at her -- I was literally speechless. And I felt like crying.

Later, I asked my British colleagues and they confirmed that Chinese, Korean and Japanese people are referred to as 'Oriental' in the U.K., while 'Asian' is used for people from the sub-continent. Sigh...

I still use 'Asian'.

Spy Scribbler said...

I grew up with "Asian." All my Asian students mostly referred to themselves as "Korean" or "Chinese."

Anyway, just last month, I found an affordable massage place in Tucson, and I was delighted that they called themselves "Oriental Chi." The first thought I had was that it would be so nice if it had a comeback, because it's such a pretty-sounding name. (They are Chinese, so I imagine they are not insulting themselves.)

BUT, yes, I have heard "Oriental" used in that manner. It doesn't sound pretty, then.

The U.S. is in an awful phase concerning immigration, and living in Arizona and talking about it a lot, it has become apparent to me that there is an underlying belief, not always conscious, that everyone not of white or black skin is an immigrant, regardless of country of birth or citizenship status. It's perplexing and awful.

Patti said...


laughingwolf said...

'sticks and stones may break my bones'... but names do hurt, even if unintentionally uttered as racial slurs

like charles, i grew up with oriental and occidental terms, but not used in any disparaging way, merely as 'general geographic origins' as charles says

the kids i grew up with referred to themselves as chinese, korean, japanese, black, german, french, native, etc etc... we all got along, still do

your points are well taken, and i agree...

education begins at home, and if the parents are ignorant the kids will be, at least for a while... hopefuilly

Rena Jones said...

Great post, Ellen. My heart breaks for your daughter. I'm sure she's a million times more beautiful than those other kids combined. People can be so cruel at times. Big hugs to you and yours!

Whirlochre said...

It's a baggage expression hauled from station to station — a name on an old leather suitcase, called out,called out,called out.

Nobody owns it, nobody wants it, but some still remember where it came from.

cleemckenzie said...

I'm a little late in coming to your post, but I'm doing a presentation at NCTE in Nov and have been doing a lot of research into literary dialect and stereotyping (I'm a linguist who also writes for young readers.) Did you happen to see this post by Anne Sibley O'Brien. I thought you might be interested if you had seen it already.


Unknown said...

stfu it means asian. are you ashamed of your asian roots? well why does it "hurt" when your reminded of them. i dont understand, you sound racist against asians or something. and explaining it to your kids is simple. tell them about their heritage, and that your family is from korea, now that we live in america we are americans. tell the kids at school AMerican doesn't mean white or black. america has people from all cultures

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